The jingoistic Red Dawn, in which North Korea invades America in the very near future, is the unfortunate movie Chris Hemsworth signed up for when he was still an unknown and maybe living, if not under a rock, perhaps in a pickup truck. It’s a remake of the cult favorite 1984 Cold War-era action flick Red Dawn, which featured Patrick Swayze as a Colorado kid who rallies a youthful militia after the red menace of the Soviet Union invades America. Both movies play like hokey advertisements for the National Rifle Association, injected with high school pep rally enthusiasm. But while the 1984 version now seems as cutely misguided as leg warmers, how to approach the embarrassing politics of the remake? Take Red Dawn as comedy, although members of the international relations community—or for that matter, people who pay good money to see it—might find that a tall order.
The able Hemsworth plays Jed Eckert, an emotionally bruised veteran on a visit home to Spokane after a few tours in the Middle East. His little brother Matt (Josh Peck) is the quarterback of his high school football team. After a prologue of talking heads giving a political “primer” on declining relations with North Korea, the film opens with Jed and the boys’ dad (Brett Cullen) watching in dismay as the Wolverines lose their game. It’s Friday Night Lights territory, but without good writing or acting.
(READ: Why the decision was made to change Red Dawn’s villains from Chinese to North Korean)
The brothers Eckert wake the very next day to the sound of bombs and the sight of North Korean paratroopers or their computer-generated facsimiles floating down from the sky all over Spokane—in an uncannily ordered fashion, as if the sky were a grid they were adhering too. Spokane is soon under foreign control, as well as other American cities, although the crafty North Koreans cut off communication so it’s hard to know for sure exactly who is licking Kim Jong-un’s boots. The boys escape to their family’s hunting cabin with a crew of friends and acquaintances, including a pair of younger, handily tech-savvy geeks played by Josh Hutcherson (of The Hunger Games) and Conor Cruise (of the famous father).Weirdly—what a missed opportunity—there is no Korean-American character in the group, who might have gone behind enemy lines and made the story feel more modern.
Under Jed’s tutelage they emerge as the Wolverines, teenaged ninjas raising hell for those dopey invaders, who bumble and stumble and can do little more than raise a frustrated fist at the kids. Only one of them, their leader Captain Lo (Will Yun Lee) even gets a name. Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas and Alyssa Diaz provide the girl power, all of which is very PG; no bunker hook-ups for these kids. If the movie finds an audience, that audience will likely be 14 and oblivious to the fact that there ever was an earlier Red Dawn. Taking over the role Charlie Sheen had in the original, Peck projects such pained sensitivity that I had doubts about Matt’s ability to make a sandwich, let alone kill dozens of Koreans. But all of the implausibilities, particularly that of these kids turning themselves into Hunger Games-style survivalists and bomb-building warriors is ignored so defiantly that it kind of works, as it did back in 1984.
(READ: Richard Corliss on the late Patrick Swayze and his work in the original Red Dawn)
Here’s the awesome thing I learned about Red Dawn while trying to find out how the guy who starred in Thor and in this year’s mega-hit The Avengers got roped into a movie so bad it’s almost good: even during production Hemsworth and the rest of the cast did not know who the enemy was, only that they were Asian. In a mark of extraordinary dedication to the concept of villainy over petty narrative details, MGM wavered between making the invaders Chinese or North Korean until the last minute. (Maybe that’s why the Wolverines don’t include a Korean-American character.) If Mitt Romney had been elected, director Dan Bradley, making his directorial debut, probably had another talking head montage ready to go that would have swapped Romney for President Obama and those nefarious Chinese currency manipulators for the North Koreans. Maybe Bradley, a veteran stunt coordinator, was too focused on the stunts (there are many, many of these and they feel very old school) to pull the trigger on who the principal bad guys were going to be. By the end of the story both the Chinese and Russians have joined in the tyranny.
As for the Hemsworth backstory, it turns out he got the offer for Red Dawn on a Friday while on the set of Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods. What young actor with an uncertain future is going to turn down a remake of a Patrick Swayze movie that did well at the box office even before Dirty Dancing? (Trivia alert: Jennifer Grey was in the original Red Dawn as well.) Of course he said yes. The very next day he got his offer for Thor. Maybe Hemsworth wishes he’d lost his phone on that fateful Friday and found it only in time for the Thor call Saturday. But if it weren’t for him, surely the Red Dawn remake would have gone straight to video; he’s the only person worth watching in it (oh the pain of watching the wan Isabel Lucas hoist a rocket launcher). And maybe every young actor relishes the chance to rally the troops with lines like these: “We inherited our freedom. Now it is time for us to fight for it.”