Of all the places to invade America, Colorado—cutoff from any reasonable air or naval support—would seem a pretty terrible choice. But don’t tell that to Red Dawn, John Milius‘ eminently ridiculous time capsule of Cold War paranoia and teenybopper play-acting, which finds small-town Colorado overrun by Russian and Cuban soldiers. The sight of paratroopers landing outside a high school classroom window is the sole iconic image mustered by Milius’ film, which otherwise details, with dreary and unearned self-seriousness, the efforts of a local group of kids to hide in the mountains, school themselves in the ways of resistance, and then fight back against the invading commie hordes as the Wolverines (a name taken from their high school football team). Thus, the fate of American sovereignty rests in the hands of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, who along with a few other nondescript twerps co-opt Latin America guerilla tactics in an adventure that—either laughably or insultingly, depending on your vantage point—embraces the role-reversal fantasy of America as the righteously subjugated underdog forced to battle back against tyrannical oppressors.
Furthering that bizarro-universe situation is the fact that the nominal commander of the communist invaders is a Freddie Mercury-lookalike Cuban named Bella (Ron O’Neal) who repeatedly expresses confusion over how to operate now that he’s not the insurgent, but the aggressor—a notion that reaches its hilarious apex during the film’s climax, when Bella writes home to his wife that he misses her, hates the frigid cold of Colorado’s winter (a sentiment that would no doubt be ridiculed by his Russian comrades!), and is morally lost without a revolutionary cause driving his actions. This upside-down fairy tale would be more tolerable if it were played with at least a bit of self-conscious humor, but no, Red Dawn is all solemn posturing and speechifying, most of it done by a cast of young Hollywood up-and-comers who carry with them not a shred of believable gravity. Milius and co-screenwriter Kevin Reynolds don’t flesh out these kids as three-dimensional characters, but rather as stock types with predefined roles—the brooding leader (Swayze), the loyal brother (Sheen), the tragedy-damaged loose cannon (Howell), the tough chicks (Thompson and Grey) —whose main function is to flip-flop between acting battle-hardened and traumatized.
Early on, Swayze and Sheen find their father (Harry Dean Stanton) in a reeducation camp, where the elder—before hilariously exhorting them to “Avenge Me!” —tells them that, no matter what happens, they shouldn’t cry. It’s advice that goes unheeded, as there’s endless male weeping in Red Dawn, with everyone bawling after another member of their clan is killed, thereby turning the entire proceedings into some sort of unintentional Big Boys Do Cry comedy. Milius’ story is concerned with the loss of innocence suffered by his protagonists, who are forced to assume adult responsibilities and roles until they can lie down and die near a public park swing set, a symbol of youth finally regained. The problem, however, is that amidst such a ludicrous The Commies Are Coming! scenario, this portrait rings ridiculous, especially given the Breakfast Club-style characterizations on display. Swayze’s tormented alpha-male routine is the silliest of the bunch, all over-the-top agonized screaming, but it’s almost matched by the performance of Powers Boothe as a downed American fighter pilot whose grizzled-vet jadedness merely confirms that both kids and adults alike behave like overwrought G.I. Joe phonies in this Us-vs.-Them universe.
When not giving the teenage set a Rambo-style saga to call their own—replete with numerous sequences of the Wolverines attacking Russian soldiers and bases with a skillfulness that’s out-and-out absurd—the film also doubles as a bit of unvarnished right-wing propaganda. In Red Dawn, the 2nd Amendment is what allows the kids to resist occupation—note the “They Can Have My Gun When They Pry It From My Cold, Dead Fingers” bumper sticker—and triumph is ultimately achieved through old-school mountain-man camping and hunting in the glorified natural splendor of Arapaho National Forest. With Jeremiah Johnson as their patron saint, the Wolverines are homegrown militiamen whose survivalist skills prove vital and valiant, even when they go loony like C. Thomas Howell and gun down a friend-turned-traitor—an act that’s justified because the victim in question was a wimpy class president, not a venerated jock like Swayze and Sheen. It’s all so much nonsense, even with the participation of the usually dependable Stanton and Ben Johnson (as a Wolverine benefactor). And it’s undone by not only the unbearable affectation of its cast, but by the fact that, ultimately, a world with these kids as heroes seems less palatable than Russian occupation, which at least involves art houses showing nothing but Sergei Eisenstein‘s great Alexander Nevsky.
Nick Schager writes film critiques for Rotten Tomatoes, Slantmagazine and other venues.