Get swept up in the trash you know you shouldn’t love. But somehow these cinematic wretches, warts and all, still warm our hearts.
It must be awesome to be a kid these days. Nearly every movie is made for the lil’uns. Growing up, I had to make due with Steel and Hocus Pocus, not Iron Man and Harry Potter. I don’t know what the kids these days think of G.I. Joe, one of the great silly toy and cartoon franchises of the 1980s, but somehow it still endures in toy stores, so I guess somebody’s buying the stuff. Regardless, the big-budget 2009 film adaptation is made for them and not the grown men who still obsess over the cartoons they grew up with.
I was born at the height of G.I. Joe’s popularity, so I had to appreciate it through reruns years after the fact. Not my favorite thing ever, but it was fun enough; I’ve no interest in the military, but it gave soldiers the individuality of superheroes complete with codenames and specialized abilities. That said, if G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra came out when I was eight years old, it would be my favorite movie ever. Seeing as it came out when I was 24, I have to settle for it being a movie that I like, with a long list of caveats.
For one, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the opposite of its more popular toy movie counterpart. Where Transformers withholds its premise (robots that turn into cars fight evil robots that turn into other things) in favor of slapstick, army recruitment ads and scenes where robots duck behind buildings to hide from Mom and Dad, G.I. Joe wholly embraces its cartoon silliness. Example: a ninja jumps into the fray 10 minutes into the film.
It goes like this: protagonists Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are given a tour of G.I. Joe’s headquarters, a sensory overload of explosions and vehicles and soldiers and probably lasers and military dolphins. G.I. Joe itself is an organization with countless submarines, aircraft and performance-enhancing suits. The villain of the piece (let’s call him Destro for the sake of clarity) has a similarly huge base under the North Pole. And, for some reason, amidst this epic battle between two international organizations, way too many characters have had previous personal relationships with one another.
In other words, G.I. Joe is the least realistic movie ever made. It’s a cartoon, the people making it know it’s a cartoon, and the film wants you to treat it as a cartoon. It’s kind of in the vein of Speed Racer, a film much more legitimately good and visually striking than this one, but G.I. Joe doesn’t try to be anything other than two hours of soldiers and ninjas and explosions. Oh, and there’s a character named Dr. Mindbender. It’s shocking that the producers didn’t make the film grittier a la Transformers to appease the adult fans who want their juvenile hobby vindicated, but that they didn’t makes for a much more singular film in an era where we have to know how Batman put together his costume. There is no scene where General Hawk meets with the people bankrolling G.I. Joe to talk about potential layoffs.
That said, the film is nothing resembling a quality film. Like in the cartoon, you’re either good or evil (or brainwashed to be evil), and I cannot explain the plot to you except that somehow staging massive terror attacks helps your arms-dealing operation. Worst of all, the main protagonists are awful. Tatum is the worst actor I’ve ever seen even playing a generic meathead army man – an even poorer man’s Sam Worthington – and Wayans is entirely superfluous as the best friend/comic relief. The rest of the Joes (Saïd Taghmaouiare, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Rachel Nichols) are fine, but they’re often sidelined in favor of Tatum and Wayans. On the bright side, Ray Park plays the fan-favorite silent ninja Snake Eyes and never has to talk.
Let’s remember that the director is Stephen Sommers, the guy known for producing sub-Indiana Jones fare like The Mummy and Van Helsing, which has the dubious honor of being slightly more entertaining than The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. So the CGI is terrible yet appropriate as characters literally turn into cartoons. That such a pseudo-shortcoming doesn’t muddle the action scenes speaks to their effectiveness, especially a particularly exciting chase scene through the streets of Paris. And there are a lot of action scenes – undersea battles, military ambushes, headquarters attacks and even a brutal martial arts fight between two kids trying to kill one another.
In the year between my viewings of G.I. Joe, I discovered what immediately became my favorite film: Danger: Diabolik, in which John Phillip Law plays the greatest thief on Earth who dresses like a superhero, keeps a glorious secret lair, blows up every tax building in town (suck it, Palaniuk) and has sex on big piles of money. Unfortunately, Sommers doesn’t have the cinematic eye of Mario Bava, who gave Danger: Diabolik the visual flair of a comic book. And instead of Ennio Morricone, we have Alan Silvestri.
The comparisons with Bava’s film become more apt looking at the main villains of the piece, who come off as sexier, better dressed and way more fun to watch, like characters in a Warren Ellis comic: a pinstriped Scottish arms dealer played by Doctor Who (Christopher Eccleston), a bespectacled brunette in a catsuit (Sienna Miller), a ninja in a white trenchcoat (Byung-hun Lee) who actually looks a bit like Diabolik. Hardly a military fatigue in sight. That Scots, brunettes and (non-caucasian) ninjas are the bad guys in the global struggle make G.I. Joe some asshole’s remake of Danger: Diabolik where the good guys win.
That bit’s annoying, but still there’s something infectious about a film that strives not to produce an accurate picture of reality – if you want that, go watch a mumblecore movie – but instead revels in its own unreality. For all the bad acting and rotten CGI, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is more fun than it has any right to be.
by Danny Djeljosevic