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'Red Dawn' remakes 1984 original

'Red Dawn," the 1984 Cold War flick about teenagers defending their hometown against Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan invaders, marches back into theaters Wednesday as a remake, this time with North Koreans as the aggressors. Chris Hemsworth and Josh Peck replace Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen as brothers who lead a guerrilla gang called the Wolverines, while Josh Hutcherson takes over for C. Thomas Howell as their loyal friend Robert.

"Red Dawn" is an unusual choice for a remake. Many critics dismissed the original as right-wing drumbeating, and others merely scoffed at the outlandish plot. Although reportedly greeted by cheers of "Wolverines!" at theaters, "Red Dawn" never grew into a bona fide blockbuster. For an ensemble teen flick, it was shockingly violent -- it was the first film to receive a PG-13 rating -- and for a Reagan-era fantasy, it struck an unusually somber tone. It ended up as the 20th top-grossing film of 1984, and even today its audience rating at RottenTomatoes .com sits at a middling 63 percent.

"Red Dawn," nevertheless, became a cult favorite among conservatives. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig in 1984 praised the film for capturing "the stresses of patriotism, the emotions of love and, above all, the futility of war." (Granted, Haig was then a board member of the film's studio, MGM-UA.) As recently as 2009, "Red Dawn" ranked No. 15 on a list of "Best Conservative Movies" compiled by the National Review online.

Politics aside, though, "Red Dawn" is a hugely entertaining and remarkably tough-minded film, directed and co-written by John Milius, who seemed to be combining two of his best-known credits, the grisly "Apocalypse Now" and the ludicrous "Conan the Barbarian." From its opening sequence, which includes a teenage corpse staring out the shattered window of his high school, it's clear that "Red Dawn" meant business. And the young Wolverines weren't lovable ragtag types, but more like the embittered resistance fighters of World War II who took no pity on enemies or collaborators.

Those hard nuggets of reality are what set "Red Dawn" apart from upbeat cinematic peers like "War Games" or "Rocky IV." Whether the remake will have the same grit remains to be seen.

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