For those who don't see coming attraction trailers or read reviews or look at newspaper ads, the film concerns a Russian invasion of the United States in the near future. As far as I'm concerned, this makes it science fiction. The sequence of events which the film implies lead up to the war are implausible; the belief that the Russians could nuke a few US cities and not cause an escalation to thermonuclear war is, in my opinion, ridiculous. However, good films have been made on stupid premises before, so I was willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride.
John Milius, the film's director, is a genuine reactionary. The last film he made was Conan the Barbarian, whose philosophy he apparently takes seriously, and the last President he seems to have approved of was Teddy Roosevelt. It should thus come as no surprise that the film is set in a conservative Western area. (It might have been more interesting to see how New York or Los Angeles would react to a Russian invasion.) The main characters are a group of high school kids who light off into the mountains when the Russians drop paratroops on their Rocky Mountain town. After a suitable set of Communist atrocity scenes, they become guerillas, fighting the Soviet and Cuban troops behind the lines.
That's about it for plot. They are successful, then they are unsuccessful, then they are mostly dead. There is no current of dramatic tension here, no sense that they are foredoomed, or that they are even doing anything terribly important, other than slaughtering commies basically at random. This is the film's greatest weakness. It has incidents, not plot. A stronger story would really make a big difference.
The second biggest problem is characterization. Only two or three of the young guerillas stand out as individuals. Milius might have done better to choose more distinctive looking actors. He might also have included more scenes which shed light on their characters. (This really is his fault, since he wrote the screenplay, too.) The leader of the guerillas, played by Patrick Swayze, makes some impression. C. Thomas Howell has the best part of the young folks, and he too is easy to place. The rest are a largely indistinguishable mass. I had difficulty telling which of the two young women was doing what, and I only recognized the actor playing Swayze's brother when Milius took time to remind me. The adults, mostly played by veteran character actors, escape this by their familiar faces, not by virtue of the script.
One talent Milius does have, and displays in extravagent fashion, is the ability to choreograph action scenes. A lot of screen time is spent on shooting and blowing up things and people, and Milius gets much visceral excitement into these scenes. However, since the significance of this is never really explained, action can't save the movie. Moreover, there is a problem with consistency. At one point, the kids are incredibly clever guerilla fighters, at another they are idiots. The only reason for this is to give them a chance to get killed, as I see it.
There were enough points of interest in Red Dawn to keep me satisfied, if not thrilled. The audience I saw it with, though, loved it to an extent that is frightening. Any anti-Communist, or anti-Russian, sentiment uttered met with wild cheers, as did the gunning down of Soviet troops. They even cheered when the word "California" was mentioned in passing. I found their wild enthusiasm for mayhem to be a bit too akin to ancient Romans cheering on gladiators (or more appropriately, cheering the lions which were rending the Christians). If this is any indication, Red Dawn will be a big hit and we will be at war in Central America in no time at all.
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