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Red Dawn: Collector's Edition

Made at the height of Reagan-era Cold War scare-mongering, Red Dawn (1984) was at once wish-fulfillment fantasy and cautionary tale. Written by the warlike John Milius and the Milius-like Kevin Reynolds, the movie was perfectly timed to take advantage of the pro-military, camouflage-as-badass-fashion statement craze kicked off by First Blood (1982). Probably not-so-coincidentally, it was considered, by the hour, the most violent movie ever made until Rambo: First Blood Part II happened upon the scene in 1985. What made this Guinness-certified achievement peculiar was the fact that Red Dawn carried a then-newly minted PG-13 rating (the product of an outcry over the excess bloodletting in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins earlier that summer). Clearly, the MPAA was still getting the hang of their new designation; were Red Dawn released today, it would almost certainly garner a hard "R". And when we consider growing international tension between the U.S. and Russia more than two decades later, Red Dawn also might not play as high comedy for the first time since the rise of Glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is some political intrigue in Milius's speculative "United States stands alone" fiction that plays more convincingly in today's post-9/11 reality — the idea of Europe sitting out World War III as America gets ganged up on by Mother Russia and her allies isn't a stretch at all. The only problem, of course, is that most of those allies, particularly of the Central and South American variety, have switched allegiances. As for high school kids displaying an alarming expertise with assault rifles… oddly enough, that's never been more convincing! Will it captivate today's youth like it did the patriotic children of Rambo and Reagan and The Day After? Well, that all depends on their willingness to cheer on teenagers combating an occupying force with guerrilla tactics like mountainside ambushes and IEDs. In 1984, the obvious parallels, aside from the Vietcong, were the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua, aka "Freedom Fighters." Unfortunately, some might contend that today's "Freedom Fighters" are now struggling to shake off the yoke of perceived American imperialism in Iraq and, sure enough, Afghanistan.

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At its core, the premise of Red Dawn works best if, as Powers Boothe's downed fighter pilot puts it, the "two toughest kids on the block" are spoiling for a brawl. As this is no longer the case, the sight of Americans under siege on their own soil is only palatable as a metaphor. For anyone who grew up loving Red Dawn, the drastically upended political realties are ultimately too much to bear — best, then, to not consider them at all and just passively enjoy one of the most stupidly rousing movies ever made. Milius was actually riding high in Hollywood when Red Dawn parachuted into the nation's heart. His previous picture, Conan the Barbarian, had just turned an Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger into a movie star. Most importantly, though, Milius had acquitted himself as an expert director of red meat action, which should've done more for his career in a decade dominated by Stallone, Norris, and his buddy Arnold. Instead, Red Dawn would be Milius's last major success as a director. As it stands, it's a long way from his best work (that would be either The Lion and the Wind or Big Wednesday), but there's no denying its immense entertainment value. The movie wastes no time in dropping the Cuban/Russian soldiers into action, and Milius keeps the narrative moving at such a relentless pace that one doesn't really question the implausibility of the teenage insurgency until they're already battle-weary veterans. The dialogue is largely humorless and heavy, and the performances sometimes suffer as a result (the "re-education camp" reunion between Harry Dean Stanton and his boys, Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, is, as ever, a complete howler), but Milius's eagerness to entertain always wins out. It takes a considerable amount of talent to get kids wishing the Russians really would invade so they could play Red Dawn for real. It's a shame and a surprise that Milius could never repeat its success.

MGM Home Entertainment presents Red Dawn in its second release on DVD as a two-disc "Collector's Edition" with a terrific anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a "Carnage Counter" that keeps a running tally of the violence as one watches the film. Disc Two boasts "Red Dawn Rising: A Retrospective Look at the Making of the Film," "Building the Red Menace: What It Took to Make World War III," a military training featurette, and a "WWIII Comes to Town" featurette. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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