Sunday, September 12, 2010

Red Time #2: John Milius's RED DAWN

Oh, the 1980's, sometimes how I don't miss you at all.  Certainly I missed Red Dawn, which was released the year of my birth, 1984.  It was made out of frustration by its maker, John Milius, a staunch conservative (one of the handful of which, certainly the most outspoken, from the "movie-brats" of the 1970's), who thought 'hey, America is soft, and they wouldn't be ready for the 'red scare' to come crashing down on us'.  So he made this movie, a tribute to kicking fucking ass guerilla-style of all of those Commies coming around to a small town in the west, specifically teenagers.  It's perhaps the only ultra-violent war movie featuring several members of the 'mid-80's club' of young people acting like Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey (MUCH different than Dirty Dancing), Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell and a few others.  And it's rated PG-13.

How the Russians, and of course those dirty rotten Cubans, manage to get over to the US and take over what seems to be most of the country is only relevant inasmuch as "hey, SHIT just got REAL!"  The attitude of the situation for the characters is pretty straightforward, in a kind of real conservative frame of doing work: shape up or ship out.  So Swayze and Sheen, brother characters, and a few others (including Thompson and Grey, given roles where they kill more people in one scene alone than they would the rest of their careers), hold up in the mountains.  And little by little, with a little extra firing power, a little more practice, and a little more back-up from a fighter pilot-soldier played with respectable conviction by Powers Boothe, the teens get good.  Real good.  They become the Wolverines, and make their presence known like a rag-tag group.

It's a tale that is a whole lot of fantasy-as-reality, one that Milius takes deadly seriously even as there are some moments for fun (though you have to look for them, mostly in just seeing how much weight the teen actors try and sometimes do carry off in their scenes).  And of course if one tries to take it too seriously then logic becomes involved and one has to step away.  But it's a fantasy that is built up with the conviction of its maker and a point of view that doesn't ring false.  After watching recently the Rambo sequels from the mid-80's, also a by-gone product of the last gasp of Cold War paranoia that first came along in the 1950's and concluded with Regan though just amped up with steroids, I respected Red Dawn a lot more in comparison.  

Stallone's character and his fights against Vietcong and the Russians feel totally false, and the action is so over the top as to be totally tasteless except as mindless Hollywood trash.  At least Milius has the wherewithal to try to make us care about the characters and their untenable situation.  We feel for these Wolverines - hell, I even felt for the one Cuban general who didn't fail to see the irony of "being a policeman" now as opposed to the revolutionary he was years before and is the only villain with conflict - and it's also all in the service of a red-blooded (pun intended) action-war movie.  It makes sense that a gun lover like Milius would make a movie like this.  For the time, indeed, it set a record for on-screen mania with guns and bullets and bombs and the like.

I should state again how silly a lot of this is and, if I were more easily offendable as a liberal I might have had the urge to turn off the film after twenty minutes (again, the logic of it is sort of staggering considering how Milius radically underrates the whole 'US the most mighty military in the world').  On a side note it's also quite incorrect, in related news, about a remake being planned that doesn't update the enemies; the whole idea is set in a time capsule that is hard to replicate, even with new villains or terrorists.  But ultimately it's how good Milius is as a director, how true he stays to the preposterous material, and how he actually gets some artistic merit out of his scenes of action like in that final big city battle in the snow at night for example, that sees the work through.  That it also functions at certain moments like a coming-of-age movie add to its unlikely appeal.

It's exciting and stupid and thrilling and so many things that should go against it.  It's what it is, the writer of that infamous 'Ride of the Valkyries' bombing scene in Apocalypse Now let loose with US v Russians, put to a 80's teen beat.  

3 1/2 out of 4 Medals of 1984 honor!

ADDENDUM: I kept thinking during as well as after the film about if the film would have staying power with *today's* conservatives and right-wingers.  By this I mean, and I can use the TV show Battlestar Galactica for comparison, how the maker of the entertainment posits the position of "us" vs. "them".  In 1984 it looked nifty from a Milius-right-wing POV that a group of young people banding together guerilla style (or as the movie itself says, 'foxes'), and sneak-attacks Russian and Cuban troops, basically like terrorists hiding in the mountains.  Today, does this sound familiar?

Our troops fighting in Afghanistan, tables-have-turned much?  Perhaps the hunter aspect might still have appeal, how balsy it can be.  But as with BSG, for those that have seen it (if not please feel free to skip this paragraph), it oddly enough started off as a favorite of Republicans (in that case a symbolic representation of "us" vs "them" with "us" being humans and "them" being the Cylons, and how they attack us, we fight back, and they respond like terrorists, to which humanity responds as well (i.e. the episode Pegasus, watch it again if you have seen the show).  But then in season 3... favorability fell off.  Suddenly the "us" were turned around on the planet of New Caprica as Cylons take over and humanity has to revert to terrorist/revolutionary tactics to take over and escape the planet.

Again, I can't say for certain how Red Dawn looks today to conservative or the right-wing as I'm not either of those and haven't watched the film with others.  However there is one bright spot: the film acted as a primary inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, specifically how they fight back against the Nazis, and the climax.

"This man wants to die for his country. Oblige him."  Couldn't have Milius have written that?   

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