The USSR invades and occupies the USA. In Colorado, high-school kids become a guerilla resistance unit and give the occupation forces a fight.
Made at the height of the Reagan Era, with the then-monolithic Soviet Union tagged as ‘the Evil Empire’, Red Dawn is at once a mainstream shoot ‘em up action picture and an ideologically demented exercise in American paranoia. It opens a high school class being lectured about Mongol Hordes as Russian paratroops land on the playing field and set about gunning down innocents and taking over the town. Our junior heroes, mostly members of the loser local football team (‘the Wolverines’), stock up on guns, snack food and toilet paper and head for the mountains to keep fighting.
It’s pretty much hard-bitten camp, with Harry Dean Stanton shouting ‘avenge me’ behind the wire at a drive-in turned into a ‘re-education centre’, but the It Happened Here business of an unfamiliar, invaded backdrop (Alexander Nevsky at the local movie-house, Russian troops in McDonald’s) still has a frisson. Weirdly, as in the Rambo movies, the wish-fulfilment fantasy is that Americans get to be underdog, freedom-loving rebel guerillas, whereas the other side are big bullies crushing the will of the people.
To John Milius’s way of thinking, America needs to be attacked, invaded and overthrown for Americans to regain any sense of purpose – even if it means teenagers becoming mountain men and outright psychopaths. Though C. Thomas Howell does something almost subtle with the role of the youth who comes to enjoy summarily executing prisoners, other ‘80s teen icons (Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Charlie Sheen) just look glum and are upstaged by ‘guest stars’ Powers Boothe (downed pilot) and Ben Johnson (grandfatherly plot-explainer) or contrasted commies Ron O’Neal (sympathetic Cuban) and William Smith (nasty Russian). A guilty pleasure.
Pretty much hard-bitten camp with some 80s teen icons.