You’d think that, post-9/11, Americans have, if anything, greater worry about threats from abroad than we did back in 1984, when the teen Commie-anxiety flick “Red Dawn” was released. So you can see where the producers of the new remake told themselves that the built-in receptiveness factor was there. They even planned on hitching their movie to that dated title — making this, in a way, an even odder war story than the bluntly provocative, Reagan-era original.
As the target demographic emeritus will recall, the old setup had down-home Colorado youths Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, and pals turning mountain guerrilla fighters (“Wolverines!”) when Soviet forces invade. The new version, from stunt coordinator-turned-director Dan Bradley, drops Chris Hemsworth, Josh Peck, and Josh Hutcherson into the roles, and shifts things to more urban Spokane (actually Michigan). While the filmmakers might employ other geopolitical hot spots to most effectively tap contemporary fears, North Korea is promoted to Evil Empire status. Semi-forced? Maybe. But, hey, it satisfies the brand. And the creative choice is no more suspect than 11th-hour re-edits and digital tweaks reportedly used to swap out China as the invader, to avoid a negative impact on Hollywood’s growing Chinese market.
As a combat action spectacle, the movie takes a straightforward, gritty approach that makes for mostly solid viewing. The opening surprise attack, in particular, is immersively jarring. (Hard to figure what happened with a climactic office-building shootout, an editing mishmash that’s comprehensible only in a general way.) Hemsworth is given an Iraq-vet background that makes the group’s survivalist reinvention a somewhat smaller leap. And the writers work to give the characters issues — tensions, heartaches, impossible dilemmas — that could plausibly boil over under fire. Hemsworth and Peck (“Drake & Josh”) are distractingly miscast as borderline-estranged brothers, but peripheral story conflicts are an upgrade from some of the “After School Special” drama we remember.
The filmmakers’ nominal handling of political commentary is another matter. Unable to decide whether to play it retro-jingoistic or contempo-liberal, they split the difference. (At least the movie’s fuzzy convictions didn’t date anything while studio bankruptcy wrangling kept the finished product on the shelf for a couple of years.) At one moment, the script has a globally empathetic undercurrent, with Hemsworth’s character sharing his views on insurgency: “To them, this is just some place. When you’re fighting in your own backyard . . . it all makes a little more sense.” At another moment, the stance is government-issue. Says Hemsworth: “When I was overseas, we were the good guys. We enforced order.” What penetrates is when Hutcherson, in “Hunger Games” reluctant-combatant mode, observes, “Dude, we’re living ‘Call of Duty,’ and it sucks.” Not a poetic sentiment, maybe, but a pointedly relevant one. If “Red Dawn” flashed more of this, there might have been more reason to dust off its Cold War tale.