G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (Spoiler Full)
I told myself for the past couple of years that I would hold back from going whole hog on the movie and wouldn't spoil myself with details leading up to the film, and would take the time and enjoy it in its full effect when it hit the theaters. Well, that went out the window. I read early drafts of the script, I read the movie novelization, I read the comic adaptation, and I absorbed just about every ounce of detail from the Rise of Cobra film that I possibly could. It was actually interesting getting input from all these different sources, yet still having a curiosity of what the final outcome would be. And it actually ended up being different in some minor ways than what I'd read leading up to it.
So, for folks who want to know it all, be spoiled, and get a very full, in depth review, this is the place to be.
By now, most of us have read the scattered internet reports and online reviews from AintItCoolNews, Latino Review, Collider, IESB.net, and have seen the collective scores on RottenTomatoes.com. It's all out there for the investigating, and so far, news is good. The only problem is, many of these folks come into the Joe property "clean" and don't have the baggage or the history of twenty-seven years to go back on and compare this endeavor to. Josh over at YoJoe did a great job of capturing the fan perspective, and I want to do the same.
First and foremost, if you're expecting to go into this movie and see a military action yarn with rich, deep, back story, a hidden meaning, or a dramatic conversation about where the world currently is, then you're going to be disappointed. Very, very disappointed. That's not to say there aren't elements of a good story mixed in here, but this film is all about the spectacle, and isn't afraid to be all about the spectacle.
However, unlike Transformers 2, which seemed to get overwhelming in it's level of spectacle to the point that you had no freaking clue what the hell just happened, G.I. Joe: The Rise of COBRA weaves an easy-to-follow tale of military operatives in the "not too distant future" who face off against enormous odds and shoot at each other with crazy guns for about two hours. If that's what you're expecting, then, damn, you're in for one hell of a ride.
After some McCullen related back story, we start off with a crack NATO Special Ops unit led by Duke and Ripcord who need to deliver some nanotech warheads...and of course, as things usually go in these films, they get ambushed by COBRA and essentially wiped off the map. We get our first introduction to the now-legendary COBRA Gunship in this sequence, and I'll tell you, that little plastic torpedo I bought on the shelves does NOTHING to serve how bad ass cool this ship is in the film. This thing tears through the sky, torches helicopters, crumples up metal and pretty much destroys everything in its wake. It is a glimmery, silver metal instrument of bad ass, and I can already see the ten year old kids begging mom and dad to spend their $25 in allowance money on this thing. It exudes cool in a way I didn't think it would be able to.
Immediately you know that Cobra (or what will eventually be Cobra) doesn't mess around. The Viper Commandos essentially walk through gunfire, ripping apart spec ops troops with their pulse rifles, and the Baroness makes a splash with her twin pistols. It's a very cool introductory scene, and only 15 minutes into the film, you know that Duke and Ana have some sort of history with each other.
And that's kind of where things go off the rails, at least from a Joe fan's perspective. I know in the comics, Snake Eyes was the key cog in the wheel, and pretty much everything revolves around him. Well, to be fair, not nearly everything in the film revolves around Duke, but there's plenty of intertwined silliness that seems a bit too convenient for my tastes, at least as a twenty-seven year "veteran" to the G.I. Joe property. For whatever reason, the screenwriters dubbed it necessary to have Duke, The Baroness, and "Rex" form this bizarre little triangle of evil that the entire G.I. Joe vs. Cobra conflict now revolves around. I know Snake Eyes played a similar role in the comics, but the one in the movie seems more contrived and unnecessary.
That's not to say I disliked this new origin story ...I actually find myself really enjoying it, but I think the same story could have been told without those connections between key players on both sides.
From the initial convoy attack, we're thrown headlong into the training in The Pit, and this sequence is a lot of fun. To Sommers' credit, he really tries to explore some sort of characterization with everyone involved, but the problem is there are so many different characters, that even during the characterization "down time" things move at such a frenetic pace that it's almost tough to catch your breath. Brendan Frasier's cameo as Sgt. Stone was actually pretty effective in this training sequence, too, and he played a nice foil off of Heavy Duty as he breaks the news to him that Duke and Ripcord are actually pretty good at what they do.
Following the training session, we get thrust directly into the attack on The Pit, and this is probably one of my favorite sequences in the entire film. Like everything else in the movie, it is fast-paced, action-packed to a fault, and as some really great face-to-face combat between Scarlett and the Baroness, and of course, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. There's a heavy helping of support staff carnage on both sides, as we get our first heavy look at the Neo-Vipers and everything they can do. My favorite part was when one of the hapless COBRA soldiers gets blown up, and is laying on the ground on fire, trying to pick himself back up to rejoin the battle.
By the end of the Pit battle, the Joe team is in wreckage, there are serious casualties, and Cobra has retaken the warheads to do nefarious things with. But the Joes have finally tracked down the Baroness, and they plan to intercept her in Baroness.
By this point, almost everyone has seen the Paris Pursuit footage, however in the final cut of the film there is a lot more to it. Some very cool sequences inside the building where the Baroness is trying to take out Duke with the pulse pistol as he chases her down. I know the Accelerator Suits get a lot of bad rap in the Joe community, but I won't lie...that chase sequence was IN SANE. The amount of choreography that went into getting that on screen had to be a ton of work, and it showed. I think even with us fans talking down the whole Accelerator Suit thing, that's going to get the attention of a lot of ten year old kids out there, yet at the same time, it never takes over the entire film. I think they walked that line well.
In pure G.I. Joe fashion, Duke gets captured by Cobra and whisked away to the Polar Ice Caps, and G.I. Joe is closely behind.
I'll refrain from breaking down the final battle scene in too much detail...it's huge, it's underwater, and there is a lot to talk about, but rather than simply retell the film, I think I need to start talking about what worked and what didn't work in the essence of the film itself.
Larry Hama had this incredible knack for making us care about characters based on a paragraph and a half of file card text, and when he got 22 pages to work with, he could do even better. He managed to intertwine this realistic, dramatic military tale amongst cloned genetic leaders, shape-shifting chameleon men, android troopers, and even balloon-selling blondes in bear costumes. I can't imagine this was an easy task, yet he managed to pull it off. Stuart Beattie and Stephen Sommers don't even make an attempt to craft some rich back story, they instead jump right into the action feet-first and only seem to care about thrilling the audience as much as humanly possible for two solid hours. They achieved their goal in spades. From the minute the cameras started rolling, there is action, action, and more action. I've seen folks complain a bit that so many TV Spots and trailers were ruining the movie by revealing so much ahead of time. Boys and girls, you ain' t seen anything yet.
The story is crisp, non-complicated, non-convoluted, and easy to follow. There are aspects that I would imagine are supposed to be dramatic twists, but they are fairly clearly foreshadowed, so I highly doubt there will be many "ah HA" moments in this film. What there is, is a lot of machine guns, pulse rifles, crazy as hell technology and sword fights. And, honestly, if you look back through twenty-seven years of history, that seems pretty appropriate. In spite of what many a fandom would have you believe, G.I. Joe has never been all about realistic military combat. It's always been fantasy from day one, and this film captures that spirit in a big way. They shoot the moon for the next generation tech, and build the whole film on a foundation of it. There are times that foundation crumbles a bit, but the movie just keeps trucking along until the action-packed final minutes and never lets off the gas.
However, everything is not wine and roses... there are some pretty critical character choices that were made during production that I whole heartedly do not agree with.
In the comics, Snake Eyes has always been a tragic figure. A guy who has had nothing but bad event after bad event happen to him, yet he perseveres and becomes a better person for it, though sometimes you can tell there is some rage buried just beneath the surface. The film seems to gloss over that entire aspect of the character's history. Granted, in flashbacks you do see Snakes as an orphan in Tokyo, with no inclination of how he got there or what his back story is. But the whole "vow of silence" versus a disfiguring injury that robs him of his speech is a pretty clearly defined division in back story, and it takes away considerably from Snake Eyes' character. As such a core part of the G.I. Joe mythos, I really wonder why they made the choice that they did. And if they go back and reveal that Snake Eyes did get disfigured somehow, then it becomes a somewhat lame duck plot device, since they've already established in this film that COBRA Commander and Destro share the same fate.
Snake Eyes does bounce off Storm Shadow really well in this film, but it just loses a bit of the impact, I have to admit. Speaking of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, I read the movie novelization, and their final battle culminates with Storm Shadow on the verge of defeat. As he's at death's door, he confesses to his sword brother that he did NOT in fact kill the Hard Master, before plunging into the water below. For whatever reason in the final cut of the film, that line is omitted. There is no indication whatsoever that he was not the Hard Master's killer, so the uninformed audience probably doesn't ever make that leap. I'm not sure what the reasoning for this change was, but to me, it's a negative one that could have set up something nice for the sequel.
While on the subject of unnecessary character changes, another bummer for me was the handling of The Baroness. Anyone who's been following spoilers by now knows that in the film The Baroness is under mind control through the nanomites. However, it even goes beyond that... in the film Duke helps her break the mind control, and she actually turns AGAINST Cobra. She mans a gun turret in the Mantis sub that she and Duke use to escape the MARS Polar base. This is probably one of my least favorite parts of the film, in all honesty. If Larry Hama gets any criticism, it usually focuses on the fact that the dipped into the "Brainwave Scanner" well a few too many times. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having well-established villains who can walk the line between honor and chaos. Why brainwash The Baroness? Well, in this case, it seems as if they were forced to do it because they connected her and Duke so tightly together, which is just another reason why I wish they hadn't done that in the first place. I really can't grasp what storyline reasons there were for so closely interconnecting all of these characters, because this one storytelling piece is really the source of all of my discontent with certain facets of the film. I think if they removed that aspect, it would have really allowed them to go a bit further with the movie and do some much more interesting things.
Which brings us to "The Doctor"...who, of course, as most folks know by now, is really Cobra Commander. Like a lot of fans, I'm not wild about some of the choices made with the Commander, from a back story point of view. But this, again, points back to the hackneyed "6 degrees of separation" issue that Beattie and Sommers felt necessary to work into the film. If Cobra Commander were a separate, unique individual, separate from that triumvirate of folks who are all inter-connected, I think I would actually like his story a whole lot more. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fantastic job with this character. Absolutely fantastic. I love how he plays The Doctor, I love how he plays the Commander...it all works. It just works. There is even a moment when he removes his breathing apparatus where he is totally channeling the late Chris Latta, and he does it perfectly. Hell, even seeing the strange new look for Cobra Commander in the film isn't as off-putting as I thought it might be (even if he only appears that way for a few minutes at the end). I find myself loving the Commander a lot, and I really ended up not minding his totally revamped back story, but I still wish they had separated him from this strange love triangle connection between Duke and Ana.
Of course, if you can look at this as more of a head-to-head between Duke and Rex, it doesn't get quite so bad. I mean, it only makes sense...Rex is introduced to this fantastic new technology by Dr. Mindbender, a Cobra scientist whom Rex meets just as the world explodes around them. Rex is critically injured in the blast, and blames the United States for not only his injuries, but also because he uncovers the fact that they had contracted for the nanotechnology, but then decided to destroy it (and everyone associated with it) instead. Of course, Rex sees Duke as being the face of this two-faced military machine, and seeks to hurt him any way possible, so he brings his sister under mind control to use her as a tool in his arsenal. In a strange fantasy-land way it does make sense.
Adding an interesting twist to this whole thing, too, is the fact that in the prequel novel, Above and Beyond, Gung Ho actually is the one who calls in the early Air Strike that "kills" Rex...so in turn, G.I. Joe actually created Cobra Commander and Cobra. A somewhat interesting dichotomy.
I will admit, too, that the ending of the film was a surprise. It ends differently than both the script and the movie novelization, but I'm not sure the ending change is a good one. While the novelization left things REALLY open ended, the movie is a bit more final ...which is somewhat disconcerting to those of us hoping for the inevitable sequel(s) as long as the film performs.
So as you can see, there were plot points that I heartily disagreed with when I first heard of them, and I didn't see much on screen to convince me any different. There were characters that were pretty fundamentally changed, and many of those changes are things that I really did not like, based on my twenty-seven year history with the brand. And yes, I will admit, they did negatively impact my opinion of the film overall. But I can see how someone without all that back story already in their head might see this in a cleaner light and more appreciate the film for what it is, which is the epitome of summer popcorn movies that straps you down and doesn't let up until the ride is over. If you can let go of some of that past baggage as a Joe fan and just prepare to enjoy yourself for two hours, you WILL enjoy yourself. Embrace the science fiction ...embrace the fantasy. Forget the real world and for two hours, embrace your inner ten-year old. You WILL enjoy this film if you are able to do that, and I was able to do it for those two hours last night, and I was thrilled that I could.
For the most part, the actors did their jobs well, too. Channing Tatum was a bit too wooden as Duke, and never expressed a whole lot of emotion other than a furrowed brow, a scheduled grimace, or firing his trusty machine gun, but it wasn't so bad as to be especially noticeable. Rachel Nichols seemed somewhat overblown as the emotionless Scarlett, and her chemistry with other members of the team was pretty hit or miss. Her and Snake Eyes shared some glances that told you there was some history there, but beyond that, she was pretty much just there to kick ass and take names.
Ray Park was fine as Snake Eyes, though, really, all he has to do is flip around and hack people up with swords. He did that quite well, but actually, he did more, too. He was able to express emotion and feeling even without dialog, and I'll be honest. The infamous Snake Eyes "lips" didn't bother me that much on screen. If nothing else, they gave him an avenue to express emotion without the spoken word, and it was fairly effective. Dennis Quaid was a decent General Hawk, too, though again, he didn't have a whole lot of deep emotion to portray, it was mostly strutting around and barking orders. He was quite good at that, of course.
So, most of the actors seemed relatively cookie cutter...but there were some definite stand outs. Sienna Miller as the Baroness did a fantastic job as the bad girl, injecting a subtle bit of humor here and there, but ultimately she makes for a very good "bad girl", which is why it's so unfortunate that they kind of washed that way with one stroke of the pen later on in the film by making her switch sides so completely. Christopher Ecclestein is also an excellent Destro...he exudes confidence, but has a sinister side as well, and the way Destro and MARS are portrayed seems very accurate to the source material. I will admit, his metal mask (only seen in the last few minutes of the film) looks somewhat silly, but I can see why they went the direction they did. I do think if sequels are on the horizon, they will definitely polish up that Beryllium Steel and give us something a LOT more iconic and a lot less... lumpy, maybe? Byung Hun Lee's Storm Shadow was also excellent. He made bad ass look good in the film, and the look of the COBRA ninja wasn't nearly as campy in the final picture as I feared it might be based on early promotional images. He does come across a bit as a tragic character, though unlike his comic counterpart, he is also totally evil without apparent concern for other human life. The sequence with Zartan and Cover Girl does seem to indicate that he has at least a smidgen of honor, but it's buried under a pretty "no good" exterior. Arnold Vasloo and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje actually both do their roles some justice, and Zartan is really almost the most unforgivably evil guy in the whole COBRA crew.
And perhaps one of the most controversial characters in the film, The Doctor, is also one of the best performances. He is a sinister, malevolent little man with evil plans and evil methods to make those plans happen. His appearance in the movie does not look nearly as silly as early pictures indicated, and he is every part the detestable super villain that he should be. I really, really enjoyed his performance in this film. Watching his conversion from The Doctor to the full blown Cobra Commander was a joy, and I was definitely "all in" once I heard Latta's distinct growl coming from his mangled lips. Once he gets the mask on, too, his voice is remarkable. Very evil, without humor or emotion, and his laugh is just fantastic. This is no used car salesman, this is a comic book level super villain, which I thinks works infinitely better in this semi-science fiction environment.
For adult fans looking for a fast-paced, breakneck action film, you definitely get what you pay for here. There is a surprising amount of violence and bloodshed (without direct shots of said bloodshed) for a film that is based on a franchise infamous for a lack of it. For fans that lavished praise upon Resolute for its no-holds-barred violence, action, and destruction, you get the same heavy level of carnage in The Rise of COBRA as you did there. Actually, it almost seems as if there is more in Rise of COBRA than there was in the animated version. That might be something to keep in mind as you prepare to bring little ones to the theater. There is a ton of shooting, explosions, and some of it has the potential to be graphic, but it's not overly so. There are some distinct four-letter words that get tossed around fairly casually, too (mostly of the s-bomb variety, not the f one...) and this film definitely appears to walk that line between preteen boy and adult fairly well.
As Joe and Jane Smith, I think the public at large will embrace this film, perhaps in ways that diehard Joe fans cannot, but there is plenty to love for the rest of us, too. There are lots of details ripe for the Directors' Cut (I get the impression lots of stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, including scenes shown in trailers) and I greatly look forward to seeing this movie again, where I can better appreciate the events on screen.
If you've already got your mind made up about the film going into it, I'm not sure much will change your mind. But if you can turn off your pre-established notions for two hours, you will be better for it. A great effort, a good new direction, and hopefully the start of some big things for the Joe brand. There are some intrinsic character traits that were unnecessarily changed, but much of the film is moving at such a crazed, action-packed pace that you barely notice. In some folks' minds that is a fault, but to me, from a summer popcorn movie stance to an audience that, by and large, don't even know who Duke or The Baroness are, I don't think it's a critical fault, and I think the movie succeeds exceptionally well in spite of what they did to some of the key players.
I strongly recommend that everyone at least give this film a shot. I truly believe that if this film makes enough cash and they move forward with sequels, that we will end up getting a LOT more of what we ask for in future installments as Cobra becomes the organization we're more familiar with. Any fan of G.I. Joe should at least give it a shot. Even if it's not your G.I. Joe, it may be a springboard for a G.I. Joe renaissance, which is something I can really get behind.