Saw it for movie night, and it was almost unwatchable. The fact that, at worst, it gets a pass from conservative "critics," and at best draws praise -- including a spot on the National Review Online's top 25 conservative movies -- is a good reminder of why you should ignore most politically oriented culture reviewers.
Since it's not really worth an in-depth response, here are some quick thoughts on why it's such a dud:
- There's no character development before the Communists land, which happens almost right away, so we find it almost impossible to feel the tension that the students must be feeling. They've given us no one to identify with. Same when the two brothers see their father behind a concentration camp fence, who then screams at them to "Avenge me," which ends up ringing flat since we have no connection to him (or them) at that point. They needed to include at least 30 minutes of background, maybe 45 given how many characters there are. Any of the great It's-Us-or-Them action movies let us get to know the characters first, so that when the shit hits the fan, we feel like the enemy is attacking one of our own. Predator, Aliens, The Terminator, RoboCop, really any decent movie.
- They don't set up key plot points beforehand, so that they come not as a surprise but as something unbelievable and forced, such as the two girly girls being able to mow down crowds of trained killers with heavy artillery. Establish that first by, for example, showing them kicking ass on a bully who didn't know how tough they were, or fighting off a group of guys who are forcefully making unwanted passes at them. Showing Marian Ravenwood taking care of business at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Ripley in Aliens blasting the suited bureaucrats and then operating heavy machinery with no problem, makes their later feats of strength more believable.
- A big part of the movie is supposed to be the coming of age for these high schoolers. They did get some of it right by showing their physical removal from the ordinary world, living in the mountains, during their transformation. But they failed to show any of the necessary breaking-down in order to be built back up that you see in, e.g., the boot camp portion of Full Metal Jacket, Luke Skywalker's ordeals while training with Yoda, or Bill Murray's repeated failures-along-the-way in Groundhog Day.
- Related to that, they don't emphasize the leveling of distinctions and ranks that existed in the normal world but that will cease to continue within their separate sphere where they undergo the transformation. They do take the wind out of the sails of the class president, but that's about it. More shots of their bonding rituals would have made us believe that they were a unified group, such as the boys from Stand By Me pinky swearing, taking turns at the night watch, removing leeches from one another, flipping coins instead of using force or peer pressure to pick someone for grunt work, etc. Or even something as simple as showing the Ghostbusters putting on the same uniforms, sliding down the same firehouse pole, and switching on each other's proton packs right before battle.
- It doesn't make for a good Us or Them movie when the only character who's fleshed out in a human way is supposed to be one of the bad guys, namely the Latin American leader who becomes disillusioned over the course of the siege and ultimately decides to leave the revolution to return to his wife, even refraining from firing on two of the Wolverines when they're sitting ducks.
There's probably a lot more to mention, but those are just the first thoughts that come to mind. Other movies from the mind of John Milius, like Dirty Harry and Conan the Barbarian, are great to watch because they don't make any of these mistakes. The only people who'll really enjoy Red Dawn are those who approach movies at a meta level, like "Oh yeah, they finally made an unapologetic picture about kicking the Commies' asses!" -- ignoring the fact that it's a poorly thought-out and executed movie. If you're looking for a pound-the-Soviets flick whose makers had decent storytelling skills, stick with Rocky IV.