Schmovies Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra  

Saturday, August 08, 2009

It has been a very long time since we've seen a movie as ridiculously, hilariously, epically awful as G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra. We scarcely know where to begin in describing it. We'd warn you about spoilers, but the movie kind of spoils itself.

Let's start with the wide view: G.I. Joe is essentially Team America played entirely straight. This makes it either the most brilliant, Kaufmanesque parody of over-the-top patriotic military porn sci-fi action films ever, or the flaming piece of crap-gilded crap that it actually is.

A little less generally, the dialogue sounds like it's trying to parody the Cheat Commandos. Again, this is either metafictional brilliance or complete ineptitude. The fact that Marlon Wayans co-stars suggests the latter. Every significant line of dialogue is either some terribly hackneyed action movie cliché, a line that was written to be used in the trailer, or both. The Baroness in particular speaks almost exclusively in movie trailer lines, while Duke is essentially reading from the "angst-ridden soldier with an unwavering sense of duty" archetype handbook.

By the way, Marlon Wayans? We shouldn't be too hard on him. He was actually one of the best actors in the film.

Let that sink in for a moment: Marlon Wayans, of White Chicks, Little Man, and Norbit, is one of the best--if not the best--actors in the movie.

We'll give you a minute to stop screaming. As with any other aspect of this movie, we could go on for pages about the bad acting, but there's one obvious place to start: Tommy Solomon Joseph Gordon-Levitt's turn as Cobra Commander. Cobra Commander should be a very difficult character to screw up. He's a cartoon supervillain who wears a mask that completely covers his face, thereby eliminating any need to emote facially. Apparently, the guy who has twice failed to get into Alex Mack's pants Gordon-Levitt thought that spending the entire movie in a mask that covered the lower half of his face was a serious hindrance to his acting abilities, so he compensated by constantly moving around and gesturing like a spastic C-3P0. Seriously, it's as though he thought he was being directed by Harold Zoid.

By the way, for being Cobra Commander, he doesn't do much commanding. In fact, he spends the vast majority of the movie allowing viewers to think he's just an updated Dr. Mindbender. If you remember Dr. Mindbender at all, you might recall that he looked something like this:

Bald, giant moustache, monocle, shirtless, cape, purple pants. And yet, between the silly latex-and-oxygen mask costume and Gordon-Levitt's hamminess, they managed to make this doctor even more ridiculous.

Running through the rest of the major actors: Channing Tatum did a good job of playing a soldier who'd experienced one too many concussions, and occasionally mistook the scenery for bubblegum; Sienna Miller certainly was present, two parts of her more than the rest; Christopher Eccleston was fairly competent; Arnold Vosloo's Zartan had the most fake, meandering accent in the movie (he's from South Africa, so maybe it's his natural accent, in which case his natural South African accent sounds like a really fake accent from some other place); and Dennis Quaid can no pretend to be superior to Randy at Quaid family gatherings.

The broad swaths of the story were actually quite promising, very much in line with some of the ridiculous schemes perpetrated by Cobra over the years. The insanely complicated plan involves Destro orchestrating a robbery of weapons he created and sold to the government, so that he can use them to destroy national monuments and attack major world capitals, all as a cover for the installation of Zartan as the President of the United States (presumably, this plot also included a forged birth certificate and a forty-year-old announcement in a Hawaiian newspaper, but those scenes were likely left for the Director's Cut). Really, that could have been cool, but as always the Devil is in the details. So, incidentally, are the shitty parts of the movie.

Let's start with Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, whose appearances feel like they were wandering in and out from a kung-fu flick filming next door. Since the rest of the movie was already a mishmash of every conceivable overused action movie trope, the filmmakers decided that they had to mine every conceivable overused kung-fu movie trope to pad out this overexposed, unnecessary subplot. Snake Eyes is another one of those characters who should be impossible to mess up: he's a badass ninja commando who doesn't talk. Naturally, the costume designers decided that the most important thing for a character who doesn't talk to have was a mouth molded into his rubber mask. This is in addition to his Joel Schumacher-esque muscular rubber outfit, which is all the rage with ninjas these days. After that, they thought it prudent to show us how Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow grew up together in Japan, because as the Star Wars prequelshave demonstrated, nothing enhances a badass character's coolness and intimidation factors quite like intimate glimpses into their awkward childhood years. Following this, the filmmakers apparently got confused about what '80s series they were reviving, and just used the old Splinter/Shredder origin instead.

Then there's the giant cliché web linking Duke, the Baroness, and Cobra Commander. See, Duke and the Baroness were engaged (before she met the Baron de Cobray. Yes, "de Cobray," a name which sounds like an obvious front for Cobra, but this is never remarked upon, and he's a witless patsy. I'd call this a red herring, but that's giving them way too much credit), and her little brother, Rex Lewis, was in Duke's unit in war-torn Waristan. He promised to take care of little Rex (a science officer, apparently those are real), which eventually amounted to sending him into a building alone during a bombing run. Naturally, Rex got blowed to smithereens, leaving Duke and pre-Baroness's relationship in shambles, and making Duke ride around on a motorcycle like he's Lorenzo Lamas.

Naturally, it turns out that Rex survived (though terribly scarred) and became the Doctor, who actually was (or later became) Cobra Commander. We don't know about you, but we're pretty sure that this origin ranks below "former used car salesman" and "disfigured snake-man from an ancient secret society in the Himalayas" origins for Cobra Commander. There aren't many names less threatening than "Lewis."

All this means that Baroness gets to make a Heel Face Turn by the end, breaking her Cobra conditioning to save Duke and yadda yadda. If you didn't see it coming by the cut-and-paste nature of the plot, then her frequent flashbacks to sweet moments with her brain-damaged fiancé were there to hammer the foreshadowing home.

As long as we're on the subject of the Baroness, it seems prudent to mention that while the movie gave just about every other character some goofy accent (or in Cobra Commander's case, three different goofy voices), they decided to take the Baroness's away. Perhaps it's because it didn't fit with her inane new backstory, or perhaps it's because they felt that they were already taxing Sienna Miller's talents (both of them) by having her traipse around the Arctic with her catsuit unzipped.

Speaking of the Arctic, it's worth mentioning that the film claims to take place "In the not too distant future" (though it's unclear if it's Next Sunday, A.D.), but the Arctic ice sheet is still ten stories thick. Take that, Al Gore!

Which brings us to the science and technology content of the movie. Now, it's a sci-fi action flick based on a cartoon, we're not expecting Apollo 13. That being said, it's fair to say that the filmmakers have learned everything they know about science from other action movies. Scarlett starts things off by telling Ripcord that she doesn't find him attractive because that would be emotional, and science can't study or quantify emotions. Straw Vulcan is absolutely right; scientists are totally unemotional, and there's no way that science can study things like emotions. Not more than ten minutes after this particular idiocy, the Joes encounter a dead Neo-Viper, from whom they need to extract some information. Thankfully, as our stoic redhead notes, the brain lives for a couple of minutes after death, so they can shove some giant spikes into the brain and find out where Cobra's headquarters is. What's that, you say? Brain death is one of the ways that we determine whether or not someone is actually dead? Well, I can't imagine that being an important thing to know.

Also, we're pretty confused as to what particle accelerators have to do with weaponizing nanobots. We're also pretty sure that the writers were pretty confused about what particle accelerators do, only having some vague notion that they spin something around. And they even got that part wrong.

The technology has some similar issues. Part of the problem is with the special effects, which often look like they come from some late-90s Saturday-morning cartoon. Consequently, the undersea dogfights, Duke and Ripcord running around in their Halo suits, and various other points of painfully obvious CGI lead the viewer to wonder why they didn't just animate the movie in the first place. But even if we excuse the animation that someone apparently did on a ColecoVision, there are some things that just don't quite make sense.

We can start with those Halo-style bionic suits, which really served no purpose except to allow Duke and Ripcord to jump around like Spider-Man and run really fast even when stopped. There were times when the suits seemed to weigh quite a bit, and there were more times when they seemed to be completely massless. Strangely enough, this largely corresponded to when the suits were real, and when they were computer animation.

For some reason, though he goes to ridiculous extremes to keep his involvement in the terror plot a secret (though slack-jawed Duke managed to implicate him with minimal mental effort--the maximum amount he could provide), Destro slaps his company's logo onto every piece of equipment in the film--including, of course, the various doomsday devices and weapons that he's sold to the villains. Now, if Bill Gates were trying to take over the world, do you think he would slap the Microsoft logo onto everything?

Okay, bad example. Point being, Destro's kind of dumb, but it's probably genetic. Turns out that he's descended from a long line of weapons dealers who got caught. We can only assume that his 17th century ancestor had engraved "M.A.R.S." into all the gunpowder barrels and crossbow bolts he was selling. As punishment, he was forced to dress as Kilroy; modern Destro got the updated punishment of looking like Max Headroom.

One other technology moment that really sticks out is during one of the underwater chase/dogfight scenes. While Duke and Baroness are escaping in their stolen Cobra vessel, her cannon runs out of...lasers. They're passing through a trench (but don't compare this battle to the Death Star or anything!), so Duke launches something out behind the craft. The mine, or whatever, separates out into several pieces, which attach to the walls of the chasm, connected by deadly laser beams like a hallway in a robbery flick. While this is effective in shredding their pursuer, one has to wonder what kind of utility such a device would have in the open ocean, where this ship would presumably be doing most of its fighting. I guess Cobra plans for everything, except inevitable betrayal.

We've touched on aspects of the direction tangentially, but it's worth mentioning that even for a cotton candy action movie, the explosions sometimes seem really random. The flashbacks were even more random, popping up every time it seemed like there might be a coherent story thread going on. Thankfully, they put those little X-Files style setting captions in the bottom of the screen when they transitioned scenes, so the viewer knew when and where each event was happening. Apparently the caption writer suffered from the same attention deficit disorder as the rest of the crew, because the captions typically lagged far behind the scene transition.

There was an obligatory training montage, set to a song that sampled "Get it On (Bang a Gong)," which really only heightened the comparison between this and "Team America." Baroness's "promise my brother will never die" line dovetails nicely with that, and one expects Dennis Quaid's "I'm-a break all the rules" speech to end with a description of how he tested Duke's loyalty through fellatio.

The movie ends triumphantly, with Destro and Cobra Commander locked in giant soup cans in Magneto's cell. Marlon Wayans' movie-long attempt at finding out if Scarlett is a natural redhead kind of peters out without resolution, but he and Duke get offered full positions on the G.I. Joe team. The team boards a plane toward their next mission, and Dennis Quaid wishes them all good luck. Then, he gets on the plane with them. I guess Joe regulations require goodbyes to be said on the ground.

We could go on and on--why would the White House farm out their security bunker to an international arms dealer, then use it after he's been exposed as part of an international terrorist plot? How did Dr. Mindbender get access to cutting-edge nanotechnology in the middle of backwards Waristan?--but we'd be here all night. To sum everything up, G.I. Joe is a terrible movie. It took some real effort to out-awful a movie about Sgt. Slaughter leading the fight against sci-fi snake people from the Himalayas, but this movie manages to suck considerably more than the original G.I. Joe film. That being said, it's not terrible the way Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 was terrible. The movie was hilarious; it was a real treat to watch for people who like watching awful movies. So if you're looking to get your Joel Hodgson or Mike Nelson on, The Rise of Cobra is a nice diversion. If you'd rather save your money for good movies, then we hear better things about G-Force.

Join us next time when we review that critically-acclaimed pornographic classic, The Bi-Curious Case of Benjamin's Butthole.

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