R085 Red Dawn

(1984, Action/Drama/Political/Teen, color)


Mike Nelson and Joel McHale

Killing in the name of a high school mascot—if that ain’t American, I don’t know what is.

Rating: ***

In a Nutshell:

Teenage refugees from the Soviet invasion of Colorado engage in guerilla warfare.


Crimson Morning.Before the action begins, yellow text informs the audience of worsening conditions in the world at large, as food shortages and political upheaval contributes to the rapid expansion of the Soviet Empire. The black screen fades up to a Colorado high school, where a lecture about Mongol conquest techniques is interrupted by the arrival of Soviet paratroopers. These proceed to mow down an inquisitive teacher and fire their weapons into the school more or less at random. Yes, it’s a subtle, subtle film.

Teen refugee Matt (Charlie Sheen) jumps into the truck bed of his older brother Jed (Patrick Swayze) as he drives past. Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Daryl, Danny and the provocatively named Aardvark join them. Without stopping to ask what’s going on, they drive out of town to a gas station/convenience store run by Robert’s dad. Dad fills their truck with canned food, rifles, sleeping bags and so on and sends them into the mountains.

Weeks later, a few of the boys return to town to find it still occupied by Soviet forces. Jed and Matt find their father in a concentration camp, and promise to avenge him. A visit to a friendly local reveals that Robert’s dad was executed for helping them escape. The local gives them horses and food and asks them to take his fugitive granddaughters Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson) up into the mountains with them.

One day, a trio of Soviet sightseers heads up into the mountains to take pictures. They stumble across Toni, and chase her into the woods. The rest of the refugees start shooting, and the three Soviets are killed. The local commanders execute most of the refugees’ family members in retaliation. The refugees decide to fight back.

Charter members of the Murdered Father Avengers Club.They start calling themselves the Wolverines, after the local high school mascot. Led by Jed, they plant bombs, shoot from the roadside and steal supplies. The local commanders execute locals after every attack, but this only increases the Wolverines’ determination. Soon afterwards, the kids are joined by a downed fighter pilot named Andy (Powers Boothe). He provides the invasion’s backstory, but by now that information isn’t all that relevant. He survives just long enough to teach them some rudimentary military tactics and then die (along with Aardvark) in a kamikaze assault on a Soviet tank.

The Soviets bring in a new specialist to deal with the Wolverines. He halts reprisals against the locals and sends commandos into the mountains after them. The Wolverines ambush their attackers and take a tracking device from the corpses. It points to Daryl, who breaks down and confesses. On his last trip into town, his dad (the mayor) turned him in to the Soviets, who tortured him and forced him to swallow a homing beacon. Jed tries to execute him, but can’t do it. Robert executes him instead.

Some time later, they find food “abandoned” by the side of an open road. They pick it up and eat it, until Soviet helicopters appear over the horizon. Soviet gunfire kills Robert and Toni while the others escape to their camp. Realizing that they do not have a hope of outlasting the Soviets, the last four Wolverines split up. Jed and Matt stage a final suicidal assault on Soviet headquarters to distract their forces while Erica and Danny make a break for Free America. Years later, a rock near their camp where Jed inscribed the names of their dead has become a national monument.


The lovely ladies of guerilla warfare.Okay, the scenario was ludicrous even at the time of its release, and much of the second half is pure action movie fantasy, but in spite of these issues, this is a powerful film. Occasionally stupid and often simple-minded, but powerful. I believe this has to do with the extraordinarily successful way it evokes the cold war dread of the eighties, that special paranoid decade when my social studies teachers liked to remind me that a Russian invasion or (more likely) nuclear Armageddon was due at any moment. Kudos to the filmmakers for inventing an invasion scenario that, well, doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but looks real and scary enough to get us through the film. The kids depicted are a bit too lucky, too handy with explosives and automatic weapons to pass the plausibility test, but again, kudos to the filmmakers for making their terror and desperation seem real. Also remarkable (for a big, dumb action movie from the eighties): there are no romances. Kudos to the filmmakers for realizing that getting molested by enemy soldiers is more likely to give a girl a nervous breakdown than put her in a lovin’ mood. In fact, while my feelings about this film are kind of ambivalent, I have to admit (without dropping any qualifiers) that it’s probably the best paranoid teen action film about a Russian invasion the filmmakers could possibly have made.

Celebrity television show host Joel McHale (of E!’s The Soup) joins Mike on the commentary. His performance sounds the most spontaneous and unscripted of any guest riffer thus far. This gets kind of scattered and uncomfortable when he won’t let Mike finish his lines during the introduction, but he behaves himself better during the film commentary itself. A few of my favorite lines: When the Soviets start shooting up the school, Joel says, “Operation No More Pencils, No More Books commences.” When our heroes wander back into a half-destroyed town, Joel cries, “They replaced our town with Detroit!” When our heroes start to rain death down on the goofy Soviet invaders, Mike says, “I swear all these Russians learned how to die at Clown College.” I previously mentioned my apparently congenital dislike of Patrick Swayze movies. That comes into play here, but the rest of the movie was engaging enough to keep me interested. Mike and Joel keep things moving too, making the Red Dawn Rifftrax a reasonably entertaining experience.