Movie Review: Aww Crap!! I Really Liked ‘G.I. Joe’!

1 Sep

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G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (PG-13)

Ok, so now that I’m back from Myrtle Beach and vacation, I’m going to try to get things caught up here at the blog and then launch into a more structured schedule for the rest of the year. First things first, though. I got a chance to see several new movies over the break, and I’ll be putting the reviews for all of them up over the course of today and tomorrow.

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Let’s start with arguably the most surprising movie I saw last week—G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I had briefly contemplated seeing this proudly obvious feature-length toy commercial a few weeks ago when it was initially released. Some friends were going, and a project prevented me from joining them.  Jen was not interested in the least, so we skipped it. Afterall, there were plenty of other movies out that we wanted to see and there was no need to take a chance on something that was likely a disappointment.

Fast-forward to mid-afternoon last Wednesday, in 95 deg South Carolina heat, after several days of swimming, shopping, mini-golfing, and wandering about. Outdoors it felt hot enough to roast a chicken, so we headed over to the Carmike Cinemas at Broadway and the only movie that worked for our timeframe was G.I. Joe. Add to that the fact that matinee prices in SC are 5.50 and we decided to take the plunge.  

And to my delight—and a little dismay—I really liked it. After the final scene had played, and the lights came up over the techno-rock-rap credits tune, I turned to find an equally surprising sight; my wife was smiling and she too had enjoyed it. It would be easy enough to chalk up our entertained state to our surroundings, the fact we were on vacation, or that the nearest similar film, Transformers, had been an epileptic violation of every storytelling rule ever set down. But no, that’s not the case.

Stephen Sommers, most recently shunned (and rightfully so) for the manic slop that was Van Helsing, has returned to the kind of ‘kid-in-a-sandbox’ matinee adventure that made his earlier pictures like The Jungle Book, Deep Rising, and The Mummy  so much fun to watch. His version of G.I. Joe is an honest to goodness movie, albeit a silly, over-the-top one. Instead of trying to make a toy commercial, the creative team employs the same strategy that Joe and other cartoons of its ilk used in the 80s; it envisions a world and characters that are engaging enough to entice kids to want the toys in the first place.  It joyfully earns its status as a ‘summer popcorn flick’ while wearing that pedigree proudly instead of like an albatross around the neck.

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 I only half-heartedly watched G.I. Joe when it was on television during my childhood, but I did recognize several of the characters and ideas that surface in the film version. From as near as I can tell, drawing only from memory, this live-action endeavor feels exactly like that cartoon—every decision, design, effect and performance has been carefully tweaked so that the comic-book universe of G.I. Joe springs to similar life on the big screen. Characters bear names like Duke, Ripcord, Heavy Duty and the Baroness. Later, the villains reveal themselves as Cobra Commander and Destro and in one hilarious bit of dialogue, Kevin O’Connor’s mad scientist is revealed to be Dr. Mindbender. Instead of a chest-thumping, pro-war screed (think Bay), Joe is more of an adolescent sci-fi fantasy that imagines the Joe headquarters as a kind of United Nations for butt-kickers; unity among international allies and a focus on elaborate weaponry and equipment is the order of the day.      

Visually, the movie exists in that daydream world between Saturday day morning animation and an adult action flick. The special effects are really special in some cases, like the Super Accelerator suits that allow Scarlett, Duke and Ripcord to run like the Flash through the streets of Paris, and then others are quite nearly cartoons—a writhing snake and a polar bear, as well as the aquatic assault on Cobra’s underwater lair, are particularly unconvincing. The sets are huge and where the practical leaves off, the cgi picks up. Underneath the desert, where J.O.E. headquarters lie, there are miles and miles of training rooms, combat facilities, science labs, and most impressively, a subterranean, man-made ocean where all of the latest Hasbro models are rolled out.

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Costuming is another high point of G.I. Joe. To be sure, what characters wear turns out to be their most defining quality. This is especially true of The Baroness, whose leather-clad catsuit, tinted sunglasses and matching machine guns mark her not only as the villainess of the piece but also the figure the eye of the teenage male is most likely to follow. Snake Eyes, the deadly martial artist for the Joes, is also spectacularly decked out, and his mask even has a smile built into it so that we know he’s the good ninja—there is, of course, also a bad one named Storm Shadow, sans faux smile. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Cobra Commander looks like an odd cross between Dr. Strangelove and The Joker. Very few traces of Levitt (save for some flashback scenes) are left to recognize.    

The plot to G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra is very silly and thankfully the filmmakers don’t try to stop and apologize for this. They play it as straight as they can and it largely works as a result. Action scenes are set-up often and frequently, but they build off of one another. There is a logical progression to the film’s set pieces, and the characters are individuals, even if they are only identified by one or two traits. There is even a kind of genius to the revealed plot of the villains. Instead of feeling the need to dumb it down and explain it in a big speech, the movie reveals it in the final scene.  Characters like Baroness and Snake Eyes, are given back stories and connections to their adversaries. Like one of those retro-cartoons, G.I. Joe draws from Joseph Campbell to give its story a layer of context. It isn’t surprising then that the relationship between Cobra, Baroness and Duke, as well as that last-ditch strike on the enemy compound, strongly echoes Star Wars.  

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The acting follows Sommer’s lead and everyone seems to be having fun. Sienna Miller is the best of the cast, and she manages to make her character work in exactly the way she is supposed to. She arrives in the film looking like S&M Fantasy for Dummies, but over the course of the picture she gets to draw out what little nuance exists in the Baroness and makes her someone we actually enjoy watching. The other central female, Scarlett, doesn’t fare quite as well, but she does just fine. It doesn’t help that being a girl in a G.I. Joe movie means you’re basically ‘one of the guys’…with breasts. Christopher Eccleston completely disembowels a Scottish accent (if that’s your real one, sorry Chris) as Destro. Levitt lurches around all creepy like, and finds the right tone for the universe he’s inhabiting. He’s like Evil Exposition Guy and he does it well.

Channing Tatum is a blank slate as Duke, and nothing ever really gets written on it. Duke is supposed to have a history with Baroness, but Tatum, as an actor, can’t manage to do anything with it. With a stronger leading man, the movie might have been even better than it already is, but Tatum is too stilted and mush-mouthed to ever make any of his scenes come alive. Surprisingly, Marlon Wayans has no trouble with that. He’s the most likely fracture point for the film, the character we expect the script to channel all the body function/sexist/ dopey comedy through, but G.I. Joe isn’t that kind of movie and Wayans’ skills extend beyond that, despite what his filmography might suggest.  As Ripcord, Wayans actually manages to be funny and sometimes charming. It sort of makes sense. I’ve always viewed him as a human cartoon, and he’s often the most distracting thing in other films. Here, where the entire world has been tuned to reflect a certain exaggeration of reality, he fits right in. Ray Park as Snake Eyes is basically relegated to a lot of off-the-wall( quite literally) stunts that culminate in a big ninja fight with his once bud and now nemesis, Storm Shadow. As you would expect, it’s all very cool. My favorite character was Heavy Duty, played by  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost’s Mr. Echo). Like the rest, he’s more of a sketch than an actual person, but it was great fun to watch the actor cut loose with an over-the-top performance.  

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I’m well aware that I’m probably in the critical minority when it comes to this film. And if recommending G.I. Joe is grounds for losing your ‘critics’ liscence, that’s fine. But I try to call it like I see it, and Sommers vision of G.I. Joe is a good time. He’s channeling the inner 10 year old and that’s the right decision for the movie; he does it so well that the film is transporting in that way. I am reminded of 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another film I adore but few else seem to. The imagery, the synthesized fantasy world, and the basic tone are all similar but Joe is actually the better movie. Sky Captain was too leisurely with its story and the characters were just about stand-ins. Joe manages to bring the characters to the foreground, create interesting and convincing action scenes and then drop us into the middle of an adventure where all the of the exasperatingly goofy and ridiculous elements make sense. G.I. Joe knows what kind of movie it wants to be and who its audience is, and afterall….knowing is half the battle. Executing it with style, energy and imagination turns out to be the other half.

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2 Responses to “Movie Review: Aww Crap!! I Really Liked ‘G.I. Joe’!”

  1. Rick Boyer September 1, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    Do you do blogroll exchanging? If you want to exchange links let me know.

    Email me back if you’re interested.

  2. Jen B September 4, 2009 at 4:54 pm #

    Great review! I was completely surprised that there weren’t any uncomfortable/please-make-this-stop/what-were-they-thinking-when-they-wrote-this/”cringe” scenes.

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