Very obviously made during the eighties and extremely reflective of the American political climate of the era, Red Dawn is a little hard to take seriously in this day and age but that doesn't at all diminish the film's entertainment value. Has the movie aged well? In many regards, no, not at all - in fact politically the film is unintentionally hilarious. That said, there are some interesting ideas here and a few well executed action scenes that make this slightly more than just 80s camp (though that factor does play a huge part in the film's watchability).
The premise of the film is an interesting one. World War III begins when the citizens of a small Colorado town wake up one morning to swarms of Soviet and Cuban Paratroopers descending on the football field of the local high school. The soldiers attack the school and a small group of teenagers (Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey) run out into the mountains to escape the invaders. Thankfully these scrappy teens are able to arm themselves with a few measly weapons - bows, knives, low caliber rifles - and with some help from an old American soldier and an injured fighter pilot (Powers Booth), they soon turn themselves into guerilla style freedom fighters. Meanwhile, around the country, the communists are re-educating the masses, taking away privately owned firearms, and more or less locking down the country. When a patrol of soldiers makes their way to the woods, the group kills them off and before you know it, they're fighting for freedom as.... THE WOLVERINES!
The premise of Red Dawn is one worth exploring and one that is ripe with ideas - it's a great basis for a movie, particularly in the post 9/11 world with Americans being told to 'be on alert' and with the threat of more terrorist attacks a very real fear. That said, the execution of what is admittedly a good idea leaves a lot to be desired and the script is so ridiculous that it's pretty damn near impossible to take much of this film seriously at all, particularly when you've got some Brat Pack actor yelling WOLVERINNNNEEEEEEESSSSSSS every couple of minutes. The early scene in which the paratroopers descend on the field and then unload on the history teacher remains a powerful and effective opening and the scene in which the freedom fighters have to execute a few commie soldiers is a bit unnerving but for the most part, the film is just too goofy for it to work as well as it could have. Had more care been put into details and logic in the script instead of killing everyone and blowing everything up then director John Milius (yes, the same John Milius who co-wrote Apocalypse Now - arguably the best war movie ever made) could have created a chilling and effective portrait of a possible future instead of a 'shoot'em all let God sort'em out' camp classic.
As a slam-bang action film, however, Red Dawn is awesome! Turn your brain off and watch stuff explode, marvel at how many people get shot (even if most of the actual carnage occurs off screen), take a drink every time someone yells 'WOLVERIIINNNNEEESSSS' and try not to be sloshed by the time that the end credits hit, and swoon to the strange romance that blossoms between Lea Thompson and the much older and creepier Powers Booth. In some ways, Red Dawn has it all, even if it is a huge missed opportunity.
The transfer on this new two-disc special edition presents the pictures in its original aspect ratio at 1.85.1 widescreen, enhanced for anamorphic sets (the previous single disc release was not 16x9 enhanced). Color reproduction is strong and black levels stay pretty solid. A little bit of fine grain coats the picture throughout but it's hardly distracting, it just makes it look like film. Skin tones look good and fine detail in both the foreground and the background of the image is quite revelatory. Don't worry about any compression artifacts as they're never a problem though eagle-eyed viewers may pick out some really light edge enhancement and a bit of shimmering here and there. The transfer shows its age in a few scenes in that there is the odd speck of print damage here and there but it's a vast improvement over the previous release and overall things look quite good here.
While it would have been nice to see a 5.1 track, that didn't happen and instead audio options are provided in English Dolby Digital Stereo (with optional English closed captioning for the feature only), Spanish Dolby Digital Mono, and French Dolby Digital Stereo tracks with removable English and Spanish subtitles.
As far as twenty-five year old stereo tracks go, Red Dawn sounds pretty strong on this disc. There are a few fun directional effects used in some of the action scenes that spice things up a bit and dialogue is always easy to follow. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion and the score and sound effects are properly balanced against the performers. Rear channel action would have helped things a bit but what MGM has provided here is probably pretty close to what the film sounded like theatrically so you can't really fault them for that.
The only extra feature on the first disc, save for the various menus and chapter stops for the feature, is a Carnage Counter that tallies up the body count in the film for you if you enable it. Nothing to write home about there but it is kind of fun in a dumb sort of way. It's a shame that there was no director or cast commentary recorded for this two disc set...
Disc two beings with a documentary entitled Red Dawn Rising: A Retrospective Look at the Making of the Film. This features on camera interviews with John Milius, a bearded Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, and Powers Booth. The directors and the cast members talk about the influence and the controversy surrounding the movie, with Milius talking about how Hollywood's leftist slant put a sort of stain on the picture. The cover time on set, shooting in the small town and the impact that the film had on its day. There's a couple of brief behind the scenes clips here as well as some interesting archival photographs. This segment, which is an interesting if fairly general making of documentary, runs for just under twenty-three minutes in length.
From there, we're treated to Building The Red Menace: What It Took to Make World War III, a second documentary that examines what went into constructing some of the film's more elaborate set pieces. Milius talks about how they had to build an entire Russian armor division and DP Ric Waite talks about what was involved in shooting the vehicles. Renaud Veluzat, the tank designer, explains what went into supplying the Soviet vehicles for the film, and his brother Andre further elaborates on Milius' enthusiasm for more and more and more. There's are a few more brief behind the scenes clips here, and some great photographs of the tanks being built. The Veluzat's talks about how long the tanks took to build and what American tanks were modified to make the Russian tanks for the movie. They also explain what went into making the helicopter scenes. This documentary runs for just under ten minutes.
Up next is a Military Training Featurette that explains how many of the cast members had to undergo actual military boot camp to prepare for their roles in the film. Chase Brandon, the CIA film liaison, explains how important the training was for the picture, and Milius chimes in about how important it was for him that the actors know how to shoot real guns. Sheen, Swayze, Howell and Thompson talk about how grueling it could be while Dale Dye, military advisor, fills in some of the details on what they were required to do. There's some more behind the scenes clips here, and this featurette runs just shy of ten minutes.
Last but not least is a documentary entitled WWIII Comes To Town in which the residents of the town in New Mexico (doubling as Colorado) where the movie was shot reminisce about the days during which the film was in production. Milius and Swayze talk about the town a bit while a volunteer fireman remembers his time during the production in the town as do a few other residents who worked as teachers and the like. They talk about the massive transformation that occurred and how impressive it was while Milius talks about how wonderful everyone in town was to work with. Again, there are some interesting behind the scenes clips and photographs used here (it's interesting to see how the town looks in real life versus how it looks in the movie.), the featurette just shy of fourteen minutes long.
Trailers are included for Red Dawn, the Rocky Anthology, Hoosiers and Spaceballs. An insert inside the keepcase (which is housed inside a slipcase) contains liners that briefly discuss the history of the film and its cast.
The improved anamorphic transfer and the multiple documentaries make this one worth the upgrade for fans even if the lack of a surround sound mix and commentary track is a disappointment. Red Dawn is a little tough to take seriously but it remains an insanely entertaining and enjoyably politically incorrect look at Regan-era red menace paranoia. They just don't make'em like this anymore. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.