I’m the last person in the world who would ever profess to being a fan of the ’80s “G.I. Joe” cartoon. For me, the G.I. Joe of my childhood was the giant 12″-tall action doll with the kung-fu grip and the lifelike hair. And even then, that occupied such a small part of the real estate of my childhood fantasies that I don’t feel any attachment at all to the property.
And as far as Stephen Sommers is concerned, I know a lot of people who lump him in with guys like Brett Ratner and Paul W.S. Anderson and Joel Schumacher, although to be fair, I think he’s always been more self-aware than those guys. He doesn’t work as much as some people, either. He’s only made five films since “Deep Rising,” two of which were “Mummy” movies, and it’s been a full five years since “Van Helsing,” easily his worst movie, was released.
Well, it’s time to let Sommers out of director jail, folks, because his latest film “G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra” is big, ridiculous, and way more fun than I would have thought possible. It is a summer movie, through and through, pure pulp preposterousness, and it is one of the most successful little-boy adventure movies I’ve seen in a long time. I’m gonna make a scary comparison, but from my point of view, it’s a positive one: it may well turn out to be this year’s “Speed Racer.”
By that, I mean an pop art accomplishment, digital to a deranged degree, a genuine visual delight that reaches deeper than it has to, plays it with tongue just precisely in cheek, and which has a few flaws that some people will obsess on instead of recognizing just how much fun the package is as a whole.
[more after the jump]
I haven’t been watching the clips for “G.I. Joe” online, and for whatever reason, this wasn’t one of the trailers that Toshi decided to watch 474,000 times on my computer. So aside from that prolonged look at the Paris attack which I included in the Morning Read a few weeks ago, I walked in pretty fresh today. I saw it on the lot, surrounded by these guys. And I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean it was the dudes from that website. Seemed like nice guys. I have no idea how they reacted to the movie overall, but I found myself laughing at the sheer audacity of what Sommers is up to in most of the movie. He makes a few leaden jokes early on (like Ripcord’s remark to another soldier, “You have such lifelike hair… and a kung-fu grip!”), but the more momentum the film gets going, the better it works, and by the time it wraps up, it’s so out of control and goofy and eager to please that it’s impossible to resist.
Here’s how I described “Van Helsing,” in what I would say was definitely a negative review:
“It’s like there’s this six year-old-kid, and he gets up at 6:00 AM, and he finds these two giant boxes of cereal that his mommy just bought. Brand new. And these are just pure sugar. “Chocolate Sugar Super-Sized Peanut Butter Cluster Bombs.” Garbage. So he turns on the TV, and instead of cartoons, he finds a movie that’s just starting, with a horror host like Dr. Paul Bearer or Zacherlee, and he’s showing “Frankenstein.” The original Karloff. And so the kid eats a few bowls of cereal and watches “Frankenstein.” And next up… oh, wow! It’s “Dracula”! And then “The Wolf Man”! It’s a marathon of the classic Universal monsters, and for each movie the kid watches, he eats more bowls of cereal. And about five and a half movies in, this kid’s all hopped up on cereal and monster movies and you come walking into that room, unawares… and SUDDENLY THE KID IS TELLING YOU OH MY GOD I SAW THIS MOVIE TODAY ANDITWAS THERE WAS THERE WAS THIS FRANKENSTEIN AND AND THE WOLF MAN WAS THERE AND DRACULA AND THEY WERE FIGHTING AND THEN AND THEY WERE ALL TOGETHER AND THEY WERE KILLING ALL THE PEOPLE AND AND AND…
… that little kid, screaming at you about monster movies, incoherent and completely unable to explain anything beyond sort of yelling names of the characters? Well, that’s ‘Van Helsing.'”
That movie just didn’t get the iconography. There was no sense of tone. “Young Frankenstein” was more affectionate, more stylistically consistent and, to be honest, scarier than “Van Helsing.” It’s one of those cases where a director made a whole bunch of choices, and then he made his movie, confident in his choices, and then he cut this film together, happy with what he’s done, and it’s just… wrong. Right down the line. Choice after choice after choice. It happens.
I would say that this is actually the most pure piece of fun that Sommers has made since “Deep Rising,” which was his best film until now. His set pieces here are casually massive, a neat trick. He plays with scale here. In fact, if I were going to extend the metaphor I used to describe “Van Helsing,” I would do it like so:
“So it’s five years later. And that six-year-old kid is now eleven years old. And he somehow got $150 million worth of toy-buying budget. So he bought Hasbro. And he got them to make him life-size G.I. Joes and planes and gear and guns and bad guys… lots of bad guys… and an underground hideout playset and a couple of variant figures… all life-size… and he invites you over and he puts on a show with all the toys, out in his backyard, and it’s completely incredible. It’s like the greatest show-in-a-backyard humanly possible, and he’s got real explosions rigged, and robots and some ninjas. He’s come a long way from shouting incoherently at you about monsters. He’s still the same kid, with the same enthusiasm, but instead of the sugar jitters, he’s amped on the adrenaline of having every single toy he could ever want or need.
That kid? That display of his? Well, that’s ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra.'”
This is undeniably the voice of Stephen Sommers, and this time out, I mean that as a compliment. He has delivered one big lunatic moment after another here. Take, for example, the opening sequence, in which Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are part of a convoy delivering nanotech warheads, only to get ambushed and thorougly owned by a high-tech ship they don’t recognize, commanded by a hot dominatrix-looking brunette, The Baroness (Sienna Miller). It’s such a big and concussive sequence that it seems like it would be hard to top, but Sommers seems like he’s pacing himself this time out. Yes, you’ll see some really big moments up front and all through the film, but Sommers has learned the value of taking a breath finally.
I find all the soap opera entanglements of the good guys and the bad guys and their history between them to be just as entertaining as the action sequences that rattle off like clockwork. I remain unconvinced about Channing Tatum, and he’s the one thing, casting-wise, that never paid off for me. Marlon Wayans is solid as Ripcord, though, Duke’s second-in-command. It’s a big ensemble, and I thought everyone sort of hit the same tone, the right pitch. Rachel Nichols is like Jessica Rabbit with a machine gun, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje barely registers as Heavy Duty, but he always seems to be having fun when he does show up onscreen, a first for this intense character actor. Dennis Quaid growls his way through is role as General Hawk, the military man who assembled this top-secret group. Ray Park may look ridiculous (his face armor is silly, in particular), but he’s just as much fun to watch here as he was playing Darth Maul, convincingly lethal and acrobatically impressive. Saïd Taghmaoui has come a long way from Matthieu Kossovitz’s “La Haine” or “Three Kings,” one of the first big films where he made a mark, and he’s fine if undistinguished as Breaker, the tech guy on the team who seems duly impressed with himself.
On the other team, there’s Chris Eccleston, in full-volume creep mode here as McCullen, the arms dealer whose family history has instilled in him the desire to rule the world out of sheer familial spite. And helping him out is The Doctor, who is, I suppose, the Racer X of this movie, his disfigured face hiding his past enough that he is able to interact with the people he once called friend, face-to-face, and they never realize. Next time you hear someone accuse Joseph Gordon Levitt of being a serious young actor, you steer them to this film, and you tell them to watch his work here. He is I N S A N E. This is one seriously deranged performance, and Levitt seems to relish every moment of it. As the title of the film suggests, this is an origin story, but not for the good guys so much. Sure, Duke and Ripcord get brought into the top-secret organization, but this is far more about setting up the bad guys of the “G.I. Joe” universe, Cobra Commander, Destro, and Zartan (played by none other than Arnold Vosloo, Sommers’s Mummy), and connecting them to the G.I. Joe ranks so that these aren’t just skirmishes… these are life-and-death struggles, and they’re shot through with all sorts of flashbacks to happier days. The flashbacks that made me laugh the most involve Snake Eyes, his evil opposite Stormshadow (Byung-hun Lee), and their shared upbringing as well as the terrible secret that binds them. I’m not laughing because they’re bad… it’s just the sort of crazy energy that Sommers has that gets the laugh from me.
Technically speaking, the film looks great. It’s very cartoony so the more overt acts of violence don’t pop as much. In fact, even though people die in the film, I wouldn’t call it “violence” so much as “action” that kills them. It’s a little boy movie, although it skews too adult for my son right now. I think it’ll be a few years before he can see this one. Kids in the 7-14 range are going to absolutely spot on love this movie, and if I were taking a group of them to see it, I’d book a stop at a laser tag venue right afterwards, because those kids are going to want to play war… PRONTO!
Me? I’m just glad to see a summer movie that is aimed not at adults, not at little kids, but at the adolescent “HOLY CRAP!” genre nerd inside each of us, especially when the film lands as many punches as this one does, with a smile on its face the whole time.
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