26 June 2019

For No Reason Let's Look at G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

We are actually approaching the ten-year anniversary of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), which is amazing and as good of a reason as any to ramble about this lost gem of American cinema. But truly, I just saw it pop up on Hulu and will still contend that it's one of the greatest action-adventure movies of the modern era. It gets a lot of flack just because it's really stupid and has pulpy source material, but none of that actually matters. Top to bottom this flick is amazing. Come, dear reader - let me tell you why.

This all starts with Transformers (2007). Some might call it the pioneer of blockbuster 80s toy adaptations. It made a ton of money, soaked up all of Michael Bay's time for ten years, and was lauded for its incoherent visuals and complete disregard for plot or taste. This was a formulative moment in cinematic history. At the very least it gave Hasbro the idea that it could convert all of its toys into movies.

Ninja fights!
Now, the original source material for all this crap is pretty bad. Nostalgia takes over, but neither Transformers nor G.I. Joe nor Thundercats or Voltron were any good. They were all pretty cheap cartoons all made expressly to sell toys. That's really it. It did form this vague collective memory, though that allowed us to partly dip a tow in the nostalgia market while also staying far enough away so that fans wouldn't be pissed. Beyond Optimus, Megatron, Starscream, and Bumblebee I'm not sure any casual fan remembered any other Transformer. Except Hot Rod and it took until the fifth fucking movie for him to debut. G.I. Joe is even worse. Was the lead character even named Joe? No one cares. We just remember Snake Eyes.

This put Rise of Cobra in a fun position. It could trade heavily on the Joe name while being its own ridiculous thing. And G.I. Joe is inherently insane, even to parody. It's hard to think of joke names because a lot of Joe names really were joke names. Who better to take the reigns of this epic attempt at making money than Stephen Sommers? He had quite a few random movies in the 90s until he found his magnum opus in The Mummy (1999). One need only watch this throwback adventure tale to understand what brings Sommers above his contemporaries - an understanding that movies are fun.

Sommers also gave us The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004), and before you ask, yes, that's about it. These are epic, studio-driven films that revel in their own stupidity. There is no shame or reluctance to his filmmaking. He'll throw everything against the wall and keep only the fun, epic parts. There's such an earnest quality to his movies. Sure, they don't really have...plots, but that hardly matters. He's well aware of the pulpy realm he exists in and has a lot of fun with it. I'll also shout out Odd Thomas (2013), a fantastic small little movie starring the late Anton Yelchin that maintains Sommer's flair.

All this percolated in Rise of Cobra to create one of the best pure action-adventure films of the modern era. It surely didn't last that long in a post-Dark Knight (2008) world that suddenly took everything dark, serious, and brooding, but my appreciation has only grown. As a movie, while there are certainly leaps in logic and quickly bypassed character development, it still establishes simple but potent stakes very early, sticks by them, and crafts an insane yet sincere world for its toys to play in.

Before watching this, I had never seen a film that so purely put playing with action figures on screen. There are implausible secret bases, evil nano-technology mind-controlled soldiers, submarine armies, and so much more. It took a kid's imagination and gave it a $175 million budget for some reason. The only other film that's come close was actually last month's Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), which gave me the same feeling. Both films throw plausibility to the wind and truly don't care about doing it. How do these organizations get funding? How do these characters figure out where everyone else will be? Where do these skills come from? Nobody cares. If it's not pure cinematic fun, it's left on the cutting room floor.

And to be sure - this is a tricky line to walk. There are Sommers-esque directors who fail. Look no further than John M. Chu's G.I. Joe: Retaliaion (2013) which somehow too the exact same source material, added The Rock and Bruce Willis and then totally whiffed. There's a difference between treating the source material seriously and making a serious movie. Rise of Cobra relishes its world but knows that that world is inherently silly. Save a few clever scenes, Retaliation never felt like it knew how to loosen up and be fun. There are many more problems with that that we'll get to, but it also lacked focus, which is surprisingly always crystal clear in Rise of Cobra.

The film takes four minutes to establish stakes. I timed it. And those stakes never change. There are nanomite warheads that can destroy a city if they fall into the wrong hands. That's it. The whole movie chugs along with that underlying danger (EXCEPT the big twist is that this isn't actually Cobra's plot at all, in a stroke of genuine brilliance - more on that later). The warheads are basically a MacGuffin in the sense that everyone in the movie is chasing them and they drive a lot of the plot, but they also actually have a function rather than just being an obscure jewel or something. Also, the MacGuffin becomes a Red Herring! It's awesome!

Also, Dennis Quaid is here for some reason!
Within the first 21 minutes we hear, "Knowing is half the battle", "Real American Hero", and "Kung Fu Grip." That's all we need. Each member of the Joes has a little gimmick like the hacker, the bombs guy, the woman with the head-exploding crossbow. It's almost as if they lacked a white man until Channing Tatum comes in, with the power of being white and leading them. There's a scene of Channing Tatum watching a funeral in aviator sunglasses in the pouring rain while riding a motorcycle. It's sublime.

Tatum is ostensibly the protagonist, although this is an ensemble more than anything, and he's actually the one captured and who needs saving at the end. This is way too late, but SPOILERS for this 10-year old movie that no one cares about, I guess. Marlon Wayan is also here, with some cringy hitting on the non-sportscaster Rachel Nichols after she says no. How did we not realize until like 2017 that women are capable of independent agency? Other than this awkwardness, which was standard then (and still now), Wayans actually does a nice job balancing comic relief and genuine action chops. You could say he was the original black best friend. Shit that goes back a ways actually.

We also have great ethnic character actors in Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Croc from Suicide Squad [2016]) and Saïd Taghmaoui (The same exact character in Wonder Woman [2017]) doing their thing. Most importantly, Akinnuoye-Agbaje also featured in The Mummy Returns, and this movie is an insane reunion of Mummy actors. Kevin J. O'Connor, who played the weasel Benny in The Mummy appears as the best named character, Dr. Mindbender. Arnold Vosloo is actually downright charming here as the sadistic murder / master of disguise Zartan. And Brendan Frasier even appears on a little ATV-thing during the best training montage ever. It actually took me a while to realize they weren't even playing "Bang a Gong" in the background. I still think of this montage every single damn time I hear that song. It perfectly encapsulates the fun sincerity of this film. Was Rachel Weisz unavailable? She also was absent from Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). You now John David Hannah was available.

Rounding out the cast is Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the hammiest performance of all-time as Cobra Commander. Of course, you don't find out he's Commander until the last scene, but the lead-up to his ascension is awesome. He always seems like just this weird creepy nano-doctor who is obsessed with snakes. Christopher Eccleston is Destro for most of the film and the main antagonist, wielding power in the form of a billion-dollar weapons empire and somehow super-advanced energy bubble gun technology. He's also a moustache-twirling insane person. This is Sienna Miller's best movie. She's the Baroness, although I do sort of wish she wasn't mind-controlled, just actually evil. It makes it a little weird when Channing Tatum has to save her with his mighty man charms, but she's also still straight up in jail by the film's end.

Finally, the two best characters. See, this is largely a NATO vs. Terrorists show of military propaganda (nominally - you can read NATO pretty transparently as USA and Cobra as...there's no real analogy there), but this is also an intense Ninja Revenge drama. That's the awesome thing about G.I. Joe. For some reason it really boils down to all Good Guys vs. all Bad Guys. Like, it doesn't matter if they have military affiliation or not. This film spares us weird snow people, but preserves good ninja vs. bad ninja.

Meet Snake Eyes, a white guy who wears black and never talks and Storm Shadow, a Japanese (ok - Korean actor) guy who always wears white and talks sometimes. Snake Eyes took a vow of silence after Storm Shadow killed their sensei, the Hard Master (fuck these names...), although that is retconned in a way that severely undermines his character and arc in Retaliation.

Played by Byung-hun Lee of The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), it's both the best acting and best character in this movie. While Ray "Darth Maul and Toad" Park is Snake Eyes as a quiet spirit of vengeance, you feel all the anger and pain Storm Shadow feels from being in this dumbass rat white kid's shadow for like twenty years. He's competent, brutal, merciless, but does have a code of honor above his other Cobra people. You kind of wonder what the hell his motivation is in helping these people, but you also get the sense that he's just a lost soul just looking for an excuse to kill Snake Eyes. And the kid version is played by the kid Heroin leader from Tropic Thunder (2008)!

One thing I always liked though is that the good guys are actually as cool as the bad guys. Ohhh the bad guys are always the coolest. Snake Eyes pushes the Joes over the top, though. As do Ripcord and Scarlett. The two of them seem to be able to figure out what Cobra's doing at any turn. I think some of that is gearing this film towards a younger, dumber demographic. Like, how the fuck does Scarlett speak fluent Celtic to save the day at the end? That's downright bizarre. It's just to keep the plot moving, it's okay.

Sommers, known also as the King of Shitty CGI, fills this movie not only with childhood characters but childhood playsets. The CGI is so bad. Are you ready for the worst in the movie? It's right here. This is 2009 and this movie again cost $175 million! What the fuck? But this vehicle, with all its gadgets fits perfectly as a play accessory. And that Paris chase sequence is fantastic. Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans don literal Iron Man suits, blast through Paris, fail to save the Eiffel Tower, then get arrested and are banished from France forever. This is all straight up what happens in this movie.

It's a little hint towards the end that the Joes actually fail here. Quite a bit actually. They are continually outmatched by Cobra. First they get their asses handed to them in the opening scene. When they slink away, they are outwitted once more, accidentally activating a homing beacon that reveals their secret base's location (this however, leads to the single best scene, when a door explodes because of bullets). They can't get the warheads back in Paris and the city is nearly destroyed.

Oh yeah - the bases. The Joes live in a secret base under the Sahara desert in Egypt, which seems to have been picked with total disregard towards actual Middle Eastern geopolitics. But the Cobra base - that was when I knew I was watching something special. A giant underwater base beneath the Arctic Ice Cap?! How? Why?! It's completely impractical! As the Joes say, though, impossible to detect! Except for when they detect them immediately!

As you might guess, this all leads to a massive underwater submarine fight that would go unmatched until Aquaman (2018). There's one point where Sommers actually does a match cut between a barrel-rolling jet in the upper atmosphere and a Manta sub in pursuit of Cobra Commander. It's amazing. At one point Cobra detonates the ice shelf and everyone needs to escape BECAUSE THE ICE SHELF WILL FALL ON THE UNDERWATER BASE. They eventually get away and disable the base's mega-cannon and capture the elusive new Cobra Commander.

BUT - and here's the final twist. This was all just bullshit. See, Destro has also built the President's bunker, which he knew would be protocol once a warhead was aimed at Washington, D.C. The entire warhead was a production - a big ruse to trick the Joes and America into doing exactly as they wanted. For lo and behold waiting for President Don Quixote in the Destro Bunker is Zartan, disguised as a perfect copy. It's basically a David Tenant / Mad-Eye Moody situation. So while the rest of Cobra appears dismantled and defeated, they have a man in the White House and no one is the wiser. That's how the movie ends! The bad guys win! And no one knows! I was actually blown away and really excited for the sequel.

Rachel Nichols taught me what puberty is from this movie
Retaliation sucked. It didn't help that they either killed everyone or replaced the competent, likable cast. In a fun twist, Channing Tatum spent the intervening years becoming the 21 Jump Street (2012) Tatum, suddenly a reliable and unique leading man with charms they failed to deploy in Rise of Cobra. They kept Ray Park and Byung-hun Lee, thank goodness, but fucked with their Ninja background and made their decades long grudge make no sense. In a true way of trying to sell more toys, though, everyone else fell by the wayside. You can't replace Joseph Gordon-Levitt with Luke Bracey and expect it to be any good. He's Cobra Commander! An iconic 80s villain on par with Skeletor, Megatron, and Mum-Ra! How could they find no one of high caliber to take that role. It's such a good, meaty, campy, insane role to play.

They added The Rock and Bruce Willis and they're okay. Adrian Palicki, Elodie Young, and Ray Stevenson are all good additions, but it's really hard to just start over. They could have all been additions to the cast instead of wholesale upgrades. Why can't this team have two women on it at the same time? Speaking of that - the Baroness nano-brain cliffhanger is never brought up again. I still think it would have been some better character development if she had made a conscious decision to be super evil, but this film doesn't have time for that.

And while I remember the ending of Rise of Cobra so well as the greatest ending ever, I have no idea what happens in Retaliation. I've watched it twice. It doesn't stick in my brain. It feels like a cheap movie made on the fly that no one cared about.

Okay, okay sure - let's get cynical. Sommers is a hack and Rise of Cobra was designed to capitalize on Transformers' popularity and sell toys. There are loads of problematic narrative shortcuts and an uneasy comfortability with the military-industrial complex. Everyone knows this. But true globe-trotting adventure movies that are fun and earnest are really rare. You would be hard-pressed to find a movie like this these days, which is partly why I was so excited by Godzilla: King of the Monsters. They're movies who aren't afraid to be movies, and that's something I really appreciate.

What do you think of this movie? Am I crazy? Is this trash? I could watch this every day of my life.

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