Patrick Swayze, left, C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen in the original… (Associated Press )
Released during the 1984 Olympics and in an election year rife with Cold War tensions, the original "Red Dawn" is unmistakably a product of its time — a slice of Reagan-era anxiety with a healthy dose of jingoistic action.
Written and directed by John Milius, whose macho credits also include "Conan the Barbarian," "Red Dawn" starred then-rising young actors Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey as a ragtag group of Colorado teens who wage a guerrilla war against Soviet-led invaders. One of the indelible images from the film is when a swarm of gun-toting, camo-clad paratroopers nonchalantly descend into an ordinary American town, then swiftly take it over.
That image is faithfully reproduced in a new remake of the film, also titled "Red Dawn," which changes the identities of the invaders and updates the setting but follows many of the same narrative beats. Time will tell if the remake, which opened Wednesday, can also re-create the cult success of its predecessor. (Initial reviews have been less than enthusiastic.)
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For many moviegoers, including Beau Flynn and Tripp Vinson, the producers of the "Red Dawn" remake, the original film's chilling, if far-fetched premise struck a nerve. Flynn was 13 when "Red Dawn" was released and saw it multiple times. "It was scary and haunting," he said.
Vinson was the same age and had a similar response. "I remember as a kid there were times when we had to get under our desks and do those types of things to prepare for God-knows-what," he said. "It was very much a part of that time period. In this country, we were the good guys, and the Russians were the bad guys. That movie tapped into that and played into that, and I think that's obviously one of the reasons why it affected so many people."
At the time of the film's release, the Berlin Wall was still standing, the Red Army was locked in battle with U.S.-backed mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan, and President Reagan was pursuing an aggressive foreign policy against the USSR, which he famously dubbed "an evil empire."
Amid all that, "Red Dawn" performed well at the box office, winning its opening weekend and going on to gross more than $38 million. Reviews were mixed, with many critics accusing the film of rabble-rousing. In a review for The Times, Kevin Thomas wrote that the film "seems made for National Rifle Assn. benefit premieres." Indeed, one scene shows a slain American's bumper sticker that reads, "They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers."
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The original "Red Dawn" was the first film to be released with a PG-13 rating, and its violence attracted attention. The National Coalition on Television Violence, a citizen watchdog group, condemned it as the most violent film ever made, with an average of 134 acts of violence an hour. By today's standards, it doesn't come off as particularly grisly, and the carnage feels about on par with the remake, which is also rated PG-13.
In the years since its release, "Red Dawn" has become something of a cult favorite, which Flynn acknowledged can be a double-edged sword when it comes to the remake. While some fans of the original may appreciate the "nostalgia factor," Flynn said, "There are some 'Red Dawn' purists who don't want that movie touched at all, and I respect that."
Like the original, the new "Red Dawn," directed by Dan Bradley, will attempt to tap into the current zeitgeist. Taking up Swayze's role, Chris Hemsworth ("Thor") has been updated as an Iraq war veteran who finds himself leading rather than opposing an insurgency — though the film is far from a political allegory.
While Flynn said the remake was partially inspired by post-Sept. 11 unease, the invaders are not Islamist terrorists but North Korean military forces. (Originally conceived of and filmed as Chinese invaders, the bad guys were changed in postproduction to preserve China's lucrative box office market.)
Both Flynn and Vinson characterized the new "Red Dawn," at its core, as a fun action flick without an agenda.
"I feel like we live in a global world more than ever now, and I feel like this story could be applicable to anyone on the bigger themes and values," Flynn said. "I think the movie is very apolitical, personally."
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