Welcome back to We Can Fix It, where we use our remarkable powers of deduction to figure out how bad movies went wrong, and then our useless powers of hindsight to explain how they could have gone right. Normally, a critic isn’t asked for their feedback until it’s too late to be constructive. Here’s what one critic, at least, would have said in pre-production.
For the next two weeks we turn our watchful gaze to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, my own personal pick for 2009’s “Worst Movie of the Year.” While everyone else was harping on about Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (also bad, as we discussed last week), in my eyes its raucous stupidity was no match for the lazy stupidity in Stephen Sommers’s adaptation of that other beloved animated series from the 1980s. While other filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and, to a different extent, Michael Bay were making a mint by taking their (often cheesy) source materials seriously, the director of Van Helsing and The Mummy went the opposite route and made an old-fashioned hokey version, complete with silly plot points, silly costumes, misogynistic subtext and a goofy overall tone that says, “Don’t get too invested in this movie… We sure as hell didn’t.”
Not that G.I. Joe was some kind of timeless classic animated series that withstands the test of time, obviously. The original adaptation of Hasbro’s diverse toy line was one damned silly series in which wars were fought by heroic multicultural badasses and, with the possible exceptions of Storm Shadow, Zartan and Serpentor, largely incompetent supervillains united in the interest of world conquest. They also had those vaguely embarrassing educational shorts at the end of every episode, in which the heroes of G.I. Joe – having nothing better to do – wander into the homes of little children and teach them about safety issues. “Now you know… and knowing is half the battle.” The other half? Actual battle. Take a gun and get cracking, kids!
There’s nothing terribly wrong with making a “fun” G.I. Joe movie, even if Team America: World Police kinda ruined that particular brand of military idolization forever. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra could have kicked ass in several forms: heavily adapted quasi-serious action epic, outlandishly over-the-top popcorn entertainment and probably countless others as well. We’re not going to begrudge them this creative decision. All we ask is that the film works on its own merits. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra does not. How do we fix that? It’s going to take at least two weeks of We Can Fix It to iron it all out. Excuse the profanity, but this shpadoinkle just got real. Let’s hope that G.I. Joe 2 director Jon M. Chu is paying attention.
Fair warning, we’re going to be getting into some pretty heavy SPOILER material over here, but the film’s two years old now and it’s not exactly The Usual Suspects. Consider yourself warned in advance. This week we’re going to cover a few simple problems and then one enormous flaw in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra that deserves extra attention. Next week we’ll try to get to the rest, but honestly… we might even have a three-parter on our hands.
1. DON’T BE WILLFULLY STUPID
If there’s one glaringly silly moment in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra that people remember the most, it’s big climax when all the ice breaks and sinks down, threatening our heroes. If you’re just now joining us, ice doesn’t sink. Those huge glaciers at the polar ice caps, where the climax of the movie takes place? They’re floating. Because they’re ice.
It’s important to remember that this is not a throwaway moment in the film. There’s dialogue about it. There’s suspense as to when it’s going to happen. Smart characters say that it's an imminent threat. The climax of the film is built around this concept, at least in part, requiring hundreds (if not thousands) of individual artisans to work on at least some part of that sequence. I have a hard time believing that nobody ever mentioned that sinking ice was a problem. If they mentioned it, or if they just didn’t bother to look that sort of thing up, one thing is certain: somebody made a conscious decision not to care about that.
This statement is not made in an accusing fashion. You’re allowed to have the occasional silly conceit. The bomb at the end of Batman Begins doesn’t make a lick of sense either, but f*** it, it’s okay because the rest of the film makes enough sense to forgive a screwy plot point or two. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra wallows in this sort of thing though, like when the two barely field rated rookies are thrown into action with complicated and expensive super-suits. Why them? Because they’re the protagonists. No other reason. It’s not like they’re qualified to use them. Although they manage to save (some of) the Eiffel Tower they still get their butts whipped by two individuals who don’t even have super-suits to their credit.
Or worse, there's astoundingly stupid conceit that a fighter plane would rely entirely on voice-operated weaponry. There is quite literally no good reason for this, not the least of which being the fact that the whole notion is impractical as hell. Shooting weaponry in mid-air, in a constant state of movement, requires crackerjack timing and precision. The flutter of a thumb is as instinctual as it gets. With voice-operated controls you have to wait at least a second before the gun activates, and by then it might just be a waste of ammo. Or you could be dead. This isn't even cool. This is just, ahem… stupid.
Again, it’s likely that somebody thought of these things (we’ll get to a few other big ones later), but ultimately the overall “Saturday Morning” tone of the film gives the impression that such concerns didn’t matter. But they really do. Is willful silliness the biggest problem with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra? No. But it is one of the most distracting, not to mention one of the most easily avoidable.
2. DON’T GET CUTE
G.I. Joe has an extended cultural history dating back to the original action figure, sifting through several TV shows, comic book series and more. There are certain clichés and certain lines of dialogue associated with the franchise. “Real American Hero” is one. “Lifelike Hair” is another. “Kung Fu Grip” is a classic. These things are a part of the target demographic’s shared subconscious. And you know what that means…
Referencing them is going to take us out of the movie entirely.
Early in the film, when General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) says that “knowing is half the battle,” what was your reaction? Did you think to yourself that yes, this statement is true and contributes to the proper pacing and story flow of the film, or did you think to yourself, “Oh hey, I remember that” and snicker (or more likely groan)? It’s the latter. Joel Schumacher tried this kind of distracting reference in Batman Forever, when Robin said, “Holey rusted metal, Batman!” Why did he say it? Because it was a reference to the old show. Did it make sense in context? No, it didn’t, even if the metal did have actual holes in it.
In theory this kind of thing is a nod to the fans of the original series, but it’s not a respectful one. When filmmakers throw this kind of thing in an otherwise loose adaptation of an earlier work, here’s a good rule of thumb: ask yourselves this… if they hadn’t made this reference, would you really have missed it? Batman Begins is a great example here, and you can take your pick of well-handled moments. Here’s a favorite: they justify Batman’s pointy ears by clarifying that he keeps listening devices inside them. If they had left the ears out, you’d have missed them. If they hadn’t justified them, it would have seemed a little arbitrary. Good idea, basically. They called attention to an existing conceit and did so for a reason that’s actually driven by the narrative. That’s how it’s done, people.
Seriously, G.I. Joe? Don’t bother. We wouldn’t have come out of the theater saying to ourselves, “Man, I wish someone had said ‘Kung Fu Grip’ at some point. That would have really made the film.” And we wouldn’t have had to suffer through the insufferable winking this movie did, constantly reminding us that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra isn’t a labor of love, but rather a blunt attempt to cash in on the target demographic’s sense of nostalgia without giving any consideration to their sense of taste.
3. THERE’S NO EXCUSE FOR MISOGYNY
Here we go…
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is not a virulently misogynist film. This critique is neither an outright condemnation of the film nor an accusation of malicious intent. The fact of the matter is that G.I. Joe has one of the larger casts of strong female characters in this subset of geek lore (still greatly outnumbered by its men, but even so). Amongst others, Lady Jaye, Scarlett and The Baroness, though only the latter two make an appearance in this film, are powerful individuals on either side of this conflict, fully capable of handling themselves and taking responsibility for their own actions and, yes, even falling in love without sacrificing their independence. Unfortunately, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra treats Scarlett and The Baroness with merely grudging respect, allowing them to participate in the action – a feminist veneer – whilst still maintaining backward gender roles.
Scarlett, played by the more than capable Rachel Nichols, is on the surface a real American hero. She graduated college in her teens. She’s one of the top field operatives in the most elite fighting squad on the planet. On paper, she rules. But unless you’re in The Neverending Story paper only describes something that's already happened. Her backstory is sound, but her actual actions within the film are actually rather demeaning. She’s introduced in the middle of an action sequence but is immediately imperiled (no one else is). The only fight sequence she gets limits her to fighting the only other female in the film, The Baroness, and even then she’s forced to use an invisibility suit to hold her own, which doesn’t even give her an edge. After she loses, she becomes the only Joe to get emotional about it, and doesn’t find solace until it is provided by a man, Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), who spends the bulk of the film trying to make Scarlett fit a more traditional female gender role and submit to his romantic gestures (which consist of telling Scarlett that he knows what she wants better than she does).
Scarlett says that she hadn’t lost a fight since she was a kid, a nice attempt to take the curse off of these scenes, but we didn’t see any of those fights. We only see Scarlett lose, and repeatedly. Later during a key car chase she becomes imperiled once more and is incapable of saving herself yet again, and ultimately contributes nothing to act of day-saving. Even her supposedly heightened intelligence only comes into play during an excessively stupid plot point in which the Joes discover that the experimental plane has voice-operated weaponry. When “Fire” doesn’t work she cleverly surmises that commands might not be in English. Her first guess? Celtic, because Destro (Christopher Eccleston) is of Celtic ancestry. She’s correct, proving her intelligence, right? Well, no, because her conclusion is illogical. Destro isn’t a fighter pilot. The plane would not have been made for him. Celtic is also an uncommon language. Chinese, Japanese, Arabic… these are all more likely possibilities than Celtic. She bypasses all of them in favor of the long shot. That’s not smart. Time is of the essence, and Ockham’s Razor still applies.
It is also worth noting, although we’ll get into this more later, that Scarlett has even been downgraded as a love interest. While in the original storylines she was torn between two great heroes – Duke and Snake Eyes – in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra she has to settle for the comic relief sidekick. In the film, Scarlett just isn’t worth much. Sad.
The Baroness (Sienna Miller) fares slightly better at first, because she’s regularly depicted as a strong individual on the winning side – or at least the tactically successful side – of all of her conflicts. She uses her sexuality to get what she wants, and in the process has several powerful individuals wrapped around her finger, including Destro and Duke (Channing Tatum). But her motivations make her weak, seeing as for most of the movie we are led to believe that she only turned to evil because her boyfriend left her. Oh sure, she blames him for the death of her kid brother, but Duke admits that he couldn’t even face her afterwards, making it seem like there’s a direct correlation. Unlike Scarlett she didn’t have a man to take care of her in her time of need, so she’s evil now. Oh well, at least she’s committed to it, right?
Oh wait, no she’s not. We later learn that the real reason she turned to evil is because she was brainwashed by her brother (another man, incidentally), who thought he knew what was good for her and took it by force. Seeing her ex-boyfriend in trouble is all it takes to set her on the path of righteousness again… and not, pointedly, all the murders she either committed or was a party to for the last several years. But a boyfriend? Yeah, that’s all she needed.
There’s no excuse for this kind of thing in the 21st Century. The Baroness can be a villain. Scarlett can be a hero. They don’t need to be saved all the time, and they can be fully realized human beings without a man to complete them. There’s no reason for this, and although the intent may not have been malicious, there’s also no excuse. Don’t do it.
Next week on We Can Fix It we’ll try to finish up G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra with a look at how Cobra could have been badass, how montages are supposed to work and why it’s important to have your own ending, not just X-Men’s. We’ll see you then!