Monday, 4 March 2013

Kim Jong Unbelievable the Red Dawn Remake

Well I finally got round to watching the Red Dawn remake, and many things come to mind. Since I believe a work should stand separate from its baggage like intended messages and the people attached to it I'll try to break up my criticism and praise into individual sections.

The Film

If your a reader of this blog you can probably guess what will be in the following sections so it only seems fair to start by dealing with the film as piece of cinema in as much of a vacuum as possible.

I fully believe these are battle hardened teens scarred by the horror of war

Unfortunately the film doesn't really shape up. It uses obvious CG which isn't to bad in itself but the execution is quite poor. The invasion involves a massive fleet of air planes depositing the CG paratroopers, this is very noisy and some of the planes are shot down and crash near are main characters. They flee but the following scenes have extras strolling down the streets while the CG paratroopers are just above roof height. The Korean soldiers when they do become real are incompetent fools whom just mill about despite being under fire. The first time they actually do anything they manage to get one of themselves killed by a panicky teen while the rest of them just stand and watch the killer of their comrade escape. We also meet are main villain Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee) who is quite possible the worst officer in non comedic film history.

He keeps that confused expression throughout

After our hero's escape by driving away past several Korean riflemen, Cho decides that despite being in charge and having captured the Mayor (presumably the most important object at the moment) to take off after our hero's in a car chase with only a driver. Oh yeah despite parachuting in minutes ago the Koreans have fully fuelled and prepared armoured vehicles. Anyway he quickly crashes and our hero's make their way to the woods to begin planning their Guerilla counter-offensive and practice there chant of "Wolverines"!

And Cho and the Koreans maintain that level of incompetence throughout. Part of the problem is that Cho in particular is written as a movie villain and not as real military officer. The first explicitly evil thing we see him do directly hinders his own plans. He's in charge of this district and wants the kids whom injured several soldiers to turn themselves in. To do this he tracks them down and gets two of the kids dad's to talk to the woods were they're hiding with a megaphone. He promises if they turn themselves in no one gets hurt, but the cop dad of (ex marine) uses the opportunity to tell his kids to fight back. So Cho like a bond villain shoots him meaning there's no chance the kids will turn themselves in. He then leaves making no attempt to search the woods for them.

The Korean soldiers from that point on become storm troopers only from Star Wars, they never hit anything, their armour is useless and they spend the film running or driving around aimlessly becoming perfect ambush material. But sometimes they also just stand their letting obviously suspicious individuals get right up to them before they do anything even after several attacks have occurred. Nothing kills the tension in a film like having the main enemy force be completely useless. Oh and Cho's superiors don't appear much better, we get a standard dressing down from your superiors scene after Cho completely fails to deal with that gang of meddling kids. Cho assures his boss it'll be other soon, which pleases him, but when Cho actually tries to tell him what he's planning the Boss yells "Enough talk"! and storms off.

 The acting was, well it was functional I guess. No one stuck out as doing a poor job but no one really shined either. In fact I honestly can't remember any of the Wolverines names other then Daryl (because he was the Black one), and I could only tell the girls apart by their hair colours. At about the middle point one of the male wolverines was shot and honestly I couldn't remember which one had been killed. I couldn't remember who else had been hanging around with them prior to his death. Cho isn't scary; he's just there not really doing much, I only remember his name because everyone else kept mentioning him as if he was some sort of threat despite spending most of his time in an office and showing no military skills whatsoever.

The story copies most of the events from the original only it manages to make them worse. For example the death of the traitor, now despite my problems with the original Red Dawn I can at least watch it and as a film it was very good, characters even the bad guys had if not depth then layers, they did a reasonable job of explaining how the kids were able to take on the new Red Army, and did a very good job juxtaposing the jubilant Wolverines with the repression of the occupation. I still find the premise absurd but I did believe the kids were struggling to cope with an extremely bad situation and the film did a very good job of portraying the bleak existence in an occupation and in capturing a sense of dread and frustration as the occupation developed.

And again this is something the remake botches, in the original it was made clear that the group hid in the wilderness for at least a month getting to know the territory and perfecting their survival skills and accuracy with a gun. The remake has a fast paced montage and makes it seem like only a day or two has passed since the Koreans invaded making there ability to take on the army so easily ludicrous. In Red Dawn Colonel Bella is shown to be a very good commander, he's cool under fire and he defeats the American forces despite equipment shortages and very quickly establishes the new regime. He's also not afraid to challenge his superiors when his instincts tell him their wrong. But since he's Nicaraguan his entire military experience has been fighting with insurgents not against them(1) so by his own admission he's out of his depth. And his superiors don't help him they just keep instructing him to squeeze and kill the population under his control. Cho on the other hand displays no expertise in any capacity and has no justification for failing to contain the rebellion.

In particular the subplot with the traitor, its probably my favourite part of the film since it deals with probably the most complex and ugly aspect of conflict, how do you deal with a friend and fellow fighter whom turns, and what exactly causes them to turn. His reasons for what he did were perfectly understandable, even more so when you remember his age and the execution was depicted very brutally and managed to avoid glorifying his death as a victory for Patriotism. In fact in addition to being traumatic it was unnecessary there was no reason to kill the prisoner and the traitor his tracking device meant the Soviets were following him. All the Wolverines had to do was leave (which they had to do anyway since Daryl had given away their position) and leave them both for the Soviets to find. Not only is there murder unnecessary but they can't even come up with a convincing argument to shoot either of them, they just do it.

In the remake the traitor kid is an arrogant prick from the start, sells out his "friends" immediately (about 20 minutes in) and dies with without much comment after one of the "loyal Wolverines" gives him the middle finger. Not exactly on the same level of emotional drama is it?

And what about the strategic situation scene, you know the one were the Wolverines meet up with some soldiers whom tell them all how screwed up the situation actually is and how the Soviets were able to do all this. That was an important scene in Red Dawn not only did it give some credence to premise by giving a detailed operation involving multiple forces and points of attack. It also added to the atmosphere of grim defiance, basically the war is in a stalemate but every front is deep within American territory.

In the remakes version its revealed that the North Koreans have essentially a magic weapon that's so advanced the US had no idea such a thing could exist that disabled America's defences. Okay to be fair the weapon is a type of E-bomb which is a device that sets off a large Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that fries electrical devices. They do exist and a lot of money is being spent on making better version, the problem is that money is Dollars and Yuans because the technology is so sophisticated and expensive effectively only America and China can  produce them. And apparently they used tactical "non-nuke"Warheads (missiles to us common civvies) to take down remaining resistance. The scene also jettisons the bleak seriousness of the original in favour of a trite "guys like you are the difference" where there's hope there's a way sentimentality popularised by children's television.

Oh and that scene informs us the Russians have invaded too. I guess the Russian market must be less profitable or less thin skinned. Why is never explained, in fact no explanation is given for the North Koreans being there. The original didn't really give a reason for the Soviet invasion(2) beyond "it was inevitable, two powerful kids on the block" but it didn't really need to. The Cold War of the time answered that question for them, USA and USSR were locked in a struggle and had the power to destroy each other. Ergo the USSR would have reason to defeat the Americans and benefit greatly if it pulled it off.

Oh and they change the ending too. Red Dawn had most of the Wolverines die its implied that the disruption of groups like the Wolverines and the hope they inspired helped turn the tide of the war but they still ended up dead. In the remake the group lead a mass insurgency on a prison camp exploiting the Korean guards fatal flaw of just standing there waiting to get shot.


 You might be wondering why plot comes after the section about the film. Well I've seperated it because films that have an explicit message have two plots, the one the actors go through and the narrative the audience are supposed to go through. And you can't get more explicit then the propaganda of the Red Dawn films.

The plot for the benefit of the Red Dawn films is quite obvious "Fear the foreign powers". The original film was in essence a 114 minute advert for increased spending on America's war programs. The fact that the invaders are a bunch of Commies is actually a footnote its the fact foreign powers can trample American soil that's supposed to frighten the audience. The Soviet Union was merely the most realistic choice of antagonists. The tag line for the film makes this clear "In our time, no foreign army has ever occupied American soil. Until now."(3)

I never really liked the original Red Dawn and I freely admit at least part of my dislike is the films propaganda message. Not only do I simply disagree with "My country tis for thee" Jingoism in reality those sentiments have been used to justify the most evil of actions. The film doesn't just ape the pro war and aggression arguments in general either the original actively presents some of the Right wing arguments for interventions and atrocities as being true. How do the Soviet Union manage to launch a surprise invasion of the United States? By using there foothold in Latin America, specifically Cuba and Nicaragua.

At the time the film was made Ronald Reagan and his national security clique were funnelling millions of dollars and weapons to the most appalling regimes and armies in Latin America, torture, rape and genocide were the norms throughout most of the continent. How could the "greatest democracy on earth" possibly justify such appalling crimes? The Russians are coming. Why invade Grenada? The Cubans and Russians were going there. Why create the Contra's, a force cobbled together from the remnants of Somoza's National Guard? The Russians might go there. Why support the Salvadoran Generals in their Genocidal crackdown on the Indiginado peasants? If they win the Russians will go there. And on and on it went.  Hell it even indulges in some immigrant bashing by claiming a bunch of illegals from Mexico managed to infiltrate a number of military installations before the attacks. In addition to the standard racist distrust of people who "aren't native" the events of the time make it even more sinister. American laws forbade the funding and support of those committing crimes against humanity which meant the tide of Latin American refugees trying to escape the brutalities of their own governments were a problem. Accepting refugee's would be an admission by the US government that their allegations of persecution and torture were true, so instead many whom applied were denied accused of lying and supporting the local "Red faction" and sent back home with the government they fled knowing who they are. So many had to flee to America illegally. So by using the arguments of the US interventionist wing Red Dawn was in effect helping their arguments be accepted by the American people.

Still It was lucky for the film makers that the existence of the Soviet Union provided the perfect example of foreign aggression. In terms of Anti Red propaganda its not the worse film I've seen, that honour goes to Red Scorpion a rather dull film that was made to support UNITA (the guys who worked with South Africa) in Angola's Civil war. In it a KGB superman is sent to kill a "Black Revolutionary" however switches sides when he sees Soviet and Cuban forces killing the local population. I remember one scene in particular were the head Soviet Officer gasses a village from a helicopter.

You could easily take the plot of Red Dawn and set it at any other time period when America was under threat and only have to change the locations, extras and props. For example set it in Hawaii in the 40's make the baddies Japanese  and replace the Hind's with Zero's. Or set it in ye olde Colonial times, have the baddies be Brits (a mix of bluebloods and cockneys, naturally) and you've got the same film. In fact you wouldn't even have to change the title, Red Dawn could easily reference the Red Sun on the Imperial flag or the Red Coats of the regulars.

Unfortunately for the remake they have no such luck. Originally the enemy was going to be the only potential candidate for threat to America China, but the studio's got cold feet so they spent a lot of time in post production changing them to North Koreans (more on this below). This change means that its propaganda message is worthless the example chosen to illustrate the point is so poor it simply discredits the entire argument. North Korea couldn't possibly invade the United States and that's evident to anyone with a working brain. They might as well have made the enemy Zambia, at least then they'd do well with the racist Turner Diaries crowd.

Possibly the dumbest decision made by Hollywood in a few years

And here we go, the decision to give the Chinese a race lift to make them Koreans is just a fundamentally stupid idea. On every front it just weakens the film even more. The decision to change the country was simply because the studio wanted access to the lucrative Chinese market which immediately kills the films artistic integrity and shows the film is purely a moneymaking scheme of no substance. The change weakens the plot drastically and contradicts the "gritty ultra serious" tone the film desperately wants to have.

It also changes the plot in other less obvious ways, the original Red Dawn had the invasion occur because America simply wasn't vigilant enough. If the enemy was still China they might still be able to pull off the same thing but not with North Korea. The very beginning of the film shows the 21st century equivalent of the spinning newspaper montage, clips of 24 hour news commentary around the world. Lots of films do this as its actually a fairly effective and unobtrusive way of ex-positing the situation setting the tone, usually tension. And to be fair to the film it does a reasonable job of presenting North Korea as a threat in the made up scenario it constructs, unfortunately it makes the subsequent invasion of America look to be the product of America's lack of intelligence rather then a lack of vigilance.

The beginning news montage makes clear that America was well aware of North Korea's danger and actively trying to restore order on the Korean peninsula and the globe. So the fact that they didn't see a military build up in particular its Navy and Air Force both of which would be needed just so the Koreans could get over to America, and then let that Navy and Air force sneak past America's Pacific fleet and monitoring stations just kind of makes Uncle Sam seem really stupid. Its the kind of incompetence that no amount of dollars in the defence budget can solve.

Oh and what makes the decision to make the baddies Koreans completely redundant is the addition of the Russians. Near the beginning the characters say the Koreans must of had help, that would've made for an interesting subplot an international conspiracy of nations and if done well could update Red Dawns "Fear the foreigner" message. But no the film drops that thread only to introduce Russians half way through without explanation. They literally just turn up half way through and then disappear until the last ten or so minutes. They call them Spetsnaz but they don't really do much thats Special. The one thing they do manage to pull off (which is one more then the Koreans) is plant a tracker on Daryl (whose traitor subplot was given to some new character) meaning the Russians rather then the Koreans are the only bad guys whom threaten are band of misfits. Why not just make them Russians in the first place, they were already remaking Red Dawn so they couldn't have been afraid of parallels with the original.

In conclusion track down a DVD of the original if your curious.

1: Apparently the Contra's don't exist in Red Dawn world.
2: Okay the opening text at the beginning does explain the specifics of why the Soviets attack but the characters don't know that.
3: Which of course isn't quite true, British forces occupied "American soil" twice if you count territory held by Washington's forces as American soil. Then there was Mexico which launched offensives during its wars with America. Hell the Canadians also occupied territory on their way to burn down the non white White house.

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