We gave it a B
On paper, Red Dawn is a simple pitch: The Breakfast Club meets The Dirty Dozen. Colorado teens, led by brothers Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, retreat to the mountains when Soviet allied forces invade their small town (and other U.S. locations), instigating World War III. The young refugees eventually become insurgents and strike back at their invaders during Dawn‘s innumerable battle scenes. They dub themselves the Wolverines — after their high school football team — and ambush the opposition furiously, using increasingly elaborate camouflage techniques. Surprise Attacks 101 must have been a required course for freshmen.
Red Dawn is best not closely analyzed. This guilty pleasure often borders on camp (witness Lea Thompson doing her best Patty Hearst imitation, complete with beret and machine gun). And there are plenty of unintentional laughs — mostly courtesy of seasoned veterans like Harry Dean Stanton as a hard-nosed dad and Powers Boothe as a U.S. airman. Stanton’s big scene finds him captive in a makeshift detainment camp/drive-in, yelling to sons Swayze and Sheen, ”Avenge me! Avenge me!” (They do so in fairly graphic fashion; Dawn was the first major motion picture released with a PG-13 rating.) Even the bulk of the battle sequences — save for the climactic helicopter attack — are mediocre, especially considering the fact that director John Milius co-wrote Apocalypse Now.
What truly haunts and gives Dawn its depth are the faces behind the weapons. C. Thomas Howell plays the most bloodthirsty of the youths and his evolution from lily-livered teen to rocket-launcher-toting rebel reverberates more than any of the explosions. Watching the film, you’re reminded that many American soldiers are not too much older than Howell and his fellow Wolverines, and suddenly, Dawn‘s danger seems more real. So it feels a little icky that this two-disc collector’s edition features an optional onscreen Carnage Counter.
More satisfying are the comprehensive DVD extras — everything from interviews with the New Mexico townfolk who will never forget the days of Dawn‘s production to a documentary on the movie’s Soviet military vehicles. Most fun is a making-of featuring present-day interviews with Milius and a handful of the actors. Highlights include a tale of the on-set hostility between Dawn costars — and future dance partners — Swayze and Jennifer Grey (says Swayze: ”I was a little overly intense. I think Jennifer Grey probably never wanted to work with me again after that. Of course, we did!”) and gripes about the bitter temperatures during filming. Says Howell, ”You know it’s cold when you’re forced to spoon Charlie Sheen.” B