Monday, August 10, 2009
It's been a few days now since I've seen G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and in trying to judge it for what it is rather than what it should be, I'm still trying to figure out whether I'm being too generous because of my fondness for the source material, or too harsh because of that same fondness.
The celluloid Joe is bright, loud, occasionally involving, but mostly forgettable, and exactly what you'd expect if you hand the director of Van Helsing an unlimited budget and instruct him to follow his muse.
For the five of you who've been living under a rock for the better part of the past three decades and are unfamiliar with the broad strokes of the concept, it goes something like this:
G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s (whoops, an International) daring, highly-trained special mission force. It’s purpose: To defend human freedom from Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.And yes, I typed that completely from memory. Pity me. Anyway, that’s the mission statement that's defined Hasbro’s immortal toyline since its reinvention in 1982, culminating in the big screen bonanza that's currently deadening nerve endings at a theater near you.
My connection to the "Joe vs. Cobra" mythology stretches back to just after its inception in the early '80s, with iceberg-sized chunks of my childhood spent devouring either the syndicated cartoon show that aired every weekday for two glorious years, or the Marvel Comics written by Larry Hama that helped cement the characters and conflicts for an entire generation of battle hungry boys and girls.
In kneading and rolling the Joe dough to make it fit his oversized canvas, director Stephen Sommers (who left his last vestiges of restraint in 1999's The Mummy) needlessly simplifies what shouldn’t be simplified and needlessly complicates what shouldn’t be complicated. As a result, The Rise of Cobra is a tonal mish-mash, neither as gleefully juvenile as the cartoon show nor as surprisingly mature as the comic book.
The story, crafted by Sommers with writer Stuart Beattie, is rife with so many missteps both in terms of adherence to the mythology and basic logic that it's difficult to get into without dipping into spoiler territory, so I'll steer clear of specifics. The gist of it is some business about deadly new weapons called "nanomites" that can destroy all metal, the Joe team (including Rachel Nichols' token female Scarlett and Ray Park's silent-but-deadly ninja Snake Eyes) trying to prevent their capture and subsequent deployment, and, of course, the "Rise" that the title promises.
Let's face it though, this isn't really a "story" movie, a "script" movie, or even an "acting" movie, as is made amply clear in the hammy overacting and cringe-inducing dialogue from seasoned vets like Dennis Quaid (as Joe commander General Clayton "Hawk" Abernathy) and Christopher Eccleston (as head baddie James "Destro" McCullen). Both are experienced enough to know better, but like good soldiers they're merely following their marching orders.
Quaid especially is cursed with an intro early on that nearly makes me forget all the good work he's done over the years, and signals exactly the tone of hyper-reality that Sommers is shooting for. Here, spectacle and whizz-bang take precedence over all else, and the actors had better dial it up to eleven on the ham-o-meter, or get the heck out of the way. Clearly Quaid chose the former route.
As for getting out of the way, that brings us to poor Channing Tatum, previously characterized by me as "vacant," and who does nothing here to dispel that impression. Though I had several initial misgivings about Tatum, beginning with his relative youthfulness in a part calling for someone a bit more battle-hardened, for the sake of the movie I was pulling for him to prove me wrong and do something unexpected with his pivotal role as eventual Joe field leader Conrad "Duke" Hauser.
Sadly Tatum, who rose to prominence in Step Up as a gifted dancer from the wrong side of the tracks, plays Duke like he's...a gifted dancer from the wrong side of the tracks. Not helping matters are the painful contortions the plot forces on the character (including a ludicrously labored -- and utterly unnecessary -- love story with Sienna Miller's Baroness), which don't really bring out the actor's best (and I'll be honest, I have no idea at this point what constitutes his "best").
Now, even though Duke is the ostensible lead, he's far from the most interesting character to occupy this franchise. That honor arguably belongs to the mute ninja/commando Snake Eyes, whose emotional backstory is the backbone of the whole Joe enterprise, as meticulously seeded by Hama throughout the comics' mammoth twelve-year, 155 issue run.
Unfortunately, as gamely played by fanboy fave Ray Park (he of Darth Maul's red-and-black face paint, now hidden behind a visored rubber mask -- which inexplicably has molded rubber lips!), Snake Eyes isn't given nearly the development necessary to give his grudge match with baddie ninja Storm Shadow (Byung Hun-Lee) the pull that it needs.
Even worse is the decision by the filmmakers to make the character's enigmatic silence a personal choice instead of the result of a tragic accident. This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of what makes the character so effective, and is a worrisome indicator of where things might head in a hypothetical sequel. Still, Park does all that's asked of him, and the various chop-socky bits never lack for visual interest.
Also worthy of a mention is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, currently an indie darling but forever Tommy Solomon in my heart, who has a key role as the mysterious "Doctor," aide to McCullen and inventor of those nanomites everyone's talking about (and who assumes another more familiar role in the film's closing moments).
Though his coincidence-heavy backstory strains even the bounds of excess established here, and his eventual character turn is both abrupt and -- based on one's attachment to previous Joe incarnations -- maddening, Gordon-Levitt is nonetheless inspired, playing his part with all the off-kilter energy of a Connery-era Bond villain.
As far as the rest of the movie, it rockets so freely and so often between self-seriousness and self-consciousness that every spectacular set-piece (the incursion of McCullen's MARS forces into the underground G.I. Joe headquarters) is bracketed by a ludicrous one (a foot-chase through Paris with Duke and Marlon Wayans' Ripcord decked out in outfits left over from the RoboCop consignment store that enhance the wearer's natural abilities while discarding all laws of motion and physics).
In a sop to how much my expectations for this thing had cratered, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is not, in fact, the worst movie I've ever seen. Certainly it's a narrow cut above its toy-born sibling Transformers 2 from earlier this summer, and it moves at a brisk enough pace to keep its rampant stupidity merely annoying rather than actively offensive.
In the end, it's probably best to borrow an aphorism from Honest Abe and simply say that those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. Given the pitiful slate of summer blockbusters this year, I guess that's what passes for a recommendation. C-