Self-described "militarist" writer-director John Milius makes films in which ideas mean little unless they're backed by force. That theme runs through the soapy ancient-world realpolitik of HBO's Milius-heavy Rome series back to his Conan The Barbarian and beyond. In 1984, Milius explored the notion on a grand scale with Red Dawn, a valentine to American values and the guns and ammo that keep them alive.
After a quick rundown of politics in the film's then-near-future world (Mexico has fallen to the Commies, etc.), Milius cuts straight to the action: Teenagers Charlie Sheen and C. Thomas Howell watch in horror as their history teacher gets mowed down by Russian and Cuban paratroopers. Soon they're fleeing to the hills with Sheen's older brother Patrick Swayze, as the Reds infest their small Colorado town. But when it becomes clear that they're behind enemy lines in World War III, they decide to fight back.
"I knew that I would be regarded as a right-wing warmonger from then on," Milius states on a new documentary on this two-disc special edition. He'd be a fool to think otherwise. Released at the height of late-Cold War tensions, Red Dawn almost seemed designed to fan flames. But the passing of time has taken the edge off its politics, and 9/11 and Iraq have cast it in another light entirely. It now plays less like paranoia about a war that never came than like the story of some young Americans forced to face the fragility of the structures keeping their country intact. Sheen, Swayze, Howell, and co-stars Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey were hardly household names when Red Dawn hit theaters, but there's still something perverse about seeing the future stars of Back To The Future and Dirty Dancing firing at Communists with machine guns.
It's all the more disconcerting that they're part of an insurgency against an invading force. While Milius keeps his Russian commanders robotically unsympathetic, he's far kinder to a Cuban colonel (Ron O'Neal) who warns that the invasion will fail unless they capture the hearts and minds of America. As an action movie, Red Dawn is a repetitive headache, and anyone with Blue State sympathies will be appalled at its manipulations and exaggerations. But there's smart subtext beneath the big dumb explosions. Elsewhere on that making-of, Milius says "I believe in all that rugged-individualism hogwash," and it's easy to believe he means every word of it, even the hogwash part.
Key features: Several short documentaries and a carnage counter that keeps track of deaths, explosions, and other bits of mayhem as the film unfolds.