It was a typical fall weekend in Spokane, Wash., with high school football teams dueling it out on the gridiron and residents flocking to their favorite watering holes after the game.
Then came a Saturday morning unlike any other.
First the explosions. Then the paratroopers. Only when it was too late did most of the good people of Spokane realize what was happening: the unthinkable. The United States was being invaded … by North Korea. In a world paralyzed by financial and political upheaval, a rogue regime had seized the opportunity to strike a physical blow.
The explosions wake Jed Eckert, a twentysomething Marine just home from Iraq, and his brother, Matt, quarterback of his high school football team. Lunging into Jed’s Dodge Ram pickup truck, the brothers race down their street, even as soldiers begin rounding up those who hadn’t moved as quickly.
Soon they spy their father, a police officer, racing toward them. “Get to the cabin!” he yells. A few members of Matt’s football team, the Wolverines, pile into the back of the truck. A few more jump into a car behind them. With bullets whizzing over their heads, they make for the wilderness to figure out what to do next.
The circumstances don’t give them much time to ponder their predicament. And when a turncoat named Pete steals their food and reveals their location to the North Koreans, the Eckerts’ woodland refuge quickly becomes a target. For Jed, there’s only one response: fight. And Matt wants to follow his big brother’s lead, never mind that the two siblings have some unresolved business that’s wedged between them. But Matt’s got another agenda as well: rescuing his captured girlfriend, Erica.
Even as Jed whips the ragtag group of young men (and a couple of women) into an formidable guerilla counterinsurgency, Matt bides his time for the moment he can free his beloved Erica. But his determination to do that may be the complete undoing of this unlikely group of teen patriots who’ve come to call themselves Wolverines.
Red Dawn is about fighting for our cherished freedom as Americans. As such, Jed, Matt and their Wolverine friends repeatedly exhibit courage and willingness to sacrifice as they take the fight to the invaders. “We inherited our freedom,” Jed tells the group. “Now it’s up to all of us to fight for it.” In a separate speech early on, Jed tells the group that they’ve each got a choice to make, whether they’re going to fight or whether they’re going to capitulate. They fight. When it’s demanded that they surrender, they refuse. Even when they have a chance to cleanly escape the whole ordeal, they elect to stand and defend.
Jed and Matt have issues that the war forces them to deal with. In the wake of their mother’s death years before, Jed fled to the Marines and quit communicating with his family—an abandonment that Matt felt sorely. Thus, Matt has turned into a renegade solo operative. And Jed calls him to account for the selfish actions his attitude triggers, admonishing him sternly regarding the necessity for unity and teamwork. Matt slowly comes around, of course, and the two takes steps to patch things up.
One guy (after being implanted with a tracking device) sacrificially separates himself from the Wolverines, putting himself in a serious amount of jeopardy (and in the way of death) to protect the rest.
Jed brags, “Marines don’t die. They just go to hell and regroup.” He says of the country’s situation, “Pray like h‑‑‑ it doesn’t get worse.”
Before the invasion, Matt and Erica kiss in her car. He begins to run his hand up her leg, but she slaps it. They kiss later as well. Jed reminisces about an old girlfriend being a good kisser. Passing references are made to “hot, sexy girls” and a guy’s hidden porn stash. A couple of girls wear low-cut shirts.
Numerous combat-related scenes—most of them, in fact— display all manner of mortal mayhem triggered by such weapons as machine guns, pistols, grenades, RPGs, C4 explosives and even tanks. North Koreans are repeatedly shown rounding up captives and herding them into a hastily erected POW camp. In turn, gunshots and explosions kill scores of North Korean soldiers. A teen girl baits a group of enemy soldiers into chasing her; she leads them into an ambush where several of the Wolverines pop out from beneath cover on the ground and shoot them. Later, Jed shoots and kills a wounded North Korean leader at essentially point-blank range.
Several Wolverines eventually get gunned down. A perilous assault on the North Korean headquarters involves jumping perhaps 20 feet from one building to another. The raid results in a prolonged firefight. Car chases end with various vehicles getting smashed. A plane crashes explosively into a house.
Jed and Matt’s father heroically resists being used by his captors, and he’s executed with a pistol shot to the head. (We don’t see the bullet’s impact.) Jed gets hurt, and the camera zooms in as one of his mates stitches a large wound closed. Jed and Matt teach Robert to hunt. And after Robert shoots his first deer, they tell him it’s a family custom to drink some of the deer’s blood (which he does, but just offscreen).
One f-word. And someone mentions detonating a “mother-eff bomb.” More than 25 s-words. A dozen uses of “a‑‑” or “a‑‑hole,” a half-dozen or so uses each of “h‑‑‑” and “b‑‑ch.” We hear “d‑‑k,” “pr‑‑k” and “b‑‑tard.” God’s name is abused five or six times (half the time paired with “d‑‑n”). Jesus’ is misused once. One character invents a slur, “motard,” and uses it twice.
Jed’s shown drinking heavily, with empty beer bottles around him as he sits sullenly on his front porch. He grabs a beer from a full six-pack and offers it to Matt, who’s presumably underage. Matt declines. Later, though, after much bloodshed, Jed has a beer again and offers Matt one again. This time the younger brother jokes about it being his first drink (but it’s clear that it’s not). A pre-invasion scene takes place at a bar.
We’re asked to watch as an American combatant vomits after shooting and killing a North Korean soldier.
I can sum up my reaction to learning that Red Dawn was being remade with one word: Really?
The original version was released in 1984 and had the somewhat dubious honor of being the first film to be tagged with the new PG-13 rating. At the time, the Cold War was reality, and for many of us the film’s premise—Russians invading the Colorado town of Calumet, then the rest of the country—was eerily plausible. Toss in the all-star cast of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, and Red Dawn had some genuine gravitas.
The remake sports a similar premise, substituting Washington for Colorado and North Koreans for Russians. And if that last bit sounds preposterous to you, you’ll be interested in this: During development, the new film featured more plausible Chinese invaders. But the studio realized that the Chinese movie market was too important to alienate, digitally changing all the Chinese symbols to North Korean ones in post-production. In a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times, producer Tripp Vinson said, “We were initially very reluctant to make any changes. But after careful consideration we constructed a way to make a scarier, smarter and more dangerous Red Dawn that we believe improves the movie.”
No one in America today is lying awake at night wondering whether the dawn will bring with it a red wave of North Koreans. In contrast, back in ’84 the idea that the Russians could spontaneously float down on parachutes was, while still unlikely, not utterly inconceivable. The result the second time around is a film that, despite its big-hearted messages about sacrificial patriotism and teamwork, feels just a bit ridiculous.
After I saw an advance screening of the new Red Dawn, I was inspired to revisit the original, in part to see how that very first PG-13 film stacks up to a film with the same rating 28 years later. Here’s my verdict: Both are saturated with war-related violence and imagery. And both have a high body count. The new one might actually be somewhat more violent—in terms of explosions, firefights, etc.—but it simultaneously and paradoxically feels more sanitized. The original is a more serious effort, showing us, for example, rows of American POWs being lined up and gunned down in reprisal for the Wolverines’ actions. A traitor in the teens’ midst is casually executed. It’s implied that one of the young women was raped by the Russians. And there’s talk of starving people in Denver resorting to cannibalism.
All of that makes the first Red Dawn a decidedly grimmer experience as it delivers an unmistakable message about the awful waste of war, compared to the more video game feel of the current movie. Indeed, I suspect that if the original were rereleased and rerated today, it might garner an R rating due to the harsh realities it explores. But, then again, it might also be true that if the new one had been released back then, it too might have been rated R for other reasons, say, the 70 or so profanities ranging from the f-word to anatomical crudities.
That trade-off is due largely to the fact that cultural perceptions and mores change in ragged ways, not precise ones. And things get pretty murky when you’re trying to pin down exact content quotients. But one item escapes the fog of war: Back in the day, Red Dawn was considered exceptionally violent, one of the most violent films that had ever been made up to that point. Now it’s just one of many.
And that applies to both of the films we’re talking about right now.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.