by David Cornelius
The problem with “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” - not the only problem, not by a mile, but one of the first that comes to mind - is that we’ve got this cast filled with talented actors and powerful screen presences, and here we are spending most of our time instead with such drips as Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller.The film’s massive cast should be its main selling point, at least to those who aren’t Gen-X guys geeking out over the idea of twenty-five-year-old action figures finally hitting the big screen. The Joe franchise (the popular “Real American Hero” 1980s reboot, that is, not the original “America’s Movable Fighting Man” 1960s toys) always went overboard with its roster of heroes and villains, and for a while, it looked like the movie would have fun with such a vast lineup; in addition to the likes of Dennis Quaid (as General Hawk!), Christopher Eccleston (as Destro!!), and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Cobra Commander!!!), we also get such fanboy-approved casting as martial arts superstar Ray Park as the silent but deadly ninja Snake Eyes and former “Mummy” star Arnold Vosloo as the mysterious master of disguise Zartan, plus winky cameos from Jonathan Pryce and Brandon Fraser.
"Sucking is half the battle."
But then the movie keeps trying to insist that Tatum and Miller are our stars (playing Duke and the Baroness, respectively), and that we should spend as much of the ridiculously overlong running time with them as possible. Yes, Tatum, who has all the screen charisma of a former male stripper, and Miller, who’s somehow turned into a poor woman’s Kate Beckinsale (her eastern European accent is as embarrassing as Beckinsale’s was “Van Helsing”). Before we have a chance to object, the film also shoves Marlon Wayans our way; he’s Ripcord, the wisecrackin’ sidekick, you see, because the fine people at Paramount Pictures are actively trying to make us miserable.
The rest of the lead cast is filled out by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Heavy Duty, Rachel Nichols as Scarlett, Saïd Taghmaoui as Breaker, and Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow. None of these actors are particularly good or notably bad; they’re stuck delivering one-note dialogue, their entire character development being that of whatever information can fit on the back of a toy package. If Dennis Quaid can’t make anything of his barely-there character, what chance does the rest of the cast have?
By the way, if you’re wondering why all the characters have names that sound like they came from the “American Gladiators” reject pile, then you’re probably not in the target audience for this movie. Like the “Transformers” films before it, “G.I. Joe” expects instant familiarity with the story from its viewers, both in the sort of winking faux-cleverness that comes from lazy in-jokes for the fans (“knowing is half the battle” gets said twice here, while “kung fu grip” gets a single shout-out) and lazier character set-up.
The screenplay - credited to five writers, including director Stephen Sommers - is a mess of fanboy pandering, spending an absurd amount of time on flashbacks that help establish all the changes made to the Joe universe (seems half of the bad guys were originally good guys, in a bit of retcon silliness that wouldn’t be so maddening if it bothered to be interesting; as is, it turns the entire Cobra backstory into a chintzy soap opera) yet barreling through Snake Eyes’ origin story at breakneck speed (the script condenses an epic comic book story arc into a single ninety-second flashback consisting mainly of a kung fu fight between two kids) because, hey, you know, the fans already know that story, so, like, whatever.
But then, by now anybody coming to a movie called “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” knows exactly what they expect from the film (except, I suppose, the unfortunate soul who thinks it’s the tale of a WWII vet struggling with increases in enrollment costs for his post-employment health insurance). After all, this is a Hasbro production - the toy company even has a brand new company vanity logo that appears right at the top of the show, revealing itself in a So It’s Come To This moment that will make fanboys squee and everyone else take a long, hard sigh at the state of tent pole blockbusters. My point is this: When you’ve bought your ticket for “G.I. Joe,” you admit you’re not expecting solid character development or logical storytelling, especially not from the guy who made “Van Helsing.”
But why not? Why must an act of surrender be part of the moviegoing experience? Why should we have to justify lousy storytelling with a shrug of “well, the cartoons were crap, too”? Why can’t we hold every movie to a certain expectation of quality?
But I get ahead of myself. One expects nothing more from a “G.I. Joe” movie than some good action scenes, some nifty tension, maybe a little comic relief. And in spurts, we get that stuff. Sommers ably crafts a few decent action sequences - nothing overly engaging, but with a passable sense of kinetic gee-whizery, and more comprehensible than anything Michael Bay’s made lately - while Eccleston, Vosloo, and especially Gordon-Levitt provide enough giggles as they gnaw the scenery to the bone, correctly understanding that they’re playing cartoons and thus have the leeway to ham it up. But they seem to be the only ones in on the joke (the screenplay is blind to its own sense of camp; there’s a character named “Baron de Cobray,” yet we’re asked to take such things seriously); the smiles come from the performances and definitely not the cornball script, which only aims for laughs when it comes to Wayans’ obnoxious sidekick role, missing the mark every time.
While the action is capable, it’s not at all interesting. Sommers treats every scene like it’s the big finish, and anyone who’s dated Sting knows that two hours of non-stop climax can get boring. This is an action film highlight reel, with any sense of story (which condenses more or less to: bad guys steal bombs from good guys, good guys chase bad guys, the end) or purpose shoved to the corners. The writers try their damnedest to work character in there somewhere, giving us a storyline where the Baroness is a hypnotized good gal who might be saved, but even that barely rises above MacGuffin status.
The rest is chaos, big and loud and ultimately quite insufferable. The stupidity truly mounts once Sommers takes things to such ludicrous proportions - with heroes and villains dropping left and right, and with anonymous civilians offed by the hundreds in a Parisian car chase that finds people-filled cars being used as projectiles in CGI stunt pieces meant to wow, this has to hold the new record for highest body count in a PG-13 movie. (Ah, but it’s all bloodless, never mind the frequent ninja slash-and-stab business, so the MPAA says it’s fine for kids.)The whole thing ends with one of those sequel set-ups that comes across more as a threat than a promise. The entire two-hour story seems to exist merely as a prologue for the next one; Cobra doesn’t even bother to rise until the last couple minutes, although this hardly seems to matter to the filmmakers, whose use of the subtitle implies they were thinking of a sequel before they even sat down to make the first chapter. That’s like going to dinner, ordering pasta, and getting a big bowl of boiling water instead, with a note explaining that the noodles will be served in a year or two.
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originally posted: 08/24/09 02:16:48