Ok, so the Cold War ain’t what it used to be. But even for 1984, Red Dawn was a puerile slice of anti-Communist hysteria, a generalized them vs. us narrative that wraps itself in jingoism and ignores the actually frightening stuff like nuclear proliferation. (I’ll take WarGames over Dawn any day.) Plus there’s the fact that the remake did portray the Chinese as the villains until questions arose about the film’s international box office potential.
However, though China and the U.S. mirror the old Anglo-Soviet dynamic in proxy conflicts – witness the two superpowers’ investment in capturing the most medals at this year’s Summer Olympics – anything more contentious just isn’t in either nation’s best interests. It’s simply easier to pile on a global pariah like North Korea than it is to convince people that an opposing political ideology is inherently bad. Red-baiting just isn’t practical anymore, especially not if you want to make your money back on foreign shores.
But were the winds of change blowing earlier than expected? It sure seems that way in the first half of Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s epic about John Reed, the early 20th-century journalist and political activist whose Ten Days that Shook the World provided a vital account of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and eventually led to his notoriety as the only American to be buried in the Kremlin. Embracing his offscreen reputation as a noted “Hollywood liberal,” Beatty directed, produced, co-wrote, and starred in this love letter to the foment of leftist politics in the years surrounding the First World War. But the movie truly belongs to its large cast of “witnesses” – acquaintances and contemporaries of Reed who appear throughout the film in talking-head interviews, providing the first-hand historic context for the events dramatized by Beatty. Every era has its rebels, and the elderly firebrands featured in Reds keep things lively during the film’s dutifully formulaic but passionate exaltation of dissent.
The year of Reds’ release also saw the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, ushering in a new birth of American conservatism that was especially conspicuous in its opposition to the Soviet Union. This hawkish attitude was reflected in the action movies of the 1980s and the stone-faced socialist automatons that often played the villains. Bucking this trend with its heroic portrayal of a Soviet state policeman, the otherwise forgettable Red Heat (1988) is as intriguing as a Jim Belushi-Arnold Schwarzenegger buddy cop thriller could possibly be. Belushi’s loose-cannon Chicago cop and Schwarzenegger’s glowering militiaman must put aside their differences to apprehend a rogue Georgian drug lord (Ed O’Ross) who wants to be the USSR’s first major cocaine supplier. Say what you want about the socialist state, but it apparently succeeded in keeping nose candy out of the Motherland during its entire ‘70s and ’80s heyday. It’s a disappointingly dull rip-off of the Beverly Hills Cop/Lethal Weapon comedy-thriller formula, despite appearances from Peter Boyle, Laurence Fishburne, and a young Gina Gershon as O’Ross’ paramour. But at least it reflected the new spirit of optimism in the era of glasnost – Belushi proudly demonstrates his knowledge of Russian tea culture when he instructs a waitress how to prepare Arnie’s brew, explaining to his amused colleague that he saw it in Doctor Zhivago.
By the 1990s, the scales had tipped so far in capitalism’s favor that the producers of The Hunt for Red October (1990) were quick to point out that their story took place in the recent past, when the U.S. and USSR were still neck-and-neck in the arms race. The unforgettable opening scene ably communicates the threat of the Soviet leviathan, pulling back from a conversation between a Lithuanian submarine captain (Sean Connery) and his first officer (Sam Neill) to reveal a nuclear vessel the size of an aircraft carrier lurking in the dark. This adaptation of Tom Clancy’s techno-thriller skillfully juggles several plotlines before tying them together with a brilliant triple climax onboard the titular sub. The script by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (and an uncredited John Milius) makes cracking entertainment out of pages of naval jargon, and the cast features top-notch talent (Tim Curry, Scott Glenn, Stellan Skarsgard) filling out its supporting roles. So compelling was Red October that it launched a Clancy mini-franchise despite the lack of its original star, Alec Baldwin, and its director, John McTiernan, a capable helmer of paradigmatic action films like Predator and Die Hard before a few misfires and a 2007 conviction for lying to the FBI effectively put his career on ice.
That’s nothing compared to the intrigue in Red Corner (1997), the Richard Gere courtroom thriller that finds the Free Tibet advocate as an American businessman attempting to open up the lucrative Chinese market for his satellite communications company. After an unplanned tryst with a runway model ends in the woman’s mysterious death, Gere is accused of murder and must take his chances with the Chinese legal system. It’s a fairly generic conspiracy potboiler that plays like an extra-xenophobic episode of Locked Up Abroad. As the comely defense attorney assigned to represent Gere (Bai Ling) histrionically notes, a guilty verdict surely means the state will execute him and bill his family for the cost of the bullet. Aside from the requisite airing-of-cultural-differences shouting match between Gere and Ling, the film makes little attempt to address the political complexities of Communist China, and alternately portrays its leaders as cold, corrupt authoritarians or overeager consumers of high fashion and schlocky TV. In trying to communicate its message about the legal backwardness and lack of justice in a powerful Marxist state, Red Corner ends up saying far more about the West’s need to assuage its own insecurities.