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Monday, August 3, 2009

GI JOE - THE RISE OF COBRA

Stephen Sommers' GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra manages to almost perfectly replicate the experience you had as a pre-teen playing with your action figures in the back yard. Like a kid banging his toys together and blowing them up with firecrackers, Sommers has made a movie that's just a series of action set pieces strung together with a minimal amount of exposition, stopping only to catch his breath and to move the story along far enough to get to the next action set piece. And damn if it doesn't work.

Watching GI Joe it's impossible not to think 'This should not work,' but somehow it all does. Sommers really nails the tone perfectly - he's created a kind of pop art madhouse, a movie whose lineage includes Danger: Diabolik (it's important to note I'm not comparing quality here), Flash Gordon and maybe a visit from the straight faced aspects of the Roger Moore James Bond. The silliness inherent in the concept is embraced - GI Joe is a multinational team with a miles deep secret base in the desert, a resident ninja, a fleet of subs and planes and helicopters and suits of power armor that they only bother to use once. Sommers thankfully resists the urge to grit the film up, but he also usually resists the urge to wink too broadly at the audience; more than once GI Joe plays like a parody of itself but mostly the film understands that we're all in on it and just proceeds from there.

There are a couple of things that Sommers gets very right, and a few that he gets very wrong. Perhaps his smartest move was hiring fairly good actors for roles that don't really require so much acting. Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Christopher Eccleston, Jonathan Pryce, Dennis Quaid, Sienna Miller - these are actors who bring a certain amount of class and reality even to characters based on a toy line, and while none of them are in danger of being accused of serious thespianism in this film, they're all having fun while keeping the film grounded in enjoyable characters.

Sommers next best move was knowing how to shoot action scenes (especially since they make up 70% of the film's running time). Unlike this summer's travesty Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Joe clues the viewer in on the geography of action scenes, it allows us to follow the choreography and it generally lets us know what the fuck is going on. It's a sad statement on action movies today when I get excited that a movie allows me to see who is hitting who. The action scenes in GI Joe are almost uniformly excellent, starting with the first - a real-world special ops team futilely battles against the science-fantasy forces of Cobra - and going throughout. The standout is the car chase through the streets of Paris; the amount of damage and death in this sequence is stunning; GI Joe shows a casual disregard for human life that would make Bad Boys II upset. Sommers makes the scenes distinct, and the film takes us from aerial battles to undersea battles (with the physics of space battles, and with shots and action stolen from sources like Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars) to all kinds of one on one fighting. The movie even features flashbacks to the youth of Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, and has little kids beating the shit out of each other with nunchucks! That alone makes the film worth seeing, in my opinion. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the action is that Sommers keeps it up throughout; only in the film's final minutes do you start to feel action fatigue, and that's because you've spent fifteen minutes in a multi-front major battle that would wear anyone out.

I really appreciated the fact that each action scene has moments for each of the main Joes; too often in a team movie like this the hero steps up front while everybody else seemingly watches him, but Sommers and screenwriters Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett make sure that each of the Joes has something to do in any given action scene, even if it's just Breaker shouting into a headset. This really crystallizes in the final battle, which keeps everybody busy in believable, exciting ways.

The plot, such as it is, resembles that of the original cartoon. Motivations seem to boil down to being good or being bad, and I don't fully get the roundabout aspects of what arms dealing, super weapon creating baddie Destro is trying to accomplish. Then again, he's essentially a Bond villain on steroids, and over-elaborate plans with multiple opportunities to be defeated are a hallmark of his ilk. The film has a number of reveals, each more obvious than the last, but eventually that becomes part of the fun. GI Joe is riddled with employees who have tight, personal bonds with the enemy, and nobody seems to mind.

But those tight, personal bonds never overwhelm the film's resounding desire to keep shooting guns and blowing things up. Watching the Comic Con trailer for Sony's 2012 I lamented that while a film as filled with money shots as that trailer would be amazing, the real movie will be filled with mind-numbing domestic drama. GI Joe has no patience for that sort of shit, and is content to be constantly ramping up to or quickly cooling down from money shots. And many of the money shots are really violent - heads are pierced, exploded, and chopped off. Hundreds, if not thousands, die (just barely) off screen, while dozens upon dozens of Cobra guys (or I guess proto-Cobra guys, as the terrorist group only becomes Cobra at the end) meet their maker at the hands, bullets, shuriken, blades and other explosives of our heroes. There's not much by way of blood, but Sommers has taken the gloves off and delivered the kind of serious ass-kicking PG-13 movie we haven't seen in a while.

Sadly he also delivers the cartoony CGI we have come to expect from him. Some shots in the print I saw tonight looked frankly unfinished, and I hope for his sake that's the case. But even many obviously finished shots looked pretty terrible. Contextually the unreality of some of the FX shots worked for me - Sommers has made a big cartoon, and looking cartoony isn't that big of a sin - but too many scenes were muted due to overly obvious, cheap CG effects.

And while Sommers has done some excellent casting (double props for hiring the stunningly hot Rachel Nichols to play Scarlett, by the way), he also partially dropped the ball. Marlon Wayans isn't just irritating as comic relief Ripcord, he's downright unbelievable in the role. Every time Wayans opened his mouth I cringed; thankfully the movie rarely spends too much time on his unfunny bon mots and just keeps pumping along to the next explosion or crash.

Is GI Joe: Rise of Cobra the kind of silly fun you'll like? The litmus test, I think, comes when Duke and Ripcord, two new GI Joe recruits, are introduced to the team's secret underground lair, The Pit. As they take an elevator down through the many, many levels of the facility, all sorts of 'daily life for GI Joe' scenes take place, ranging from guys rappelling randomly into the shot, explosions going off to a giant firing range lake (and the glass encased sub facility beneath it). This scene feels like panels from the Larry Hama GI Joe comic come to life (very literally, as this sequence also appeared in the comic), but it's so silly and so over the top and so much about what a 9 year old might think would be in the cool underground base of a group like GI Joe that it sums up the entire movie.

If I was 10 years old, GI Joe would be one of the best movies I had ever seen. As a grown up it's one of the better summer movies; a delightfully light, fun and action-packed kick in the ass.

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