All apocalyptic stories are about wish fulfillment to some extent. But Red Dawn, opening today, is the purest jolt of wish-fulfillment I've seen in ages, about the fall of America and the rise of some plucky kids who Suck It Up and Do What Must Be Done. This is an action movie so ridiculous, it barely qualifies as having a narrative, just a river of melted cheese. It's like going rafting in the Nacho Kingdom.
Oh, and if you really don't know what Red Dawn is about, I guess there are spoilers below. But we won't give away the plot twists, such as they are.
Red Dawn, of course, is a remake of the classic 1980s right-wing paranoia-fest about the Soviets invading the United States. Except this time, they're North Koreans (changed from the Chinese at the last minute) and they completely subjugate our puny armed forces in like five minutes. Except that a handful of kids in Spokane, WA, stand up and fight back, inflicting serious losses on the Communist invaders.
This plot intrinsically requires you to accept that the North Koreans are an unbeatable force — until they suddenly become ridiculously easy to defeat.
So what do you do when your entire premise is one big plot hole? You either build a scaffolding very carefully, out of hundreds of planks of setup and plot development — or you just leap in with both feet, whooping all the way down. Red Dawn chooses the latter approach, with a certain amount of gusto, and the result is one of the most hullaballoopants action movies of recent years. This film really is like an episode of Scooby-Doo, or maybe an unauthorized gritty wartime sequel to The Goonies. Those kids! Just watch them blow up buildings and set up deathtraps!
This film leans on all the usual tricks to make it work — including a superb montage in which the kids go from never having touched a gun to being gun experts. But the movie's secret weapon is pretty much Chris Hemsworth, aka Thor, who will henceforth be known as The Man Who Can Do Anything With a Straight Face. In this film, Hemsworth is a young marine, home on leave, who trains up those kids to be the best darn fighting force, and he pretty much carries the whole weight of making this mess believable on his shoulders.
Also, though, the film benefits immensely from dreadful editing and continuity — to the point where you wonder if the people who were editing this thing actually watched it at any point. I'm not enough of a film geek to notice bad editing usually, but in this film it's pretty blatant, especially when people keep getting in major car accidents and then running around a second later. Don't worry, the dreadful editing tells you, none of this is really meant to be a continuous story. It's just some scenes, strung together. Run with it.
Red Dawn is only loosely an apocalyptic story — it's really a story about the fall of America, which not only proves that we all grew soft and complacent due to liberalism or too much flax in our diet or whatever. I blame the flax. But the wish-fulfillment principle is the same. We all fantasize about being the only ones left after some catastrophe, for the same reason we fantasize about being the Chosen One who can save the world from monsters or whatnot. And also, there's the fantasy of America rising from the ashes, twice as American as before. Which means there have to be ashes to rise from.
The fall of America restores the American spirit. As Chris Hemsworth intones on a few occasions, we were given our freedom on a platter — but now we have to earn it, by fighting and montaging and camping out in the woods and stuff. And the interesting part is that Hemsworth, who's just been fighting a counter-insurgency in Iraq as a marine, keeps comparing himself and his friends to the Iraqis. "We were the good guys in Iraq," because we were keeping order, he says. "But now we're the bad guys." Not only that, but the American resistance kids also compare themselves to the Vietcong and other guerillas who have resisted American troops.
But what you really want to know is, is there teen romance? And interpersonal drama? And you can rest assured, the answer to both is yes. In fact, the North Koreans are a flimsy threat compared to the challenges of teen angst, including the question of whether bro's (and love of country) really do come before ho's. The teen drama is actually somewhat effective when it plays around with the notion of unit cohesion and effectiveness, as these teenagers struggle to become soldiers. There are collaborators among the American civilians, and this also raises the question of whether one of our guys will turn out to be a collaborator.
The whole thing is basically a Tom and Jerry cartoon, where Tom is North Korea and Jerry is some ridiculously invulnerable teenagers who blow up everything in the world. (Maybe Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner is a better comparison.) Until about two thirds of the way through, when the film-makers remember that they really ought to have a plot, and they need to Raise the Stakes in some fashion — so they drop in Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who proves that he, too, can say anything with a straight face. He explains a whole huge amount of backstory to the kids, and suddenly there are plot devices and vaguely plausible tech things that the kids have to do, to save the day.
And really, that's the ultimate proof that the whole thing is an apocalyptic wish-fulfillment exercise. Haven't we all dreamed about Jeffrey Dean Morgan popping up out of nowhere and explaining absolutely everything to us?