Red Dawn tells the story of a World War III-styled invasion of the United States by the Soviets and their allies. At the time, it seemed like a near-future film, as the Soviet Union was still in existence. In today’s context, its presentation is more of an alternate history, but still with a clear World War III focus. The film boasts an interesting, unpredictable story with great character development and impressive effects.
The opening text explains how the global landscape has changed. Revolution is prevalent, invasions are common, and military buildup is rampant. NATO has disbanded and the United States stands alone. When Communist forces invade the United States thus sparking World War III, a band of determined teenagers mount a guerrilla resistance against the foreign occupiers. Two brothers, Jed and Matt, lead the force called the Wolverines as they quickly become the main opposition to the invasion. Surprisingly, the movie and its narrative pack an emotional punch.
The invasion takes places within the first few minutes. Doing so precludes any unnecessary delay and allows for strong pacing from the onset. The broader pacing scheme is a monthly progression. This does a fair job, but could have been better handled. Some months, such as October, are particularly long and had me wondering if the movie had scuttled the monthly progression method. It continued, but this stood out as being protracted.
Conversely, October is eventful for the Wolverines, so it is appropriate in that regard. Near the end of the movie, however, the pacing slowed once more. I understand that some months are different than others and respect that becuase it prevents predictability. This is by no means a critique that breaks the film, but it is worth mentioning as the pacing could benefit from slight improvements.
One continuity criticism pertains to several Wolverine members riding horses. In the subsequent sequences, the horses are nowhere to be found. Further, it is peculiar that Jed has a distinct accent but his brother Matt and father do not. These two instances are minor but noticeable. It should be noted that the character growth and emotional elements are unexpectedly remarkable and are evidence of stronger pacing related to the characters and tone.
Red Dawn’s tone itself is immediately ominous. The movie focuses most heavily on survival, vengeance, chivalry, and reaching the point in a conflict when one side begins to wonder if they are becoming the enemy. Other tonal elements include the dawn of World War III and the bond that is forged during conflict. The town, re-education camps, and mentions of free and occupied zones all fuel the World War III motif and tension.
I specifically liked how Jed and Matt said they were influenced by mountain men. Seeing how they integrate the knowledge of the frontiersmen into their situation adds an extra layer of flavor and is a nice undertone. Similarly, the Rough Rider plaque in the beginning establishes the meta-tone of always acting and not being passive or lukewarm. In all, these themes correlate with the story and pace and will likely hold the audience’s attention.
The performances are good throughout the film. Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen’s brother duo of Jed and Matt, respectively, successfully captures the brother dynamic. Their overall on-screen chemistry is great and, during significant story developments, strengthen the film. Jed’s leadership acumen and transformation into the Wolverines’ de-facto father is inspired.
The supporting cast of C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Darren Dalton, Jennifer Grey, Brad Savage, Ben Johnson, and Powers Boothe all exhibit nuanced characters. When Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson’s Toni and Erica stand up to an offhand, chauvinistic remark by Matt, it illustrates that the females are not stereotypical damsels in distress or dependent on the men, which is a welcomed feature.
The Wolverines as a whole have a nice, fairly realistic group dynamic. It is particularly fun to watch the Wolverines in action. Their first main foray is very sloppily executed, but watching them become a potent guerrilla force is a terrific part that buttresses the writing, pacing, and acting.
The cinematography and production design in Red Dawn are great. The second unit and establishing shots are at once beautiful and haunting given the circumstances. The set pieces, military equipment, and pyrotechnics are good and have realistic presentations. If there is any CGI in the film, it is minimal and impressively blended. Some of the helicopters may have been models but are impressive.
Likewise, the Wolverine aesthetic is excellent. As a viewer, it was refreshing that the group not only acted like a guerrilla force, but that they looked the part as well. The design of the town is well done and conveys a sense of occupation and “culture shock” when the Wolverines visit.
John Milius’ direction of Red Dawn is sound. He does a great job communicating the dramatic lifestyle change the invasion brings, as well as the impressive growth of the characters, which is also a testament of the film’s strong writing. Milius’ management of the cinematography, production design, and the ability to get strong, emotional performances are features for which he should be commended.
I wish the progression would have been more polished, but the maturation of the Wolverines is excellent. Witnessing the members wrestle with their actions makes the film itself more realistic and effectual. Despite my minor critiques of the pacing and continuity, I want to emphasize that the storytelling itself is not lazy.
In the end, Red Dawn is a good World War III movie. Although the main characters are in their teens or early twenties, the film has sophisticated themes. The guerrilla war employed by the Wolverines is entertaining, has good action, and is complemented by great production design. If you are looking for an alternate history, World War III, or movie that concerns the United States being invaded, then you do not want to miss Red Dawn.
Distributor: MGM/United Artists Entertainment Co.
Production: United Artists; Valkyrie Films
Director: John Milius
Producer: Barry Beckerman; Buzz Feitshans
Screenwriter: Kevin Reynolds (story); John Milius (screenplay); Kevin Reynolds (screenplay)
Director of Photography: Ric Waite
Editor: Thom Noble
Production Design: Jackson De Govia
Music: Basil Poledouris
Budget: ca. $4,200,000
Release Date: August 10, 1984 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Copyright Holder: United Artists Corporation
Cast: Patrick Swayze; C. Thomas Howell; Lea Thompson; Charlie Sheen; Darren Dalton; Jennifer Grey; Brad Savage; Doug Toby; Ben Johnson; Harry Dean Stanton; Ron O’Neal; William Smith; Vladek Sheybal; Powers Boothe
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Rating: PG-13; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hours and 54 minutes (114 mins.)