Thursday, June 27, 2019

Better Dead Than "Red Dawn'!

"Armed and Dangerous": Our young cast packing heat.

Hey, kids! Do you miss the Cold War?

Do you long for the days when the worst insult you could hurl at somebody was "Commie"?

Do you get misty-eyed remembering how politicians use to accuse each other of being "soft on Communism" every other week?

Do you fondly recall how your mom had to repeatedly remind you not to order Russian dressing on your salad because it made your Uncle Larry pop a blood vessel?

If so, do I have a movie for you!

The invading Russians troops order a passel of Happy Meals before returning to duty.

Starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey before her career-ending nose job, 134 acts of violence per hour (according to the Guinness Book of World Records) and the rallying cry of "Wolverines!", I give you "Red Dawn" (1984).

The first movie to receive the new rating of PG-13 (and damn proud of it!), "Red Dawn" begins with a series of ominous title cards that announce Russia has experienced its worst wheat harvest in "55 years"; that NATO has been dissolved; that the Greens swept the West German parliamentary elections and are demanding the removal of all nukes "from European soil" and "the US stands alone."

Scary stuff, but life in small town Calamet, Colorado goes on pretty much the way it always has. Big bro Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops kid bro Matt (Charlie Sheen) and a friend off at school. While the kids listen to their history teacher drone on about Genghis Khan, zillions of Russian and Cuban paratroopers drop out of the sky. As soon as they land, the heartless Commies start spraying bullets everywhere, causing the students to run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Pals Jed, Matt, Darryl, Robert, Danny and kid called "Aardvark" manage to evade the slaughter. They stock up on supplies and head for the hills, encouraged by Robert's dad, who says the invasion will be over in a few days, max.

Of course, it isn't.

"Can you see the girls camp from here?": Jed, Robert and Matt survey the terrain.

See, those pesky Commies have taken over the town, rounded up all gun owners (NRA, take note) and turned the local drive-in into a re-education camp. When Jed, Matt and Robert (the sniveling C. Thomas Howell) sneak into town, they learn to their horror that A) their pa (Harry Dean Stanton) has been carted off to the re-education camp, B) a US/Russian "friendship center" has been set up where the record store use to be ("People of America! Arise and join the revolution!" its new sign declares) and C) all the movie theaters must now play Russian flicks like "Alexander Nevsky" from 1938.

Eventually Jed and Matt locate Mr. Eckert (the detention camp has a very liberal visiting policy). Although he's been roughed up pretty bad, Stanton is unbowed. He orders his sons not to cry. Then he admits he was a hard taskmaster: "I was tough on both of you. I did things that made you... hate me sometimes. You understand now, don't you?" The fight to free the USA is in their hands, pa Stanton tells them. They must make him proud. As the boys stagger away, Mr. Eckert yells, "Boys! Avenge me! Avenge me!"

Oh, and mom's dead.

Back at base camp, food is getting scarce and tempers are fraying. Weaselly preppy (and former student body president) Darryl (Darryl Dalton) suggests they turn themselves in. That's no surprise; back in Calamet, Darryl's equally weaselly father (and town mayor) Lane Smith is busy cutting deals with the Soviet big-wigs. Instead, Jed encourages the guys to form a militia and strike back at the Reds. They call themselves the Wolverines after their high school football team and, with a bit of training from Jed and Matt, they are soon a crack fighting force making mincemeat out of their heavily-accented occupiers.

And who are their over lords?

"Do you know where I can get some borscht?" Invaders Col. Bella and Gen. Bratchenko check out the main drag.

First up is Ron O'Neal as Cuban Col. Bella. Although it's been 12 years since his star turn in the Blaxploitation classic "Superfly", O'Neal can still smolder with the best of them. Bella appears to be the brainiest of the Bolsheviks, yet no one really listens to him. For example, when rounding up folks and shooting them proves unpopular with the locals, Bella observes, "Look, I was always on the side of the insurgents. I have no experience in these matters, but it would seem necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people..." His Russian boss blows him off, reminding Bella that such a strategy didn't work in Vietnam. Seconds later, the Russian/American Friendship Center is blown to bits, causing Col. Bella to remark, "You were saying, Comrade?"

 "Shut up!" the testy Red screams.

Bella's frustrations with his Pinko superiors seem inevitable, in retrospect. Strelnikov (William Smith) and Gen. Bratchenko (Valdek Sheyval) appear to be knock-offs of Boris Badenhov and Fearless Leader from "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show". Bratchenko, who looks like an evil Smurf  with Groucho Marx eyebrows, is especially fond of goose-stepping around town, hands firmly clenched behind his back, with a permanent sneer on his face. No matter what set-backs he's facing, the general remains steadfastly committed to the revolution. In strategy sessions with his staff, you half expect him to vow, "We are going to make big trouble for moose and squirrel!"

As for Strelnikov, he's fond of  using animal imagery to boost military morale. "If a fox stole your chickens, would you slaughter your pig because he saw the fox?" he yells at his completely baffled troops. "No! You would hunt the fox! You would find where it lives and destroy it! And how do we do this?" Strelnikov asks. When none of his underlings replies, he screams, "Become a fox!"

Will do, comrade general.

After Gen. Strelnikov orders his troops to become foxes, they become foxes.

Taking a break from their counter-insurgency activities, the Wolverines visits kindly Mr. Mason (Ben Johnson) and his wife. After swapping updates about the war, Mr. Mason entrusts Jed with grand-daughters Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson). At first, the guys merely expect the gals to wash their clothes, cook their food and keep the camp tidy. Then one night, Matt hands Erica some dishes and says, "Here, make yourself useful" and she goes ballistic. "Me and her are just as good as any of you!" Erica hollers. Ever the gentleman, Sheen retorts, "Who put the stick up your ass?" Sister Toni defends Erica, snarling at Matt, "What you said was wrong!" Although Matt is still clueless, the other guys quickly realize Erica and Toni want to be Wolverines, too. Soon enough, the sisters are fighting along side the boys with equal gusto.

Although our heroes are giving the Russian army a run for their money, ("I've seen this before," Col. Bella grumbles darkly as he walks past rows of casualties. "Nicaragua, El Salvador, Columbia, Angola, Mexico. But these are my men!" ), it's clear director John Milius and screenwriter Kevin Reynolds felt kids this age shouldn't be totally unsupervised. So in parachutes swaggering jet jockey Col. Andy Tanner (Powers Booth), who Erica takes an immediate shine to. It's he who explains how the Russkies caught the USA with its pants down. A convoluted tale at best, it involves commercial air liners, nuclear weapons and Europe abandoning its Yank allies. When asked why Europe turned it's back on us, Andy muses, "I guess they figured twice in one century was enough." Although the Brits are on our side, the colonel reckons, "They won't last long."

Meanwhile, the twin stresses of hiding and fighting are beginning to take a toll on the Wolverines. As the body count rises, Danny (Brad Savage) repeatedly breaks down, screaming, "They were people!" The sniveling Robert, on the other hand, becomes a lean mean killing machine. "All that hate's gonna burn you up," Andy warns him. "It keeps me warm," Robert replies.

The biggest flame-out, however, is Darryl. Back home, his weaselly dad continues collaborating with the enemy. In one of the zaniest scenes in the flick, Bates Sr. is grilled by Col. Bella. Although I'm sure the filmmakers meant for this scene to have the under tones of menace, it actually plays like a skit on SNL.

Taking a big puff on his Cuban cigar, Bella states, "According to records, your son is a prominent school leader."

Lane Smith (Mayor Bates) and Ron O'Neal (Col. Bella) have different reactions to the bad acting of their teen act.

Sweating bullets, the mayor replies, "Yes, well, he's a leader, but not in a violent or physical way...(Bates laughs nervously) He's a politician, like his father."

Taking another big puff on his Cuban, the unimpressed Bella reminds Bates that Darryl is also "a member of an elite paramilitary organization": the Eagle Scouts!

Practically wetting his pants, Bates Sr. insists that the Eagle Scouts are harmless, like Darryl: "If he's alive, he's scared, he's hungry...anxious to avoid conflicts..."

In other words, he's a twitchy jerk--just like his old man! And he'd be perfectly willing to sell out his friends and his country--just like his old man! So when Darryl is "lost" during a raid, and his dear old dad turns him over to the Russkies, who proceed to brow beat him into swallowing a tracking device, should anyone be surprised? Shedding buckets of tears, Darryl wails that Jed himself said the USA couldn't defeat the Soviets. Besides, "They do things you can't imagine!"

None of this cuts any ice with his fellow Wolverines, who decide Darryl must be shot alongside a Russian captive. This leads to a scene where the principals whip themselves up into an orgy of operatic angst: while Darryl pleads, "Don't shoot me! Don't shoot me!", the gang bickers about whether they should shoot anybody ("They're people!" Danny screams for the millionth time) and, if so, who should pull the trigger. At the same time, the Soviet prisoner reminds Jed that what he's doing is "against the Geneva Convention", which causes Jed to yell back, "Never heard of it!" This, in turn, makes the Red sputter, "Dog face! I show you how Soviet dies!" Fed up with all the drama, Robert shoots Darryl at point blank range without blinking an eye. Whew!

Jed: "Any last words?"
Darryl: "Yes. I want a better dad in my next life."

Despite their heroic efforts, the Wolverines eventually must face the fact that their number is up. With Robert, Toni, Aardvark, Ivan (?), Darryl and Col Tanner gone, Jed and Matt decide to go out in a blaze of glory--or just in a blaze. Anyway, the bros send Danny and Erica off to "FA" ("Free America"). When they protest, Matt insists that "someone has to live." Too bad that "someone" has to be a whiny, annoying little twerp, but, hey, war is hell. Besides, Erica can handle Danny until they get to "FA" and then she can pawn him off on someone else.

So Jed and Matt strap on their ammo and sneak into town. As usual, the brothers run rings around the Reds, until Matt is killed and Jed is mortally wounded. As he carries his dead sibling to the local park, Jed meets up with Col. Bella. The child of the Revolution and the child of Calamet eye each other for the briefest of seconds. Jed is dying, Bella is disillusioned. The colonel waives him away. With his last ounce of strength, Jed reaches the town park. He and Matt lie together on a bench, as the sounds of war rumble on in the distance...

"I never saw the Eckert brothers again," Erica's voice over tells us. "In time, this war--like every other war--ended. But I never forgot..."

How could she? When a horde of Commies appear out of nowhere, shoot your history teacher, turn the local drive-in into a re-education camp, your grandpa entrusts your safety to Charlie Sheen and your on-screen sister has a nose job that will make her utterly unrecognizable, who in the hell could forget any of that?

After one ingests a cheese ball the size of "Red Dawn", one is often left with a few lingering questions--and a queasy stomach.

Sure, World War lll is raging, but there is still time to snap some pictures for the comrades back home.

For instance, how did the Russkies catch the US with its pants down? Col. Tanner mentions commercial air liners and stuff (as noted earlier), but he also implies the Canadians had something to do with it. Seriously? Canada? I have been to Canada many times and I don't believe the Canadians would just waive the Reds in, even if their only military option consisted of Dudley Do Right. How did scriptwriter Reynolds think he could get away with that, even in 1984?

What's more, Col. Tanner mentions the use of "limited" nuke strikes, as if such things were as harmless as kittens. Apparently these "limited" nuke strikes caused no fallout, no radiation or environmental destruction. Even for a film dubbed a "Reagan-era masturbatory fantasy", this is too much. It also begs the question: who had their head up their hinder the farthest, the screenwriter or the target audience?

Finally, there are scenes in this movie that are simply bonkers. This has made me wonder if  director Milius wasn't as serious about the material as one would think and was secretly having a little fun at the viewers' expense.

For example, when the gang captures a Soviet soldier about their age (symbolism and irony alert!), Erica screams at him, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?!"

"So what if he does!" Matt hollers. "You don't!"

"Wither Canada?": Is this how the Russkies were able to blunder their way into the USA?

Undaunted, Erica then shrieks, "Habla ingles?!"

"Shut up!" Matt yells.

I never though I'd say this, but Charlie Sheen is right! Their captive is Russian! Why ask him if he speaks German or Spanish--especially if you don't speak either? Isn't that a waste of time?

In another scene, Col. Bella is writing his cuddlemate in Cuba a heartfelt letter.

"How did I come to this high, desolate place where there is nothing but loneliness?" he asks. "So much is lost. I want to look into your eyes and forget..." Meanwhile, mere inches away, is a Russian officer checking out a "Playboy" centerfold.

"School is Out Forever"--at least for this guy.

When I saw this scene, I burst out laughing. What was director Milius trying to do here? Was he attempting to juxtaposition "the sacred and the profane"? Did he mean to imply the Russians are pigs and the Cubans are soulful Latin Lovers? The whole thing was just so nutty, I can't believe it was meant to be serious.

Finally, in a cinematic turkey stuffed with every conceivable Cold War cliche, trope and stereotype you can muster, Milius chose NOT to include this bit: a sex scene between Erica and Col. Tanner. The original idea was to have had Erica confide in Tanner that she fears dying a virgin. Ever the gentleman, Col. Tanner was suppose to agree to do the deed with her--although the camera was to pan away "discreetly" to give the couple some privacy.

Now, I can fully understand why a young gal would feel desperate about her future love life if her only choices were crude Matt, psycho Robert, traitor Dalton and the perpetually annoying Danny (Aardvark is dead, Jed is too busy). However, pairing a teenage girl with an adult male for this express purpose is just wrong, despite how "tastefully" it was suppose to be handled. For all the stupidity that abounds in "Red Dawn", excluding this vignette was an uncharacteristically smart thing to do (thanks to IMDb for this information).

So movie lovers, should you ever get nostalgic for the Cold War, please partake of "Red Dawn" and see for yourself how bad things really were. However, if that isn't enough to convince you, then watch the "Red Dawn" remake from 2012. This flick is not only as bad as the original-it's even worse. Proving yet again that bad movies never die, they just get recycled!

Save The Movies, too.

"Hey, at least Charlie Sheen isn't in this movie": Chris Hemsworth consoles a cast member.