Saturday, August 8, 2009

Spoiler-Free Movie Review: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I should start this review with an admission that I am an old-school Joe guy. Well, not THAT old-school. I'm talking Swivel-Arm Battle Grip, not Kung-Fu Grip. Yeah, it was 3-3/4" Snake-Eyes and Duke and Cobra Commander for me. I mowed my Mom's best friends' yard at age 11 to earn 10 bucks in 1982, just to buy my first Joe figure. It was a straight-arm Snake-Eyes and the Rapid-Fire "RAM" Motorcycle. Man, I was happy. My Joe collecting addiction lasted well into my 20's, and it expanded to the point I actually possessed a full set of the figures produced domestically at one point. So, it is from that perspective that I anticipated the G.I. Joe movie ever since I heard about its production back in 2008. Of course, I'd seen the repetitive trailers featuring the scene leading to the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, so I, like anyone else with a television, had a pretty good idea of what the film would look and feel like. To me, the aesthetics of the characters and action appeared to be fairly consistent with the stories I knew from childhood and adolescence...and adulthood. Being that these stories grew from a marketing campaign for a toy line, one could only expect so much Oscar-level quality from a live-action film based on the same. Personally, I just hoped for fun action and a few nods to the toys and cartoons that were such a part of my imaginative life.

The Plot
Fun is what I wanted from this movie, and fun is absolutely what I got. The writers clearly knew both their material and the audience attached to it, so they provided plenty of singular moments for the fans to appreciate. These included timely iterations of the full array of catch-phrases ingrained in the larger pop culture and all of the signature weapons and visuals associated with the core group of characters featured in this film. Scarlett had her cross-bow; the Baroness had her rectangular glasses, and Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow sported the mark of the Arashikage ninja clan on their swords each time they crossed them in battle. These were the Joes I knew, a few quirks and changes of accent aside, and the most important of their enemies were there, too, mostly intact in terms of their images and personalities. The well-crafted and consistent flashback scenes provided context for the events occuring in the movie's present, and they were simply cool in their own right. The fight scenes involving Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow as children were amazing - who knew 8-year-olds could have moves like that?

There are two obvious influences on the story direction. The G.I. Joe cartoons of the early and mid 1980s began with a couple of 5-episode, formulaic mini-series that can be summed up pretty quickly. Basically, Cobra developed a super-weapon of some sort (the MASS Device or the Weather Dominator), used it on high profile targets, and the Joes responded, only to lose to the super-weapon's power before developing a plan to overcome it, a plan ALWAYS benefiting from the assistance of an inside Joe or two previously captured by Cobra. Anyone who ever saw these cartoons will see the clear parallels to the movie script. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I like that approach. Naturally, that means there are some very transparent sub-plots in the film, each with readily predictable outcomes, but these merely add anticipation of their resolution over the action-packed flow of the film.

The other big influence is clearly Star Wars. With regard to the latter three Star Wars films, it is my opinion that the G.I. Joe film out-George Lucas'ed George Lucas on some counts. The last hour or so of the movie involves one massive assault on an underwater citadel and requires the juggling of battles in up to five different theaters at once, much like the Star Wars staple of converging conflicts in three separate domains at climactic moments. The editing and direction of G.I. Joe are so skillful that each of these micro-conflicts segues from one to the next and back again without losing intensity or significance, all while maintaining the momentum of the overall battle. Impressive stuff. The creative forces behind G.I. Joe offer more than a few blatant nods to Star Wars, including one that drew howls of laughter during the seminal throwdown between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. Hey, Snake Eyes and Darth Maul are the same had to happen. Again, fun.

The action sequences are expansive and exaggerated to the extreme. The oft-viewed Paris sequence is much more involved within the final edit of the film, and it ultimately employs six different Joes chasing the villains via four different, high-speed methods amidst gunfire, explosions, flying cars and exploding Parisians. This and the aforementioned assault on the underwater lair each involved prodigious amounts of special effects depicting advanced military tech that has always been a Joe trademark. Swarming submarines and roaring aircraft were ever-present and usually seamlessly included in the visual progression of the film. Unfortunately, there were a few moments wherein the CGI was pretty bad by modern standards, but these were only a very few, thankfully.

The Actors
Again, nobody is winning awards for portraying a hero or villain in a movie about characters originating in a line of action figures. Nevertheless, there were some notable performances, and no one was just flat-out bad. It really felt like each of the actors embraced the traditional personality of their assigned character and did not venture very much outside of that. Channing Tatum's Duke was a substantial departure, more maverick and down-and-dirty point man than inspirational leader, but he sold it beautifully. The scene-stealer to me was Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow. His turn as the ninja assassin and arch-nemesis of Snake-Eyes was tinged with edge and attitude. The hatred for Snake-Eyes was palpable in their interactions, and the man held his own in blade-to-blade combat with the legendary Ray Park as well.

The Verdict
A fun, enjoyable watch. Mixed in with my own sentimental attachment to the property, that assessment meant a good time for me, well worth the price of admission. If you like over-the-top action films with some ooh's and ahh's and a laugh or two, you'll like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

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