Red Dawn

November 16, 2012

Red Dawn is a trashy, silly movie that seeks to whip up a little bloodlust in all of us. It proposes that the Soviet Union has invaded the United States, and concentrates on the efforts of a small group of renegades in the Colorado mountains to overthrow the invaders.

The group consists of a bunch of teenagers who fled to the hills the morning of the attack. Their hometown of Calumet becomes a village controlled by the Russkies, where insurgents are rounded up in the local drive-in movie theater and “re-educated.” From their mountain command post, the teens develop guerrilla skills and strike back.

This sounds like nutty stuff, and it is, but the first few minutes of the film are promising. We see the high-schoolers going to classes, everything normal, except maybe for the sound of distant planes. Then we casually notice that some paratroopers have landed, and then—suddenly—it’s on, folks, World War III, the big one.

It’s an exciting sequence, with battle action aplenty as the kids jump in a pickup truck and speed away. The movie quickly degenerates into a collection of different methods of blowing up those Commie rats, with not much time out for the felicities of characterization.

Red Dawn is the work of John Milius, a renegade figure in Hollywood. He’s a film-student pal of many of the young directors (he co-wrote Coppola’s Apocalypse Now), and he showed some interesting directorial moves in his debut film, The Wind and the Lion. (He showed little of anything, though, in his most recent movie, Conan the Barbarian.)

Milius is notorious for his conservative politics, his reverence for guns, and his predilection for hard action. All of these concerns are well served in Red Dawn, almost to the point of hysteria.

The Milius philosophy may be presented most clearly in the moment when the guerillas decide to execute one of their own guys (he betrayed their location). Faced with the prospect of shooting down a former comrade in cold blood, someone points out that if they do this, “What’s the difference between us and them?” The hero turns a beady eye to this. “Because,” he says, cocking the gun and aiming it, “we live here.”

Milius serves notice every now and then that he’s not unaware of the ambiguities of this sort of statement, but still the movie works best as a rave-up revenge piece.

The most recognizable of the guerillas are Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, who seem to have some sort of tandem acting agreement, since they were together in The Outsiders and Grandview, U.S.A., too. The rest of the Wolverines—they take their name from the high-school sports mascot—consist of stock types from war movies, although there are a couple of pleasantly hard-nosed girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey), given to the Wolverines for protection by their uncle (Ben Johnson).

By the way, Red Dawn is the first film released with the new PG-13 rating, which suggests more stringent parental watchfulness over their sub-teen children. The new rating went into effect after the hue and cry over the comic-strip violence in Indiana Jones and Gremlins. Unfortunately for the huers and criers, the system seems to be backfiring already: Red Dawn might previously have gotten an R rating for its violence, but now it fits right into the PG-13 category—after all, it’s got no sex or foul language in it. And so the war goes on.

First published in the Herald, August 13, 1984

I forgot about the PG-13 milestone. Nice to see that the system was already completely flawed. This movie looks pretty accomplished next to the remake, which opens a few days from when I type this.


Dirty Dancing

September 20, 2011

Most of Dirty Dancing is a pretty bad coming-of-age movie about a girl (Jennifer Grey) who undergoes some major rites of passage during a summer spent with her family at a Catskills-like resort. This much of the movie is labored and familiar.

The film goes completely out of whack by including liberal doses of really wild dancing scenes (choreographed by Kenny Ortega). Teen-age Grey falls in with the resort’s entertainers, led by a chap (Patrick Swayze) who has definitely, shall we say, waltzed across the floor a few times. Thus the film is punctuated by repeated scenes of crazily lascivious dancing, the kind that Grey’s parents are always warning her about (the film is set in the 1960s).

I suppose these dancing scenes are no less ridiculous than the rest of the movie, but at least some of the dancing’s exhilarating. Patrick Swayze, who has had tough-guy roles in such films as Red Dawn, actually is a former ballet dancer, so he needs no stunt doubles for the dance sequences. He seems to take the rest of the movie a bit too seriously, however; he glowers meaningfully through much of the film.

The thing that holds what there is of the movie together is Jennifer Grey (daughter of Joel Grey), who was funny as the hapless littler sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She has a likably “normal” screen presence, unaffected and smart, and she tries endearingly hard in the dancing scenes.

The other actors are at sea, because the film, directed by Emile Ardolino, doesn’t really know what it’s doing. Jerry Orbach plays Grey’s father, a doctor who expects his little girl to be a princess at all times. Cynthia Rhodes, another ex-dancer (she was one of the unfortunates stranded in the Travolta-Stallone travesty, Staying Alive), has to simper as an entertainer who undergoes the obligatory pregnancy and back-alley abortion.

That’s typical of the cliché plot twists in Eleanor Bergstein’s script. What isn’t typical in Dirty Dancing is the sometimes genuinely giddy back-and-forth between the outrageous dance scenes and the regular dramatic stuff. The audience that saw the film at the latest Seattle International Film Festival had no idea what to do with the movie, but they seemed to enjoy it. Which was an understandable reaction.

First published in the Herald, August 1987

It became a phenomenon, for some justifiable reasons. A lot of the film’s nuttiness and zest can be ascribed to Emile Ardolino, who came out of TV and especially dance documentaries; he subsequently directed Chances Are, a very nice comedy that had some similarly happy qualities, and had another hit in Sister Act. I interviewed him at the time of Chances Are and the guy was a mensch. He died at the age of 50, from AIDS-related causes.