From left: Josh Peck, Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth star in "Red Dawn." (Film District via the AP)
Rated PG-13 for mostly nonbloody violence and mildly salty language.
In 1984, long before 9/11 made "insurgent" a household word, a modest little action film called "Red Dawn" riffed on the adage that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
The film, starring Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey and the late Patrick Swayze as small-town high schoolers who go all mujahedeen against a Soviet-Cuban invasion, was an enjoyable if far-fetched adventure that managed to squeeze decent emotion from the idea of what it means to defend one's country.
Hollywood is rarely ahead of its time, but that film, which has attained semi-cult status, was an exception in its presaging of our era of asymmetrical warfare.
Now we get a remake more in tune with Hollywood's typical sensibilities — peddling recycled, facile, slapdash sludge in hopes of scamming at least a few clueless viewers who know no better.
It's like a step-by-step guide to hack filmmaking, starting with the tired opening gambit, a montage of jittery TV news clips of folks like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nattering on amid the growing specter of global terrorism and financial collapse.
What does any of that have to do with the surprise invasion of the West Coast by North Korean forces? Beats me. But one balmy morning, the skies above greater Seattle are filled by Pyongyang's fighters, bombers and transports.
The film has a huge credibility issue right off the bat: The fact that most NK troops would be screaming, "I defect! I defect! Take me to McDonalds!" even as they parachute to the ground.
(When this film was originally shot in 2009, before MGM went into a long, painful bankruptcy, the Chinese were the villains. In the interim, that was changed; a number of scenes and visual effects were re-shot with an eye toward enhancing the film's potential profitability in the China market.)
The explanation for how North Korea could invade America is also shaky: some kind of pulse weapon that kills our power and communications grids. The explanation for how the enemy's own infrastructure could still be operative is equally thin: a laptop-sized box carried by the local NK honcho (Will Yun Lee).
Jed Eckert (Chris "Thor" Hemsworth), a Marine home on leave, his hot-headed younger brother Matt (sleepy-eyed, slack-jawed Josh Peck) and a few pals (including Adrianne Palicki, Josh Hutcherson and Connor Cruise, adopted son of Tom) slip the NK cordon and take to the hills, from where they dabble in hit-and-run raids and trade cringe-worthy dialogue ("Dude! We're living ‘Call of Duty' — and it sucks!")
It never feels like anything real is at stake, unless you count Matt's repeated endangerment of his comrades through desperate and selfish attempts to rescue his hottie blonde girlfriend (Emily Lucas) from a detention center.
The original was no monument to subtlety, but it did make an effort to tap the moral ambiguity of war and put a human face on the enemy, particularly Ron O'Neal's Cuban commander, who wrestled with ambivalence about the invasion, pined for his family back home and chafed at his own yoke as a Soviet vassal.
The remake can't be bothered with such nuance; the NKs are all faceless, cardboard "others" fit only to be smashed by the mighty fist of American jingoism.
The problems extend well beyond the script. Rookie director Dan Bradley spent 30 years as a stuntman — and should have stuck with that noble avocation.
Jerking the camera around in seizure-like fashion to connote "action" is a shtick that has already passed way beyond parody. But Bradley takes it to new heights of absurdity with scenes in which it is absolutely impossible to tell what's going on.
A dash of gravitas eventually arrives with three spec-ops Marines (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Matt Gerald and Kenneth Choi as the token "good" Asian) who show up to lend tactical support and ooh-rah fighting spirit.
Morgan, just before the Wolverines launch an attack: "It's a good day to die, gentlemen!"
Nervous Wolverine: "Wha … what did he just say?"
Hemsworth: "Aw, Marines don't die … they just go to hell and regroup."
But make no mistake: This is one lazy, cheesy flick. They should have just re-released the original "Red Dawn" in theaters — that, I'd gladly pay to see.