G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009): Stephen Sommers’ Actioner, Starring Channing Tatum

Stephen Sommers’ “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” represents a new type of a Hollywood film, a fast-paced, dazzlingly designed spectacle-actioner that’s utterly a sensory experience, appealing to the eyes (and ears), while relegating the mind and heart to secondary function.

 

Sommers deserves credit for making a coherent film, which largely consists of inventive set-pieces.  However, “G.I. Joe” is the kind of movie where the characters and the actors who play them are used as robots, functioning as just one element (not the most important one) of the overall narrative structure and visual design.

 

As an ultra popcorn summer movie, “G.I. Joe” is not entirely silly, largely due to the scenario by Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett, but it is not particularly engaging either–on any level but the immediate and visceral.  The movie is not smoothly digested but easily disposable, to use junk food as metaphor.

 

The series of plastic military figures was launched in 1964 and then successfully appeared in various comic and cartoon forms, appealing to young boys.  In 1983, the G.I. Joe team underwent a dramatic transformation, when the group of American personnel expanded to include elite soldiers from all over the world.

 

Set at Brussels-based GIJOE, an acronym for the Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity, this movie’s tale centers on an international co-ed force of operatives, who use high-tech equipment to battle Cobra, an evil organization headed by a villainous Scottish arms dealer.

Paramount Pictures and Hasbro, which previously collaborated with great success on the franchise “Transformers,“ a huge global hit judging by the results of the second installment, has another box-office winner, a movie that young boys will see (and re-see in repeat viewing) with a great deal of awe and amazement.  Though likely to divide critics, “G.I. Joe” could become the coolest event of late summer movie-going, with strong prospects of becoming another bonanza franchise for the studio.

 

The best way to describe the picture is to say that it’s like playing a relentlessly aggressive and violent videogame on a huge screen, in which you get a kick out of the ability to exercise control over the toys (human and otherwise) in the fastest speed possible.  To put it another way, it’s like being in Disneyland (or another amusement park), and taking a ride that lasts two hours, without interruption or pause, during which you scream and cheer, but when you land back on the ground, the experience becomes utterly forgettable.

 

In his casting, Sommers has assembled a troupe of good actors that are not immediately associated with the action genre, such as Dennis Quaid as the General, Scottish Christopher Eccleston as the villain.  Not neglecting the femmes, the film juxtaposes two beautiful actresses: Sienna Miller, barely recognizable as a long-haired brunette wearing glasses, and Rachel Nichols, who’s bound to become a star. Just watching these women move around in tight black leather suits, which display their gorgeous bodies to an advantage, offer tremendous visual pleasure.

 

From the Egyptian desert, the elite G.I. Joe team, supplied with the latest in next-generation spy and military equipment, fights against the corrupt arms dealer Destro (Eccleston) and the growing menace from the mysterious Cobra organization.  The goal is to prevent them from throwing the world into sheer chaos.

 

The characters are more appealing to look at than to listen to, though the dialogue is kept to a minimum—mostly one-liners.  Though there are flashbacks to crucial episodes of the youths of Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, it’s hard to describe “G.I. Joe” as an origins movie, the way “Batman Begins” or the recent Star Trek” were.  Some of the men and women have personal bonds with representatives of the enemy, which are potentially interesting but merely touched upon here; there’s simply no time or use for that.

Will the handsome Channing Tatum (who has appeared in “Stop-Loss” and other middle-range features) become a star after playing the action commando toy and comic-book hero Duke in a restrained, almost stoical manner?  Blessed with a strong screen presence, Tatum needs a real part to catapult him to the major league, but the basic ingredients (chiseled face, sharp jaws, soulful eyes, raw sex appeal) are all in evidence here.

 

In contrast, the other new recruit, Ripcord, played by Marlon Wayans, is stuck with the comic relief and semi-romantic part, neither of which he accomplishes effectively.  The on-and-off interaction (and eventually affair) between Ripcord and Shana (“Scarlett”) are repetitive and not particularly charming, partly due to the writing (the one-liners come out of nowhere and go nowhere) and partly due to the stiff delivery.


It’s good to see the always reliable Dennis Quaid in a Hollywood picture, though he’s been (mis)directed to mostly walk around, scream at his soldiers, and throw his arms up in the air, conveying a one-dimensional cartoon-like General, who goes way beyond the mad military figures in Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or Stanley Kubrick’s farces.

The only thespian who’s given more time and space to maneuver, if not exactly to act, is Brit Jonathan Pryce, ironically cast as the U.S. President.  Pryce gets the last, fun image, relaxing in the Oval Office once order has been restored and chaos defeated.

 

The movie is like playing with life-size action figures, arranging and rearranging them in various, mostly cool configurations, and then watch them fight.   The set-pieces are linked together by a slender plot (sort of a premise), in which things move fast, and which has no time or interest in characterization, psychology, motivation, or exposition.  As soon as you catch your breath, you’re swiftly shifted to another site and another battle, with each getting increasingly bigger, louder, and more violent.

To be fair, “G.I. Joe” is not as cheesy or idiotic as Sommers’ former outings, “The Mummy,” “The Mummy Returns,” and “Van Helsing,” all weak, preposterous movies with mediocre special effects, which nonetheless scored reasonably big at the box-office.  By comparison, his new picture is a deliberately cartoonish postmodern tale, unfolding on steroids.

 

The predominant tone is tongue-in-cheek and ironic, with a couple of clever exchanges and many more than are just dumb and functional, such as “I’ll never let any man touch you,” or “We need to get Ripcord out of there.”  Problem is, the movie wants to have it both ways, to play it straight (for the young core audience), but also to wink at the more mature audience with a parody of the genre by suggesting that it’s OK to pay for (and enjoy) such a campy, trivial movie.

 

Working with his biggest budget to date (over $170 million), Sommers has shot the movie in Prague’s famous studio, L.A., Texas, and a few days in Paris, where he has shrewdly orchestrated a number of visually striking sequences.  The set-pieces, which occupy the vast majority of the running time, jump all over the map, building toward the longest set-piece, set in Paris and involving chaos created by a spectacularly surreal car chase, culminating in the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, that sacred (and phallic) monument?  How will the French, who are particularly proud of this symbolic site, take this scene?

 

Sommers makes the action scenes distinctive, with battles taking place everywhere, in the air, on the ground, even under-sea.  While all defying logic, physics, and laws of gravity, individual action scenes vary in design and purpose, and most of the actors “pass” through them in an inventive way.  The violence is staggering and the death toll huge, but unlike Tarantino and other directors intrigued by screen violence, Sommers employs cartoonish violence with heads and bodies chopped and flying up in the air, with no visible blood involved. 

 

“G.I. Joe” is an adrenalin-charged pop-art work that could be displayed in a museum or amusement park, or in your local pub, and be watched in parts, perhaps even out of sequence, since it doesn’t follow a particularly rigorous narrative logic, except for the last reel of combat and rescue mission.

 

But, alas, the movie is exhausting to watch and deafening to the ears, a result of sensorial saturation and excess.  At the end, I felt worn out and relieved, ready to watch a slow-paced, sentimental human melodrama on TV, a genre that I usually dislike.

Cast

 

Duke–Channing Tatum

Ripcord–Marlon Wayans

Ana/Baroness—Sienna Miller

Shana “Scarlett” O’Hara—Rachel Nichols

McCullen/Destro–Christopher Eccleston

General Hawk–Dennis Quaid

Baron de Cobray–Gregory Fitousi
The Doctor/Rex—Joseph Gordon Levitt

Hard Master–Gerald Okamura

Dr. Mindbender—kevin O’Connor

U.S. President—Jonathan Pryce

Heavy Duty Adewale Akinnuoye–Agbaje

Young Snake Eyes–Leo

 

Credits

 

A Paramount release presented with Spyglass Entertainment, in association with Hasbro, of a di Bonaventura Pictures production.

Produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Brian Goldner, Bob Ducsay.

Executive producers, David Womark, Stephen Sommers, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Erik Howsam.

Co-producer, Joann Perritano.

Directed by Stephen Sommers.

Screenplay, Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, Paul Lovett; story, Michael B. Gordon, Beattie, Sommers, based on Hasbro’s G.I. Joe characters.
Camera, Mitchell Amundsen; editors; Bob Ducsay, Jim May; music, Alan Silvestri; production designer, Ed Verreaux; supervising art director, Greg Papalia; art directors, Chad Frey, Kevin Ishioka, Randy Moore; set designers,Benjamin Edelberg, Noelle King, Jeff Markwith, Patte Strong-Lord, Geoff Hubbard, James O.F. Hewitt, Joseph Hiura, Gary A. Lee, John Berger; set decorator, Kate Sullivan; costume designer, Ellen Mirojnick; sound, Lee Orloff; supervising sound editors, Per Hallberg, Karen Baker Landers; re-recording mixers, Scott Millan, David Parker, Leslie Shatz; visual effects supervisor, Boyd Shermis; visual effects, Digital Domain, the Moving Picture Co., CIS Group, Prime Focus; stunt coordinator, R.A. Rondell; fight choreographer, Marcus Young;assistant director, Cliff Lanning; casting, Ronna Kress.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running Time: 118 Minutes 

 

 

 



 

 

 

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