Director: John Milius
Writers: John Milius, Kevin Reynolds
Patrick Swayze- Jed
Charlie Sheen- Matt
C. Thomas Howell- Robert
Lea Thompson- Erica
Jennifer Grey- Toni
Tag Line: The invading armies planned for everything – except for eight kids called “The Wolverines.”
The Brat Pack goes to war. (OK, I made that one up)
I have always loved war movies. I can say that without remorse because I have now advanced to an age where self evaluation and moralistic self flagellation hold no sway over me. I lead a completely un-self-examined life, and I sleep much better. From “The Sands of Iwo Jima” to “The Green Berets”, “The Battle of the Bulge” all the way through to the 70’s blockbuster “A Bridge Too Far” I was always riveted to the screen, ready for every pointless charge into overwhelming enemy fire and every slow, drawn-out death scene. I ate it up, and then went out and shot at my friends with my plastic machine gun while they shot back with their toy cowboy rifle, and then we argued over who shot who first.
The thing about ‘Red Dawn’ is that when I first saw the movie in 1984, it kind of bought war to my doorstep. I am old enough to remember the Cold War, but young enough not to have felt very affected by it. I was too young to really understand Vietnam, at least at that time. The movies I watched were just entertainment, not reflections of real loss and sacrifice. ‘Red Dawn’ however was not distant; it took place in my front yard.
Not that this film was some great think piece on the vagrancies of armed conflict and its effect on the occupied peoples of a war-torn land, it wasn’t. It was poorly written and even more poorly acted; full of trite one liners and pseudo-patriotism, but it was entertaining. And when you see troops parachuting into the school yard of what could be your own alma-mater, and then you watch as the front of the school where kids have gathered to witness the spectacle gets strafed with machine gun fire leaving one child dead in the window, you have to step back and blink, “That kid looked like my friend Billy!” I was used to seeing troops parachuting into blown-out European hamlets or remote Middle Eastern towns, but not dropping down by the Piggly-Wiggly!
After the initial invasion by a Russo/Nicaraguan alliance, a group of teenagers, led by Patrick Swayze as the former all-star quarterback and Charlie Sheen’s older brother Jed, flee town in an exciting chase scene to hide up in the hills until the whole thing blows over. But it doesn’t just blow over, it turns into an occupation. And the kids, now styling themselves after their high school football team’s mascot “The Wolverines,” are forced into the role of insurgents. They tool about the countryside attacking convoys and stray troops, causing mayhem in the name of American freedom wherever possible. In one scene, they attack a group of Russian officers who have paused by the roadside to take pictures of themselves in front of a landmark, (flashes of Nazis posing in front of the Eifel Tower or the Pyramids), and as the officers flee the murderous group of teens they beg for their lives. The kids have to harden up and execute the last remaining Russkie so that he can’t radio in a warning. War is Hell.
Back in town, a concentration camp is up and running at the old stadium and executions abound. Harry Dean Stanton, as Swayze and Sheen’s father, implores them through the barbed wire fencing to “Avenge me boys!” The town Mayor, played smarmily by Lane Smith, is cooperating with the invaders in an effort to do “what’s best for my constituents”. He gets his son, one of the Wolverines, to wear a tracer so that the Nicaraguan counterinsurgents can track the group down. When the rest of the group find out about it from a captured enemy soldier they are forced to execute one of their own in what is probably the most powerful scene in the film. No one is able to shoot Daryl, the mayor’s kid and former class president played by Darren Dalton, until C. Thomas Howell’s character Robert, a former nerd who goes around the psycho bend after learning his entire family was executed, steps up and machine guns him down with a straight face.
At one point, an American fighter jet crashes nearby and Powers Booth, as salty Texan fighter jock Lt. Col. Andy Tanner, joins the group and helps to guide them along. He forms a quasi-pedophilic relationship with Lea Thompsons character Erica, which is a bit awkward, before being killed off in great B-movie tradition while saving the kids from a Russian tank attack.
Eventually the Nicaraguan counterinsurgency force catches up with the Violent Dumplin’ Gang and most die in a hail of bullets shot from a Russian Attack Helicopter. Howell’s character Robert has the best death scene, going out in a blaze of duel machine-wielding glory, America…F*ck Yeah! In my opinion, his is the most interesting character in the whole film, except for maybe the part of the counterinsurgency leader played by Judd Omen. His take on a reluctant military policeman forced to do things that he finds distasteful in the name of securing the territory for his forces is spot on.
Charlie Sheen is kind of a non-entity in the film, as are Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson. They are always there but never make that big an impact. The wrap up at the end of the film showing the post war memorial to the kids and narrated by Lea Thompson, one of only two of The Wolverines to survive, feels kind of tacked on. On the whole, though, this film really made an impression on me. I have gone back and watched it again several times over the years. Once I watched it just to see the scene where Powers Booth’s character admonishes C. Thomas Howell’s character about how all the hate he carries inside him will eat him up, “it keeps me warm” Howell responds, classic!
If you haven’t seen it yet, do, it’s worth the rent and the two hours out of your life. They have recently remade it with a new round of fresh faces and so it will be worth seeing the original first to compare. I understand that since we are friends with Russia now they were going to make China the bad guys, but then we became friends with them and so now they are turning to North Korea. If Kim Jong-il shows up for dinner with Obama then the producers are in trouble, I guess they could use Gaddafi if they hurry.