It's an October day like any other in the town of Calumet, Colorado. As classes start at the local high school though, parachutes appear in the sky, hundreds of them. What exactly is going on? It's Russian and Cuban paratroopers dropping in as an advance element of the invasion of the U.S. The school and town gets shot up in the process with many casualties, but a group of teenagers including Jed (Patrick Swayze), a former jock working with his Dad, and his younger brother, Matt (Charlie Sheen), manage to escape the town and head for the Rockies where they'll be relatively safe. A month goes by though as they hide, and then the news hits. The invasion was a success -- to a point -- but the fighting has now gone stagnant. Well behind Russian/enemy lines, Jed, Matt and their friends decide to take the attack to their invaders, becoming a partisan group of resistance fighters.
From tough guy writer/director John Milius, 'Dawn' is definitely a product of the times, but in good ways. With the Cold War still very much alive between the U.S. and Russia, this potential invasion story hits home. People had wondered and questioned for years if this was where the conflict was heading. In the years since, 'Dawn' has gained a reputation as a so bad it's good movie, even a guilty pleasure. Yes, I suppose it qualifies, but I tend to disagree. The acting is over the top at times, the ultra-patriotism evident everywhere, and some scenes do produce some unintentional laughs, but I maintain this is just a good movie. If it is a little heavy-handed at times, so be it. It is entertaining as hell from the start, and that doesn't change by the end.
The screenplay from Milius and Kevin Reynolds wastes no time setting the stage. Less than two minutes into the movie, parachutes are descending on Colorado, sending Calumet into chaos. People are running for their lives as paratroopers start shooting anything that moves. Talk about a tone-setter. As an opening, it's hard to beat. 'Dawn' has its fair share of memorable moments, probably most famously the teenagers yelling 'Wolverines!' after successful attacks on invading forces (Wolverines was the school mascot). Aided by Basil Poledouris' score, the action scenes -- of which there are plenty -- and dramatic scenes are balanced out perfectly. Listen to the main theme HERE. The film was shot on location in New Mexico in the mountains, giving it a hard-edged look that benefits the ever-darkening story as well.
It is an 80s movie, and the cast certainly reflects that. I have a theory about Swayze in 1980s movies. He's in every great movie from the decade. If you can't find him, you're not looking hard enough. A 32-year old playing a recent high school graduate? Right. But who cares?!? It's Patrick Swayze, and he's ridiculously cool! Along with Sheen, the Wolverines include Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage and Doug Toby. Swayze and Sheen as brothers stand out, as does Howell as Robert, the Wolverine so bent on revenge for his parent's death he becomes a hardened killer. Also look for Powers Boothe as Col. Andy Tanner, a downed fighter pilot who fights with the Wolveines, in a scene-stealing part. In smaller parts, old pros Ben Johnson and Harry Dean Stanton (as Jed and Matt's imprisoned Dad) certainly make positive impressions too.
On repeated viewings, I've come to like this movie more and more. I think you can chalk that up to the darkness of the story. Yes, there's a fair share of fantasy here; school kids getting guns and taking on invading forces, becoming heroes in the process. But actually considering the story, it's incredibly dark. Case in point? The Wolverines start getting picked off one-by-one. The Russian invaders call in a specialist, a hunter, Strelnikov (William Smith), to brutally hunt them down, using any tactics he has at his disposal. We see the war from basically the opposite side of how the U.S. has fought in any conflict. We're being attacked. We're defending. When the Wolverines kill Russians, Americans are killed in retaliation, but on we fight. In a sympathetic part, Ron O'Neal plays Colonel Bella, a former revolutionary now fighting from the opposite perspective, an officer trying to quell an uprising.
This darkness comes through in the final 45 minutes, building to a surprising but highly effective ending. I love Swayze and Sheen's conversations they have in between fights. Swayze's Jed puts it best as these two friends/brothers plan their line of attack, knowing their odds are slim. He states "It's not easy being brothers, huh?" Shakespeare? No, but it works. As the Russians turns the tables on the Wolverines, that is 'Dawn' at its best. I love the ending as well, Jed and Matt taking the attack to the Russian base. It's a great ending, and not surprisingly, a patriotic one. Heavy-handed guilty pleasure? Maybe, but I think it's just a really good movie.
Red Dawn (1984): *** 1/2 /****