Ours was a Transformers house. G.I. Joe wasn’t on anywhere near as much when I was growing up. In retrospect, this might be why my initial impression of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies was a little bit rosier than my overall take has become. So I went into G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra expecting a dumb, flashy action picture more in line with those movies than the colorful inventiveness of Iron Man or the “introspection coupled with action” brilliance of Equilibrium. I didn’t quite get what I expected, and I mean that in both the best and worst possible ways.
Following a very brief scene in 17th century France to give us the family history of the man who would be Destro, we open to find that man, James McCullen, showcasing a new weapon for his NATO investors. His arms company, MARS, supplies most of the world’s militaries with weaponry, pursuing his family’s policy of never getting caught selling arms to both sides. His new weapons’ warheads, which dissolve metal upon impact and self-replicate to encompass city-wide destruction provided a kill switch isn’t triggered, are left in the hands of a special ops unit ambushed and assaulted by a highly advanced force. Before the weapons can be stolen, however, a different highly advanced force comes to the rescue. The latter is G.I. Joe, an international black ops outfit formed of the best & brightest from around the world provided they can deal with silly nicknames. The mysterious bad guys still want the warheads, though, touching off a conflict that will define both teams forever. Oh, and don’t be fooled by the word “international” in there: G.I. Joe is still as American as baseball, apple pie and questionably motivated military interventionism.
“A Real International Hero” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way.
When you go into a movie like G.I. Joe, there are certain expectations. There will be explosions, one-liners will be dispensed and you’d better bring your own batteries, as they are not included. However, this movie seems aware of this. It has some fun at its own expense. I’m reminded of the scenes in You Only Live Twice or Thunderball where James Bond dispenses a cadre of henchmen or breaks out a neat gadget and you can’t help but smile because you know it’s the result of invoking the Rule of Cool. This movie has a level of camp that never becomes overly silly, but it seems aware of this for the most part. I mean, it opens with the words “In the not too distant future.” And in another move that distinguishes this from Revenge of the Fallen, the fights are relatively clearly shot and paced so you never lose track of combatants or where the action is headed. As I mentioned, I didn’t expect a level of inventiveness I’d attribute to Marvel. But how often have you seen people doing parkour on moving cars? Or a dogfight under water?
Now, in a movie like this, you can’t expect top-flight actors to give their all. That said, most of the performances fall on the “passable” side of “phoning it in.” The Joes we’re introduced to during the first real action sequence are actually a well-balanced team, and Rachel Nichols in particular tries to give Scarlett a little bit of depth and nuance. I really liked her, Snake Eyes, Breaker and Heavy Duty. Dennis Quaid seems to be here just to be the gruff leader and Brendan Frasier has a cute little cameo. They’re not ground-breaking characters and lean towards cliché, but what do you expect? It’s G.I. Joe! There’s kickass energy weapons, cool vehicles and freakin’ ninjas! We’re here to have fun, right?
He knows war is good for business, and knowing is half the battle.
On the Cobra/MARS side of things, I have to say there were times I didn’t quite buy Christopher Eccleston’s Scottish accent. Still, he gave McCullen a sort of cultured gravitas I wasn’t expecting, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s role had a touch of mad menace I really appreciated. This is Cobra we’re talking about, so of course things lean towards the sort of malevolent camp that makes Blofeld look like a Machivellian genius, but it’s more fun than laughable where these two are concerned. Oh, and Arnold Vosloo just owns the Zartan role. He’s a very bright spot in this film. Again – having fun’s the order of the day.
There was a lot of potential in G.I. Joe. I was on board for some of the action-aimed fun and I found myself really wanting to like it. When the movie’s firing on all cylinders, it’s a fast, fun and inventive little action flick. But like a date who chats you up pleasantly for an hour at the local pub only to duck out for a “phone call” and never come back, sticking you with the check and refusing to respond to your texts afterwards, this movie let me down. I could point to the overuse of action clichés, the occasional bit of dodgy CGI or the fact that there’s a reason why ice floats (I’m looking at you, climactic action sequence). So what makes me feel like G.I. Joe is so full of potential but ultimately a let-down? The answer lies in some spoilertastic territory, so fairly be ye warned.
A scene from G.I. Joe, or Halo? Hard to tell, isn’t it?
Let’s start with Channing Tatum. You don’t really need to do a lot to carry an action flick as the hero or main protagonist. Kick ass, take names, crack wise and show a bit of emotion here and there to inform the motivations of the character. Tatum as Duke does kick ass. But he doesn’t seem interested in taking names, his one-liners are utterly flat and he has the emotional range of a brick. Considering the ways we see Rachel Nichols, Saïd Taghmaoui and even Ray Park show emotion here and there, I don’t think I can legitimately fault director Stephen Sommers or the writers – for this. Tatum feels like a beefier, even less emotive Hayden Christensen. He’s not having fun, and since he’s our main protagonist, it waters down our fun as well. On the other hand, I think I’ve found the perfect guy to play Master Chief in the inevitable Halo movie! Michael Bay, give Channing a call! I’m sure he’ll be excited to be a part of it. Not that you’ll be able to tell.
Then, there’s Marlon Wayans. I haven’t liked anything a Wayans brother has done in terms of acting since In Living Color, save for maybe Blankman or Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood. Half the time Marlon as Ripcord just looks sort of lost. The other half, I just struggled to take him seriously. To me, it feels like he’s trying and failing to channel Will Smith. His jokes never really made me laugh, I didn’t buy him as either an action hero or the sort of guy to figure out the connection between the attack on the Joe’s base and McCullen – his line felt like it should have belonged to Breaker. He just feels superfluous, along for the ride, sort of tacked on. He’s not having fun because he’s trying too hard. I’m really not sure how to articulate why his presence made me so uncomfortable past my personal lack of affinity for the Wayans brothers in general and Marlon in particular. So let’s move on to the real deal-breaker.
I’m going to get this out in the open: I dig Sienna Miller. She smoldered in Layer Cake and completely nailed the selfish Victoria in Stardust. I think she did the most with what she was handed in this, and for the most part she pulls off a classic femme fatale in a black catsuit with kickass guns and the coolest pair of Transitions lenses ever. The problem I have here is the exact opposite of the one I have with Channing Tatum. I feel Duke would have been fine in the hands of another actor. The Baroness, on the other hand, bothered me because she was assaulted in the writer’s room and never really recovered.
You see, for most of the film the Baroness is a cunning, smirking, damn fine looking kicker of ass who loves every minute of being the bad girl. She especially delighted in playing her rich scientist husband for a sap, and watching Storm Shadow and McCullen vie for her affections. For some reason, though, this sort of strong female antagonist seemed to intimidate the writers, who worked in a relationship with Duke right from the beginning. As much as I loved seeing a black-haired Sienna blowing things up and complimenting other girls on their shoes while she points a gun at them, in the back of my mind there was a sinking feeling as I felt I knew where this was going. Sure enough, towards the end the Baroness pulls a High Heel Face Turn. But wait! It gets worse! It turns out she was brainwashed into working for MARS the whole time, so all of her awesome villainy wasn’t even her fault! She’s really a sweet girl who missed Duke and was ready to forgive him for the pain he caused her! Seeing an interesting character and a strong female one at that completely undermined in this way just made me sick. At that point I very nearly turned my back on the whole affair, but I was already on around the 110th minute so I figured I might as well see it through to the end. It never got better. I’m sorry, but this sort of character derailment just isn’t fun for me, and while some of the characters are bad or flat, this sort of thing is just completely inexcusable.
Like I said, I wanted to have fun watching G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, but going back to my baseball analogy: One, two, three strikes – you’re OUT!
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.