Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra has a 32 aggregate score on Metacritic.com. Tasha Robinson’s B-grade review is the highest rating in a list that ranges from shrugging acceptance to outright contempt. It’s yet another movie based on a commercial property designed solely to separate 13-year-old boys from their allowance money, which means that artistically speaking, it’s got as much reason to exist as Power Girl’s breasts. Marlon Wayans plays a major role. Stephen Sommers’ previous directorial effort, Van Helsing, was a high-concept marriage of nonsense plotting and laughably flat CGI, a two-hour mash-up of Dracula, Frankenstein, and werewolves that kept all the worst clichés of each without tapping into any of their archetypal power. Sommers’ action sequences have been degrading rapidly since his remake of The Mummy, becoming so disconnected from anything even remotely resembling real-world physics and cause and effect that it’s like watching drunken balloon animals fuck. And there’s a colon in the title. It’s rarely a good idea to trust a movie with a colon in the title.
Curiosity factor: Tasha’s review was mildly positive. The cast, if you’re willing to be selective, has some highpoints—it’ll be years yet before I can forgive Wayans for Dungeons & Dragons, but I have a soft spot for Dennis Quaid. I’m willing to watch just about anything with Christopher Eccleston or Joseph Gordon-Levitt, even if that also means enduring Arnold Vosloo. And hey, Sienna Miller looked good in the publicity photos, so what the hell, right?
As for any fond memories of the toy line, I was always more of a fantasy/science-fiction geek; G.I. Joe’s cartoon military antics were watchable, and I owned some of the action figures, but my heart belonged to giant robots, sword-fighting anthropomorphic cats, and guys who fought ghosts while being sarcastic. But I’ll admit it, even with my low fan commitment, the nostalgia pitch still attracted my attention. There’s the “what the hell” factor of seeing a movie like this, knowing it’s almost certainly going to be terrible, but being so fascinated that it got made at all that you can’t look away. (Sometimes this even produces a decent movie; the sequels were lousy, but Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl is way better than it had any right to be.) I have enough vague memories of sitting on the couch watching waves of colorful stereotypes fire thousands of lasers at each other without ever getting hurt to make me curious about a live-action version. Plus, Cobra Commander was the sort of inadvertently fascinating character that sometimes comes out of hackwork, a whiny, bitchy, perpetually impotent schemer who was just pathetic enough to be relatable. The chance to see Gordon-Levitt play him on the big screen—well, it could’ve been cool.
The viewing experience: Okay, no, it probably couldn’t have been. I’ll give G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra this much: Visually, it was easier to follow than either Transformers movie. That’s not to say I actually wanted to understand what was going on, but story mechanics and rampant CGI aside, this was a very traditional ’90s action flick: lots of explosions, lots of running around, and not much shaky-cam.
Other than that… Well, follow along with this plot, if you will: Christopher Eccleston is the descendant of this guy who got a metal mask welded to his face because he liked to sell weapons to both sides of a conflict at the same time. Naturally, Eccleston was inspired to become an arms dealer who does the same thing, only he has the edge of knowing that if he gets caught, bad things will probably happen to him. Working with his buddy Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is made up like Peter Lorre in Mad Love for most of the movie), he’s got this brand new nanotechnology (ah, nanomites—as good for filling in plot points today as “atomic power” was in the ’50s) that would make a totally bad-ass weapon, and he’s selling it, only he plans to have his men steal the weapon back before it actually becomes a weapon, because that would be EVIL.
Thankfully, Channing Tatum (the rare actor whose name is more interesting than he is) and Marlon Wayans are there to protect the unweaponized weapon from being stolen, only they aren’t very good at their jobs, because Sienna Miller, dressed like a wrestler with a sort of stripper/librarian thing going on, busts in on their convoy with a group of generic, disposable thugs.
Before Miller can get away with the goods, another group shows up, and we finally get some G.I. Joes. Ray Park is a ninja with a fetish-gear facemask. (I think the lips are supposed to help provide personality for a character that never speaks, but the only personality I got was “I keep Girl Scouts in my basement,” which is probably not what the design team was going for.) As a ninja, he is very good at stabbing and jumping over things. Rachel Nichols is the resident hottie, so Miller can have somebody to fight, but she’s really crap at her job, since she falls down in just about every action sequence she’s in. But I guess you aren’t supposed to notice that because of the outfit she wears, and boobs and everything. There are other Joes too (and they have a habit of calling themselves “Joes,” which doesn’t get less silly with repetition), and they scare off Miller, and then HOLOGRAM DENNIS QUAID shows up and invites Tatum and Wayans to come visit the secret Megaforce training grounds.
The training center is, of course, ridiculous. (I like how the Joes seem to be largely staffed by former L’Oréal models.) Hell, the whole idea of G.I. Joe is dumb. A bunch of countries send their best military men and women to a third-party organization with no official ties to any one place—although it’s led by Americans and most of the people we see are clearly American. Yeah, I can definitely see that happening, because when you get really talented people in your country, you want to send them away as fast as possible, because they make everybody else feel bad. The only way this works for me is to pretend that the Joes are all sort of mentally handicapped crazy, and their countries felt bad for them, so instead of telling Nichols and Quaid et. al. that they suck on toast, they made them a playground to hang out in, and gave them some guns, because hey, it’s not like this budget surplus is going to spend itself.
Even if you can accept the whole “Oh, we weren’t using our 99th percentile, you can totally have them!” angle, without Cobra, there’s no reason for this group to exist. We see lots of people, equipment, and tech, but the only way this makes sense is if there’s an equivalent opposing force. Are there are other goofy-ass teams of bad guys running around this world? Are we going to get a prequel where the Joes take out V.E.N.O.M.?
So big surprise, it’s a dumb flick. The story, which has multiple flashbacks, at least three twists I can think of, and two secret underground (well, one’s undersea) lairs, is a lot of silly head-butting and scenery-chewing, which could’ve been fun, but really only works when the bad guys are onscreen. I wound up rooting for Cobra. I always used to root for the bad guys growing up, because, given the unshakeable laws of Saturday-morning TV, I knew they could never win. It made them seem more like the underdogs, even with all their lust for power and killing and so forth. Here, it’s not so much the underdog factor as the fact that only Eccleston, Gordon-Levitt, and Miller seem to be having any fun at all. Tatum is really terrible as a leading man. I’m going to assume he’s good-looking—sometimes I can tell, but he’s just this generic pink blur here—because otherwise, there’s no point to him. Wayans does a weird balance walk between shrieky comic relief and square-jawed hero, and it’s passable, I guess. Quaid looks like he had a stroke, or he decided the character should’ve had a stroke, or maybe he’s drunk. And Nichols is as bad as Tatum. (We get a line halfway into the movie about how she’s only interested in science, not feelings, which is both idiotic and a complete surprise. Of applicable adjectives, “stoic” doesn’t spring to mind for her performance. Maybe “pneumatic.”)
But like I said, the baddies? It ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s something.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? 25 percent. I like dumb action movies, but Sommers’ reliance on computer effects takes all the fun out of it. Once you get the central joke—this is Team America, irony-and-musical-free—it’s a long slog of sloppy exposition and screen-saver backgrounds to get to the final cliffhanger ending. (Which actually rips off the first X-Men, come to think of it.) If this was a real G.I. Joe adaptation, Wayans and Nichols would’ve come out at the end and told us to stay away from downed power lines, and that if a stranger offers us candy, we should give it to a friend we don’t like. Sadly, this did not happen.