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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014

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Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth in the new "Red Dawn," in theaters now.
Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth in the new "Red Dawn," in theaters now.

New "Red Dawn" should never have risen

After some minor financial oopses at MGM (read: filing for bankruptcy) and even more post-production delays (Chinese invaders don't just Photoshop themselves into North Koreans overnight, you know), the remade "Red Dawn" finally gets to see the light of day.

You'd think having the project in limbo for two years would have given its producers enough time to reconsider the theater space they'd be wasting by releasing it, but I'm sure the only thing on their minds was turning a profit on this unnecessary action flick.

The remake – sorry, the movie "based on the motion picture" – recasts all the original key players and makes the bare minimum of alterations to the scenario to pass it off as conceivable to 2012's Average Joe Moviegoer. Instead of the USSR and Cuba, new "Red Dawn" features the U.S. getting invaded by North Korea (which, like I mentioned earlier, was almost China until the studio execs decided insulting a major superpower was a bad idea).

That won't fly with the high schoolers of Spokane, Wash., though. Led by recent grad-turned-Marine Jed (a pre-"Thor" Chris Hemsworth), a group of these determined teens take to the woods and form a guerrilla army to avenge their town, friends and family members as the Wolverines.

That's nice and all, but before "Red Dawn" gets to the vengeance it has to explain why the North Koreans are setting up a stronghold in Smallville, U.S.A. Ignoring the fact that the U.S. population outnumbers North Korea's by practically 12 to 1, the movie brushes off logic by insisting the invading forces gained control of every major city and military base with such overwhelming efficiency that they can spare enough troops to take over and occupy Spokane.

Fine. No big deal; this movie got butts in the seats by promising moviegoers an hour and a half of high school kids opening a can of good ol' American whoop-ass on a bunch of commies, anyway. It's been almost 30 years, but hey, the formula works.

They don't expect audiences to accept just anything, though. These kids can't fall back on their "Call of Duty" training alone, no matter how many achievements they unlocked pre-invasion. Nope, they get their tactical training from Jed the best way an action movie knows how: with a slick montage.

At last, "Red Dawn" gets to the fighting. Or, something like that. Most of the confrontations between the Wolverines and occupying North Korean forces come in the form of booby traps, set-ups and other semi-elaborate rigging, which – while clever and appropriately guerrilla-style – stops being believable after the first couple of hits. At some point you'd think the military higher-ups would have put out an APB on lone teenagers looking suspicious, since they behave absolutely nothing like the crowds they try to blend into. More to the point, there's like six of them. You can't tell me they're all going unnoticed after weeks of up-close stealth attacks.

Just when things start going the way of Scooby Doo's "meddling kids," North Korea finally gets their stuff together and uses their intel to bring the hammer down on the Wolverines' base camp. This also escalates already simmering conflicts within the Wolverines, something that ends up being perhaps the most realistic part of the movie.

"Red Dawn" focuses on its big hook – high schoolers taking up arms against insurmountable odds – but its biggest asset is the kids' human failings. The best parts of the movie are when these kids break down and start acting like, well, kids. Yes, the premise of a handful of small-town teens bringing down a highly trained military is far-fetched, but it's the moments when they act their age that allow "Red Dawn" to keep some footing in reality.

Hemsworth aside, the movie also features decent turns from Josh Peck ("Mean Creek"), Josh Hutcherson ("The Hunger Games") and Connor Cruise (he's Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's son – that's resume enough). Together with the rest of the ensemble, they carry the movie so well that it's only once the grown-ups arrive (a pack of rogue freedom fighters that includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that you realize they were holding down the proverbial fort rather well.

It's not enough to salvage the whole of "Red Dawn," but in the action world, it counts for something. This could have easily been a testament to remake failures, appreciated only by the cult of paranoid doomsday preppers convinced they're watching a veiled instruction manual.

It's cheesy, simply cobbled together and so pro-'Merica it's practically a parody of its original incarnation. But, thanks solely to the efforts of its actors, "Red Dawn" narrowly avoids being lumped in as a B-movie explosion fest, instead finding a home squarely under the sub-category Big Dumb Action Flick.

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