Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Real American Zero

"G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra"

Directed by Stephen Sommers
Written by Stuart Beattie and David Elliott & Paul Lovett
Starring: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Christopher Eccleston, Sienna Miller, Rachel Nichols, Dennis Quaid

Launched in the 1960s as a testosterone-fueled alternative to Barbie, the G.I. Joe line of action figures made it okay for boys to play with dolls. And to blow them up with firecrackers. The new film, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, is the latest toy-to-film adaptation to come out of Hollywood and the second to hit theaters this summer. But this isn’t your father’s G.I. Joe. Heck, this isn’t even our G.I. Joe. Movies built on touchstones of our Gen X-er childhoods can be hit (Transformers) or miss (Land of the Lost). But if the large crowd at the matinee I attended is any indication, this one will be a hit at the box office, here and abroad. And it won’t be because of insightful dialogue or well-drawn complex characters. After all, this is Stephen Sommers we’re talking about, he of The Mummy and Van Helsing fame.

Joe has what every summer blockbuster should: fiery explosions, hunky guys, pretty girls, shiny gadgets, exotic locations, and lots of things to go boom in ever more creative ways. This time out, the MacGuffin being pursued by the G.I. Joe special forces team and the evil Cobra Command terrorists is something called a nanomite, voracious and microscopic insects that like to eat through the metal of tanks and fighter planes and French landmarks like the Eiffel Tower. I thought my friend Glenn was exaggerating when he theorized the movie would be a live-action version of Team America. If only I’d known how right he was.

There’s a plot in there somewhere but good luck untangling it. All you really need to know is Joe equals good, Cobra equals bad. Even though pretty much every member of the Joe team is so smugly self-righteous that you root for the bad guys to kick them in the face. Nor are they at all apologetic for the millions of dollars in collateral damage that they cause as they are "fighting for freedom over land and air." I’m sure you’ve already seen the sequence in the trailer where Duke and Ripcord wearing their HALO armor, er, accelerator suits race down Parisian city streets dodging explosions and commuters, and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. Sorry about that, President Sarkozy—our bad.

Oh, and there are flashbacks. Lots of ‘em, and only a few of which are actually relevant to the film’s plot. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing li’l Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow establish their lifelong rivalry over some stolen lo mein noodles. But the one Joe team member who doesn’t even talk gets the most backstory? Seriously? Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett gets a throwaway line about graduating high school at 12 years old, and we don’t get to know anything about Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Heavy Duty or Said Taghmaoui’s Breaker. Apart from the fact that they both spent time on The Island -- dun, dun, dun....

Yet for all his narrative failings and excessively heavy reliance on special effects, Sommers still manages to attract top-tier talent like Christopher Eccleston, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Park and the aforementioned Adewale and Said (please don’t make me type out their full names again). Perhaps it’s some sort of actor wish-fulfillment to engage in gunplay in front of a green screen. Viewers should also keep a sharp eye out for other Sommers alumni like Arnold Vosloo, Brendan Fraser and Kevin J. O’Connor. The usually irritating Sienna Miller acquits herself well as the badass Baroness, even though a massive retcon toward the end pretty much ruined her character for me. And Rachel Nichols looks fabulous as a redhead and sounds more or less believable when spouting all the exposition that her character gets saddled with. Plus her girlfight skills have improved significantly since Alias. Marlon Wayans, one of the busier Wayans brothers, is sort of amusing as the requisite spouter of wisecracks. But Channing Tatum is the weakest link. Sure, he boasts the square jaw and chiseled physique of a Chris Evans, but with absolutely none of the charisma needed for a leading man. I sincerely hope they’re not hanging the franchise on this guy’s weak shoulders. He's about as interesting as a plank of plywood with kung fu grip.

The biggest WTF for all of us as this film was in development was the casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander. "Really?" we collectively asked, eyebrows arched in disbelief. "That kid from Third Rock from the Sun? Surely you must be joking." But joking they were not. And Joseph is surprisingly good. Well, he is until his transformation into Cobra Commander leaves him looking like the lovechild of Darth Vader and the clockwork assassin in Hellboy. But up until that point, he’s pretty damn believable, and creepy. Kudos to you, Joseph; I hereby stand corrected.

Regardless of positive reviews or lack thereof, G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra will do well at the box office, will sell a lot of action figures, and will be a really good test of your Blu-Ray player and home theater speakers when it comes out on DVD. And if you’re looking to spend a couple of hours in an air-conditioned theater with your brain turned off and your piehole full of popcorn, then you could do a lot worse than Joe. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.

1 comment:

  1. Completely agreed, especially about Channing Tatum. He's like Sam Worthington without the charisma or acting skills. I oddly enjoyed it on the whole, and it felt like it was poking fun at itself....but maybe I'm flattering Stephen Sommers too much. But I loved the scene where Dennis Quaid rolls up in a wheelchair for absolutely no reason.