Yes I saw it.
The end of summer movies are finally here, signaling both the return of the indie dramas and the studios’ last ditch effort to make money off of films they did not think could compete with the “stars” of summer. Enter GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Despite a $170 million budget and the presence of incredibly gifted actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and one-time Dr. Who Christopher Eccleston, the film has almost universally been panned by critics and fans alike.
The film is based on a convoluted plot in which Destro tries to create a one world government under his control through the use of nano-technology that controls human beings and eats through metal. The script at once relies on your knowledge of the Joe universe and your willingness to toss that knowledge aside. Thus those who have no familiarity with the world of GI Joe will likely be confused by the endless introduction of characters, the lack of backstory on seemingly important characters who are treated as throwaways in the film, or certain key nods to the cartoon or the comic books. On the other hand, those of us who delight in seeing the casting and live action interpretation of characters, have to let go of most of the history of GI Joe, COBRA, and the relationships between the characters (right down to the song about “real American heroes”). For many reviewers this has been too much to ask.
While I was less committed to the original story than many complaining about the movie, I do have one question for Hollywood: Why remake a well-known franchise only to violate all of its history or promise?
We’ve seen this failure far too many times as it is and this summer has been particularly suspect. Like Terminator, and to a lesser extent Star Trek and Transformers, GI Joe producers think they can fool an audience by bringing in pretty people, tons of explosions, and/or fascinating CGI. With the exception of Star Trek, which actually hired writers as part of their big budget, these films have all failed to capture the imagination of movie goers beyond their opening weeks. The more they violate the franchise, the less well they do over time.
I liked most of the special effects in this film. Besides the obligatory explosions, there are amazing weapons and planes, and a huge underwater base that are all top of the line. Shying away from the standard end of summer blow up of Washington DC, the film relocates its national landmark disaster to Paris, taking out the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, this innovations is marred by generally bad special effects that plague the nanotechnology scenes. Far more interesting is the gun the Baroness uses to keep Duke from preventing the detonation of the Tower.
You will also have to make several logic leaps to watch the special effects. Joes jump into turrets right after rocket launches, they take elevators out of crumbling buildings, and they manage to fly from inner atmosphere to outer atmosphere while covered in nanos that eat through metal in a matter of seconds. My movie companion, who loves special effects films, said “I know it is supposed to be fantasy but some of that stuff was so over the top it was ridiculous.”
Race and Gender
Where the special effects are occasionally hit or miss, the sword scenes kick ass. Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes elevate this film in ways that defy description. Not only is Byung-Hun Lee just plain hot, he and Ray Park bring it home ever single scene, mixing intelligence, strength, pathos, and passion. Their onscreen moments also remind us that all the tech in the world means very little when set against skill. The fact that Asian martial arts outshine both CGI and military weapons is perhaps a telling lesson for a film centered on GIs.
My only criticism of these characters is the subtle racial dynamic of their backstory. Like so many Hollywood films, Gi Joe makes a white character the keeper of ancient Asian practices. Thus Snake Eyes, not Storm Shadow, understands the philosophy and the practice of the Ninjas better than anyone else. When Snake Eyes arrives in the dojo, Storm Shadow’s understanding of the letter of the law but not the heart of the philosophy leads to a mighty fall from grace defined by his inadequacies vis-a-vis Snake Eyes. The film does an extreme disservice to the character by both blaming him for not having the heart of a ninja and the death of hos own uncle Onahashi/Hard Master over jealousy. In the original story, Storm Shadow welcomes Snake Eyes into his family’s dojo and the two are blood brothers until Snake Eyes starts to surpass him. Hard Master is killed by Zartan when he mistakes him for Snake Eyes; Storm Shadow does not run off out of guilt, tho the dojo does think he is the murderer b/c Zartan used his weapon, but b/c he is chasing Zartan. Thus the original story, which shows a complex relationship between the two characters in which both has reason to resent or suspect the other, is reduced to stereotypical racialized conflict. Lee’s subtle acting and well-honed craft, make Storm Shadow far more complex than a white vs. Asian narrative however and that saves them. He infuses the character with so much complexity that it is a pleasure to watch.
Director Stephen Sommers also updates the black characters in this movie. In the cartoon, Heavy Duty is a walking, grunting, stereotype: big, black, and with a preference for huge guns over big words. In the film, Heavy Duty is re-imagened as a British weapons expert who is equally at ease with weapons and thought. He is articulate and interesting; however, he is also mostly background.
Sommers also cast Marlon Wayans as Ripcord, who is white in the cartoon. His role could easily be dismissed as “wise cracking black side kick”, although, like the Storm Shadow storyline, there are moments that reject this interpretation. Ripcord has the second highest simulation score in all of the GI Joe unit and he is the only certified pilot on the team. His heroism saves the White House from a nanobomb and his compassion helps open up Scarlett’s “straight-laced” character. At the same time, he is there for comic relief, clowning more than acting. Like two CGI twins from Transformers, Ripcord doesn’t read his manual on how to operate his suit and despite scoring a 99% on the sim test just moments earlier, is told that “if we average your scores with Dukes [the highest overall scores in Joe history], Ripcord would also pass.”
There are also two “Arabs” in the film, by which I mean people likely to be read as Middle Eastern by audiences. Breaker is played by Moroccan Said Taghmaoui in another largely throw away character role that is a significant character role in the source material. He is the tech expert, smart, and multi-lingual. The film character runs against ME stereotype which is good, all though he is a very French stereotype – obsessed with Paris, meticulous, know-it-all, and annoying . . .
The other one is played by Arnold Vosloo, whose character Zartan’s ethnic and racial origins are unspecified in the comic books or the film, but most will recognize Vosloo as the face of the Mummy franchise and read him accordingly. He also adopts the guise of an Arab in the desert when he doesn’t take the flight home with the Baroness and Storm Shadow for no other reason than to put him in a turban next to a camel. His character is also largely throw away and represents one of the worst re-writings of a character in the film. Zartan used to be a master of disguise who could mimic any other person through illusion, mimicry, and craft. In the film, he is subjected to a venom experiment that forcibly changes his features; however, this may be a reference to the chameleon experiments from the newer revamped character.
While the idea of an Arab terrorist is clearly a stereotype, the character is not generally played as one. And like other ethnic characters, he has a counterpart on the Joe team to mediate his acts of terrorism. In fact, one thing many of the racial, ethnic, and national modifications that Sommers made to the storyline help to diffuse much of the potential jingoism that other summer blockbuster films have been guilty of in the past few years.
One other plus about the film version of Vartan: he is no longer MPD or otherwise written as mentally unstable. In his original incarnation he was described as MPD and paranoid schizophrenic which caused a lot of complaint from disability rights advocates. All though the information was removed from his back story, the cartoon version of Zartan was always depicted as unstable and distasteful to his fellow COBRA operatives as a result. COBRA commander in particular belittled and despised Zartan because of his mental illness. Sommers removes this stigma from the character completely and depicts him as any other member of the COBRA team, ie, ruthless, violent, and committed to mayhem.
As with many other summer offerings this season, there are no Latinos in the film. If memory serves, there are no major Latino characters in the GI Joe universe which makes no sense since Latinos and African Americans are disproportionately represented in the army. It would have been easy to have some Latinos in the background in the large Joe headquarters scenes or even in the street scenes. It would have been nice to give a Latino a speaking role, perhaps in the cabinet of the White House where they were less beholden to the existing characters in GI Joe and COBRA. They are not there.
There are no women of color in this film and quite frankly, I am grateful. The disconnects between the racial narratives of the film, which mix standard stereotype with subtle, positive, reinvention, and the utter fail of the film’s gender politics simply does not bode well for the ability to depict positive and/or complex woc.
What brought me into the GI Joe World was the mix of powerful strength, intelligence, and southern femmeness of Scarlett and her relationship with Duke in the cartoon. Almost all of that has failed to make it to the screen. The Scarlett of the comic book and cartoon was a martial arts and weapons expert, skilled at counter-intelligence, and second in command of the GI Joe unit. She was also the top of her class at a prestigious private university and a lawyer, who spoke multiple languages and was dating/engaged to marry Snake Eyes(comic) or dating/married to Duke (cartoon). Instead of this female powerhouse, the film gives us a Scarlett who is largely a frigid egghead, more interested in “I don’t like you-pursue me” flirting and not crying in front of the boys than kicking butt and taking names. Scarlett’s fight scenes undermine her character’s original prowess; when she is not getting beat down by the Baroness, she is shooting people with a target lock bow and arrow that take all of the skill out of it. While the bow was her weapon of choice in comic and cartoon, she used to be a skilled archer not just a trigger finger. In her first on screen battle, she comes in bow blazing, but is soon knocked to the ground and having the life choked out of her, accept that the weapon has already locked on to her opponent and takes him out before he can kill her. The only really recognizable thing about Scarlett for fans of the original is her motorcylce riding and her celtic heritage. She rocks a bike in an extended chase scene near the middle of the film. Unfortunately, she is nowhere near the van they are trying to capture and does not actually participate in the fighting as a result; instead, she zips around on the bike in cool stunt poses, until she gets blasted off it, only to be caught by Ripcord before she can bash her brains on the pavement. The character had potential but was truly disappointing in execution.
I do think some of the criticism of her character changes for the film are also racial. The film shows her flirting with Ripcord. Several people have complained about how this violates the original without any similar vehemence about the shifts in her relationships from comic book to cartoon. Some reviewers are using obviously coded language to discuss their discomfort. Obviously, my concern is less about her hooking up with a black man than it is about how this changes the overall storyline’s authenticity to the the original stories and plot and how it further pushes Scarlett to the margins of the plot by linking her to the “comic relief” rather than the action.
The Baroness, played by Sienna Miller, is worse. While she does actually kick butt with a heartless abandon similar to the original character, we find out that the whole thing is a sham. The Baroness is not a bad ass villain who can hold her own with men and women, she’s just a dopey blonde scientist with a bad case of nano-headache. (It should be noted that the original Baroness is neither related to the Cobra commander nor the love interest of Duke. She was never married to a Baron but born into aristocracy and originally a humanitarian who misinterprets the murder of her brother, the Baron, as U.S. Imperialism. All of this has been rewritten in the film in ways that diminish both the Baroness and Scarlett’s characters.) Sienna Miller is also really bad at walking in heels, which I would not have imagined. She bounces like a caged horse through most of her scenes, and b/c they never show her feet, I can’t tell if its is b/c of in practical stilettos or the combination of high heels and really tight clothes, but it drove me crazy the whole film. And, like other blockbusters, the writers seem to think that giving her a few “girl power” comments will mask her plunging neckline and spray painted on clothes. Should have taught her to walk in high heels if you thought that was going to work. Or I don’t know, actually made her have control over her own mind and actions . . .
As you might expect, if not from the genre than the sub-heading of this section, there are no GLBTQI characters in this movie. There was certainly room to work some in between COBRA Commander and Destro as the cartoon once tried to do near the end of its first generation run. Making Rex gay would have played into other stereotypes, but it also would have provided needed nuance to the character and an explanation for the way he treats both Destro and Duke as well as why he would do what he did to his sister. There was also the potential for homoeroticism between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, since they did away with the blood brother storyline, but I liked the way the tension played out between their adults selves just fine as is. I wasn’t expecting any queer characters and I didn’t get any, and like the absence of women of color in this largely male driven film, I’d rather not see them then see them portrayed poorly.
Overall, they did much better on race than on gender in this one.
While some critics have complained, one of the fun things about this movie is the Mummy reunion between Vosloo and Brendan Fraser. Fraser comes in for a hand to hand combat training scene that rewrites a scene between Scarlett and Snake Eyes that originally bonded them. In the comic book, Scarlett trains all new recruits in hand to hand combat and does so in a battle between herself and Snake Eyes that he lets her win. In the film, Fraser’s unnamed character arrives to train Duke and initiates the hand-to-hand with him and Snake Eyes where he also is mostly beaten but wins. The scene follows in the footsteps of the larger gender issues with the film in that it centers male characters at all times, with the exception of the insipid love story between Duke and Baroness, figuratively or literally replaces women with men in most of the action sequences. Thus Baroness’ action sequences are all really her brother’s until the escape scene and Scarlett’s scenes are all of her either being beaten or being completely replaced by male actors.
That said, it was fun to watch Fraser show up, spout some comedic lines, and mug for the camera in anticipation of Vosloo’s arrival on base.
This movie is 2 hours of CGI mayhem with a poorly written and convoluted storyline and even worse dialogue. It will likely upset die-hard fans and occasionally confuse newbees. The special effects range from mundane to spectacular and the acting is largely hit or miss. Jospeh Gordon-Levitt is completely wasted here and many of the characters are little more than background noise. Its race and gender politics are no worse than any other summer movie out this year and, at least with regards to race, sometimes better than several. It is also surprisingly less pro-military hawk movie than it likely should have been, putting the 2.5 hour recruitment video Transformers Revenge of the Fallen to shame in its ability to give us a military movie that questions military technology and takes a few minor jabs at the real profit behind war.
If you go to see it, watch for the amazing performance of Byung-Hun Lee and the campy goodness of Fraser and Vosloo. Channing Tatum is also very good in his role, as a young all American soldier.