'G.I. Joe' - Guest Review

Review of 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' by Hedgehog

"Come to the dark side, we've got cookies bananas shortbread!"

*WARNING! Possible spoilers contained in this article!*

To start with the routine: My childhood was completely G.I.-Joe-free. The first time I ever heard about it was when I was 18 and got nicknamed "G.I. Joe" at work for wearing a leather hat. Up to this day, I fail to see the connection between that hat and the action figures. I have a secret weapon though, in the guise of a good friend who's very much into everything that's ever been drawn on paper and called 'comic strip', to put it mildly. So I was armed with a short briefing on who's who and who's on whose side.

'G.I. Joe' has entered the cinema charts here at a respectable #3. It has been rated '16' by the FSK (Board of Film Classification) and thus probably lost a third of the target audience. Fortunately, it is also shown at a small cinema that has movies in their original language with no dubbing, so I traded in the big screen in an air-conditioned room for a screen about twice as big as modern plasma tv screens in a room for an audience of about 150, with the air-conditioning either being non-existent or having failed. Ten minutes after the crowd that had been there to see 'Public Enemies' before had left. Suffice to say, it was well above 'warm', and if there was any oxygen left, it was expertly hidden.

I went twice, because a) on the first night I was somewhat tired and didn't get all the details and b) the second time I went with said comic-loving friend of mine. (He's *not* a 'geek'. Just wanted to make that clear. We're all just part of one subculture or another.) Ah, and there were about 20 people on Friday night and 5 (!) on Saturday night to see the movie – but we're the 'no-dubbing-club', so the audience would be expected to be smaller than those going to see the dubbed version.

This is about the 7th or 8th take on a review I've tried now. Why is it so difficult? I suppose it's finding the right mixture of "yes, I like this movie" and "but" and not going into more details than a review can digest (the version before this had a detailed character analysis and a bit more "but" than I felt I really wanted to pour into the mixture). I've not fallen in unconditional love with the movie, but neither do I smother any regrets about having seen it twice so far. The truth is somewhere in between. And I know I'll get the DVD.

On the bottom line I think I've enjoyed 'G.I. Joe'. I knew what to expect, namely a ton-load of action scenes, more action scenes and explosions, not much of a plot and characters based on action figures (aka "don't expect much depth and three-dimensionality").

I've had my fair share of really bad movies, having gone through a Peter-Cushing-phase when I was about 12, and I reckon 'Corruption' (aka 'Laser Killer') is a hard one to beat (but Cushing's performance in it was stellar!), although he was given a run for his money when I entered into a Robert-Patrick-phase some years later – not to mention the many one-shots that can't be categorized into one of my 'phases' and which I just happened to stumble upon… 20 years have passed and I've aged since then. I'm drinking decaffeinated coffee now in the evenings, at least when I'm not on night shift the next day. I've also acquired some taste and am not going to see a movie I'd otherwise give a wide berth just to see one actor in it… Erm. Cancel that last part.

It also was a welcome excuse for an experiment that could be described as "what happens if you expose this 2009-Hedgehog to a movie that, on the outside, seems to be inversely proportional to this Hedgehog's demands on a movie, being 1) a) interesting characters played by 1) b) enthusiastic actors, 2) a challenging plot with nail-on-the-head dialogue, 3) good direction, 4) a nice soundtrack doesn't hurt and 5) oh, if you've got some money left, throw in some fx?"

This seems to be a good time to mention that today's movies' special fx are mostly lost on this Hedgehog. I apparently seem to be physically incapable of making out more than a – most of the time yellowish-orange coloured – blur when things go 'boom'. Likewise, anything faster-paced than one of Errol Flynn's duels or the light-saber-fight between Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader is the visual equivalent of white noise to me, most of the time with a nauseating by-effect. This puts me in the happy position to be fully able to enjoy Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion fx as fluent, but is a bit of a hindrance when it comes to more contemporary stuff.

So I can only comment on the about 20% of 'G.I. Joe' I’ve actually really seen plus, say, about 5-10% of the rest I was able to somehow compute visually.

It says on the tin "this is an action movie" – and this promise is kept. Pure action. We're not bothered with the pretence of a more than minimalistic plot… Don't you just hate it when you go to see an action movie and then there's all that plot with useless, see-through twists and turns that just seems to be painfully constructed so someone can say "see, we've got a plot, and there's even three turns in it, we took excruciating pains to make them look as a surprise to you, the viewer, so ours is not just a shallow movie?"

There's far too many action films out there that seem to be secretly aiming at getting a prize at Venice, Cannes or Berlin. It's as if they're just too chicken to take the final step and stand up for what they are. Plain, simple action, no brain cells required. No underlying secret politically correct or agenda-friendly propaganda messages.

'G.I. Joe' is the first movie I've ever seen to actually show some guts and throw all the useless ballast overboard. The result is refreshingly honest, interesting, yet at the same time somehow terrifying, rock-solid pragmatic workmanship.

Terrifying? Yes. As in "how often have I willingly let myself be fooled by some alibi of a plot?" Accepted a bad plot and called it 'alright' rather than calling it by its name, 'crap', and demand something better be written? It's only when something's taken away from you that you really notice how much you’re craving for it. This was most certainly never on the list of intentions of this movie, but it has, for me, been an eye-opener in that regard. Which counts for something, so I'll give 'G.I. Joe' a plus in the plot-department, not for having a good one, but rather for not lying to the audience and trying to sell pigshit for pearls.

The characters: There was one thing I noticed the second time I went to see 'G.I. Joe' together with my comic-loving friend – it seems to make a difference if you know the original franchise. Especially as far as the Joes are concerned. When they made their first appearance, saving Duke and Ripcord, I heard him call each of them by name under his breath, and I knew he was able to associate them with a background story and deeds they'd done, while I was sitting there, having to make do with what the movie provided. Which was, in the case of the Joes, truly not very much.

Those flashbacks came in handy understanding how the current situation came to be, with Duke and Ripcord on one side, and the Baroness and the Doctor on the other. Neither Duke nor Ripcord became any more interesting, as sadly, what happened then, wasn't mirrored in the contemporary characters' personalities or behaviour. Heavy Duty, Scarlett, General Hawk, Breaker – all just names and faces. Some more so, some a bit less – but, as it so often happens, the really interesting stories and personalities are to be found on the side of the so-called 'villains'.
(I'll go and do some stealing from a former version now…)

The Doctor/Cobra Commander: As mad a scientist as they come. With a background, but that doesn't explain why he's turned to the Dark Side. Speculating on the base of stereotypes: Revenge and a desire for power. He just doesn't get a chance to really show his motivation on screen, and I'd gladly have sacrificed ten minutes of explosions and chasing to see that.

The Baroness: Really a shame they kept the intelligent dialogue to a bare minimum. Less bang, more talk! This character goes into the 'a lot of unused potential' drawer. Ah, and 'bloody traitoress!' (I just needed to say that, I feel better now, thanks). My friend seemed to be a little surprised she ended up with the good side in the end, though. However, her part was even more important if I go and do some thinking based on what I learned from my short briefing.

Said friend's interpretation of Destro in the comic books was that he's basically a puppet on the strings of the Cobra Commander, however, there seems to be some part left of him that sees those strings and would like to cut them. All hearsay and personal interpretation, of course. So that's what I thought of when McCullen sees the Baroness breaking free and acting of her own will. Knowing of his ill-fated future at that point, I literally went "Keep that in mind, friend – it might help you one day." That's the kind of stuff that intrigues me… perhaps if there's a sequel and they tremendously cut back on the budget and instead of over-the-top CGI-explosions have to make more use of characters, plot and dialogue? Ooookay, not going to happen, I know. *sighs*

Zartan: Also a character I enjoyed watching. For, well, he's played by Arnold Vosloo, who on other occasions before has shown much talent in filling otherwise flat characters with emotion and life. He doesn't get much to go on, but he doesn't need that, and he's gotten the most out of it. I'd have loved to have seen him in more scenes with McCullen, but hey, I know, you can't always get what you want.

Night Raven: *tongue-in-cheek* Now, this little lovely piece of advanced technology beats most of the good guys if we're talking about having a three-dimensional personality. It's reliable. It's (nearly) indestructible. And fast. It protects whoever has entrusted his or her life into its hands… erm, cockpit, by means of its superior strength, shielding and attack power. If it were a man, I'd imagine it to be a little arrogant, but generally good-humoured, the kind of guy who can take a joke and a punch on the arm.

It's on the sacrifice of this brave little plane called the Night Raven Washington is saved – and it gets its pilot to safety with its last virtual breath. Very heroic! Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam, Bran de na Oidche, gus am bris an là agus an teimh na sgailean. Déirich! (They used 'teine' for 'fire' – which as far as my foreigner’s understanding of Gaelic goes is only used when referring to an actual fire, as in flames. I used 'déirich', as this is how 'gunfire' is translated. It's still not a verb. And yes, I'm a weirdo. And a bit of obsessed when it comes to things Scottish.)

McCullen: I shall try and put this politely. I have the highest respect for those people who've made a movie. Always. Because they're doing things I cannot and would not attempt to try. I know my place. The only exception being writers, and I dare criticize them then, and only then, when I'm one hundred percent sure I could stand up (or sit down) and do it better, and whenever I do, if anyone challenged me to do so, I can absolutely guarantee I would. Most of the time I just point out what I'd have done differently, meaning not better, maybe even lesser in quality, only from a different angle of approach.

So, this is a big step for me saying that, sorry, but I can't put it in any different way – and it's not a praise that's supposed to put the ones around him down (if I do bashing, you'll see it clearly marked as such. Don't get me started on a certain on-the-fly-audio-commentary I once did on 'National Treasure' (told you I've had my fair share…) – that one was true bashing helped by too much Glühwein, and parts of it are still quoted back to me by the friend who was with me at the cinema. But I digress):

McCullen is in a one-man-league of his own.

This is a villain with a truckload of personality, who's somehow managed to get all of the top-twenty list of lines in the whole movie and somehow this part has ended up with an actor who could give three-dimensionality to a blanket woven of a monolayer of nanofilament.

Deadly home-run combination, that. Any attempt of a comparison to the other roles would be deeply unfair, especially considering what the respective actors were given to work with.

Whatever the reasons that made Chris Eccleston take this part (If I were a cat, I'd have used up more than nine lives by now, but I can't help being curious), he's once more delivered a very fine performance, getting about 200% out of the character. That's just a guesstimate, mind you. Walking around as a hologram part of the time – and that scene was terrifying, – cold-arrogant, slimy smug wisecrack, stylish and somehow enjoyable all at once. And if there's talk of James-Bond-references, well, there were times where I was certain if the camera had shown the right part of the floor, there'd have been a white fat cat strolling about.

And bless you, McCullen, for the line "Don’t want to spoil the surprise"! For once, just once, a villain did not make the nefarious movie mistake so well-parodied in 'Last Action Hero'. That's up to the real mastermind a few seconds later…

About the accent, well, what do I know, not being a native speaker… it's good enough for me. Much of it sounds spot-on, sometimes the pronunciation is there while the speech melody differs just slightly from what I'm used to hearing – but regional accents vary and so I'm very careful saying that. Point is, it's made clear enough the character is Scottish and not from Switzerland.

And lo and behold! There's a Hedgehog as happy as a king. I just loves me some stylish, smug villains! Is it a dangerous sign if I dig the bad guys? Should I question my ability to discern between black and white (let you in on a secret: It's all grey anyway), thus proving right my old school teacher who once called a meeting with the headmaster and my mum back when I wrote a story-turn to Susan Cooper's novels that ended up with the Dark Rider being a good guy?

Yea, I actually did that – but a) based on the excerpts we were given before the exam it was entirely possible and logical, it was more my way of protesting against reading books in excerpts only, and b) the first thing I've admitted when seeing 'The Seeker' was that there's no way I could re-write this Dark Rider to be on the good side. Ce la vie! But give me 20 pages and a pen and a bottle of single malt and see what I can do to the characters of 'G.I. Joe'!!! And what the hell anyway, I'm big, I'm bad, I'm German! (bless you, Gottfried John… who according to casting myth got the part of a baddie in a Bond movie with this line) – honestly, which side could I *possibly* ever be on? *pokes tongue out*

And besides that, seriously, if I told you "McCullen doesn't take the chance to kick a guy who's just struck him down but is now on the ground" and "Duke mercilessly does everything to hunt down a man who's just been mortally wounded" – what respective side would you think those two are on? (Talk about 'excerpts only'.)

And that's something that's really worth taking a pause and look onto more closely: The good aren't what they were and the bad aren't that much either. Strange for an action movie, isn't it? Both sides have got an enormous body count and cause quite some collateral damage. If it's not just down to the cutting-away-violence policy here in Germany, the bad guy's weapon of choice destroys metal and concrete, but people stay unharmed (unless the Eiffel Tower happens to coincidentally fall on their heads, well, bad luck!). The ethics behind the technology Breaker uses to pry some information from a dead thug – good side?

World domination? Aw, come on, we've heard that before, and really, I can imagine worse things than this world being dominated by one charismatic Scotsman – of all. Point taken, not many things, but… *indistinctive muttering* And what, pray tell, is the agenda behind the so-called good guys' doing? Saving the world from being dominated by one charismatic Scotsman? Hello? If it weren't for MARS you'd all be unarmed, unshielded, unemployed or be killing some aggressive peasants on one of this world's battlefields!

See? See what bad things happen if this Hedgehog doesn't get a movie with a plot? I'm shallow, I operate on five brain cells, one that tells me to breathe in and out, one that manages shields and radar systems, and three that sometimes do some thinking. On rare occasions, all of them at the same time on the same topic. If all three of those don't get enough to keep busy, I'll start logorrheic rambling (and I've really tried to keep that to a minimum)!

So, to wrap this up… before it gets any more confused: Have I enjoyed this movie? – Yes. It was everything I'd expected and was prepared for, and a little bit more. The explosions were of a bit more intense orange blur… no, seriously. I'd have wished for a little bit more of a 'small explosion – slow pace – medium explosion – slow pace with a beat – bigger explosion – slow pace culminating into – big grand finale' – pattern instead of 'Big explosion – slow pace – big explosion – slow pace – finale', but that's not a big minus. There were some three-dimensional characters, which I was hoping for.

And most importantly: It wasn't just entertainment for two hours, then you go out, and someone says "I'd have done it differently", and you go "Yes, me too, but nevertheless, it was fun", and someone else says "No. More. Flashbacks. PLEASE." and afterwards, it's done and gone and you never think about it again. It did spark some thoughts, and that's something I didn't exactly expect. And that's important. You can sit back and relax for two hours and just enjoy a fast-paced action movie, but there's something you take home, some impulse that sets other things in motion.

One of the critics here wrote "another movie that teaches our children violence is a viable solution to problems", and I thought, what the?! – last time I checked teaching children was a parent's job, and not delegated to movies. And if it only reminds my generation of how we grew up by sparking some old memories, and how we changed from when we were children, pursue that thought a little bit further and see how the world has changed, too – and from that on, you can go anywhere in your train of thoughts. Then 'G.I. Joe' has achieved something very many other simple action movies don't.

Or you just enjoy two hours of a good, solid piece put together with love for the original material and good humour and fun for some over-the-top action, gadgetry and big boom. ;-)

This review is brought to you by:



Hedgehog said...

Thanks, Alex, for putting it up! ;-)

I just noticed that during the copy and paste action the strokes through "cookies" and "bananas" in the first line got lost - oops, I should've thought of that sooner... sorry, my mistake.

Alex said...

No worries, Hedgehog =)

It must be obvious I know nothing about culinary, but I live and learn... Better now? =)

Fantastic review, btw, thank you very much!