Today I saw Stephen Sommers’ first film since Van Helsing threatened to kill his career in a flurry of poorly CGI’d werewolf hair. As G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra bombarded my eyeballs with a seemingly endless parade of gloomily-lit bases, bland outfits, and incompetently filmed carnage, several thoughts flitted through my brain. I suspect these thoughts were my brain’s self-defence program, to prevent my sanity from tumbling, unhindered by rational thought, into a swirling vortex of suicide-inducing ennui.
Things I liked about G.I. Tract: Cobrasonic:
- The tech is often a lot of fun. There’s a lot of force-gun action that’s great for throwing people and jeeps around the screen, and for at least the first hour there isn’t a single scene that doesn’t have some peculiar technological madness kicking off in the frame. For a while, this was enough to make me think I would love the movie on some gut level.
- It’s mostly set in underground or underwater bases, and the antagonists are gleefully supervillainous. It’s so unapologetically broad that it wins you over at first.
- Sienna Miller has never been used well in a popular movie until now. She’s oddly endearing as the tortured villain The Baroness.
- Actually, the cast is very impressive, for the most part. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Ecclestone, Jonathan Pryce, Dennis Quaid, Saïd Taghmaoui, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (yes, Cesar and Mr. Eko finally meet beyond the grave!)… Some of them are actually good, as well. (Taghmaoui wins out.)
Unfortunately, those great actors are not only forced to play second fiddle to Channing Tatum — who appears to be an especially inexpressive golem of some kind — and Marlon Wayons¹, but also to gabble the most flat and silly dialogue at a speed that must have required some kind of fourth-dimensional voice-coaching. Every scene featuring dialogue is packed so full of exposition that there is no room for nuance, inflection, or emotion. It’s just a long scream of “DUKE WE NEED TO LOCATE THE BASE AND FIND THE KILLSWITCH FOR THE NANOMITES I’M ON IT SIR WE HAVE TO GET TO PARIS BEFORE THEY WEAPONISE THOSE WARHEADS YOU GOT IT DUKE SUIT UP SOLDIER!” The action scenes should be a respite from the hectic shouting, but they’re nothing but a tumult of shattering planet. By the time the credits rolled, I was draped across my seat, utterly defeated by the barrage of aggressive nonsense. Imagine being verbally assaulted by a gamma-irradiated Jerky Boy. That’s G.I. Joe.
Why do that? Partially because Stephen Sommers, while having some expertise at handling the technical aspects of his movies, has absolutely no idea how to modulate scenes. As with everything else he’s made, every scene is played like a big finish, with everyone operating at full tilt. This is, of course, a lot like Michael Bay’s modus operandi, but even though Bay’s movies are poorly paced, they are at least paced in some form. As I’ve said on here before, Sommers just does FASTslowFASTslowFASTslow, with the only variation being the length of the FAST scenes. In G.I. Joe, the first action scene is about eight minutes long. The second is thirteen minutes long. The Paris sequence feels like it lasts an hour. The big finish in the underwater base might still be going on. I left the cinema ten hours ago but the room was still shaking. THE JOES HAD TO FIND THE KILLSWITCH TO DEACTIVATE THE NANOMITES BEFORE THEY DESTROYED WARSHINGTON! I hope they did. Regrettably, I needed to put my head down somewhere.
That’s why the dialogue gets rattled out like minigun rounds. Sommers is presented with a script containing 108 pages. That’s 108 minutes. The action scenes probably account for 40 pages, which is not enough action for Sommers, who is like a little boy playing with toys, contriving ever more silly ways to keep his playtime going². So, those 68 pages of dialogue are squished down to 48 by making everyone talk like they’re on fast forward, and the action is dragged out for 20 extra pages. There is approximately an hour of things blowing up. That shit even tires me out, and I usually thrive on this stuff.
Of course, Sommers also cannot film action properly. The camera is way too close, the explosions are shot in such a way as to obstruct what is happening, and the fighting is poorly choreographed. The swordfights between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are too short, set in spaces too small, and keep stopping and starting. No flow, no thrill.
There is also a poor use of environment, with every setting being used the same way (jeep flips over ten times, man flies through air, other man crashes through wall, another jeep flips through the air, thing explodes as jeep hits it, man flips through air and hits jeep, jeep hits man in mid-air, etc.). The main action scenes are in a forest, the G.I. Joe base, Paris, and the Cobra base, but they’re all completely interchangeable. There are only one or two elements that differentiate them (a train in Paris, water in the Cobra base), but otherwise it’s the same clanging bullshit. Plus, he underlights everything. I say this with all honesty: Bay the action director pisses all over Sommers the action director. It’s not saying much, but I stand by that.
The effects are all over the place. Digital Domain are doing a lot of heavy lifting this year, now that Michael Bay runs the show. Their effects are generally very very good, and have a very distinctive textured feel, but they over-reach at times here. The Accelerator suits looked so cool in previews, but onscreen they’re boring to look at (those glum colours are shown up by Iron Man’s red and gold), and move really haphazardly. I know they’re like mad exo-skeletons and make their wearers more agile and whatever, but in the Paris scene they just seem like ragdolls. There’s no sense of weight or power. It’s just circus flipping and stuff. The effects on Snake Eyes are marginally better, as he is not meant to be augmented like the other “Joes”³, but even then he’s on a truck that doesn’t even seem to be a part of the scene. None of them do. It’s like Sommers got hold of some holiday footage in Paris and clumsily stuck some exploding ragdolls in the middle of it.
Plus, stop hurting Paris, you dick. Seeing some of the very streets we recently walked along get treated like a warzone made me surprisingly angry. When the Eiffel tower got wrecked, I felt the red rage. Leave the beautiful city alone, you crass douchebag.
Going back to the script problems for a moment, the majority of the important character beats are revealed through flashbacks, with the modern settings used primarily to display explosions of various size. That’s not very sleek storytelling, but I wouldn’t really have a problem with it, were those flashbacks not ushered in with the relevant character breaking off from yelling about NANOMITE TECHNOLOGY to stare into the middle distance. All it needs is the wobbly dissolve to be one step below Falcon Crest. Maybe Lost has ruined this old flashback cliche, but whatever it is, most of the laughs I got from this was from the use of this hoary old trick. If I were more generous, I’d say Sommers is having a laugh, but as the movie is devoid of intentional humour (don’t forget, Marlon Wayans is in it), I strongly doubt that.
Anyone who has seen Ray Park act, as Toad in X-Men or Gurning Cockney Wanker in the Bertolucci-homage Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever, knows that you’re best off hiring him for his prodigious martial arts skills, and for anything else you hire Peter Serafinowicz to voice him, or figure out a way to shut him up. This movie casts him as a silent ninja-type in a full body suit and weird visor, which is fine for me, but why oh why did they ruin the effect of the mask with a weird rubber mouth?
Those full rubber lips, perpetually in a half-open pose of surprise, make him look like a half-ninja/half yokel cyborg man. Remember the bit in The Man With Two Brains where Dr. Hfuhruhurr puts wax lips on Anne Uumellmahaye’s brain jar so he has something to kiss? It looks like someone did that to Snake Eyes.
As for the rest of the costumes, the only ones that make an impression are the skintight leather catsuits on Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols. Not because I’m a big horndog, but because the rest of the outfits are either bland Accelerator suits or generic camo gear. Sadly, Miller and Nichols appear to have the same sexytailor, but then Sommers apparently doesn’t see a reason to differentiate (their hair is different colours, after all).
It’s the same with the vehicles. The big underwater finale features a battle between Joeboats and Cobrasubs, with both kinds of vehicle looking almost identical. At the start of the battle they’re on either side of the screen, so you know one is bad, the other is good. Two seconds later and it’s just pixels swimming about. This is not a joke: I honestly longed for the Star Wars prequels. At least there the vehicles are distinct, and eccentric too (Naboo ships are just so pretty.)
So yeah, Nichols and Miller show much cleavage during the scenes where they are running around shouting “WE HAVE TO GET TO THE BASE BEFORE THE TERRORISTS FIRE THE ROCKETS!” or “WE HAVE TO FIRE THE ROCKETS BEFORE THE JOES GET TO THE BASE!”, so I can imagine they will be popular with the millions of pubescent boys in the audience, but even though this is the usual shit, G.I. Joe is far less objectionable than Transformers 2. The leatherclad ladies of Joe are at least given personalities of a sort, and do stuff to further the plot, unlike Megan Fox in Bay’s movie. Plus, there aren’t two robots called Step and Fetchit or whatever they were called. So Joe has that on it’s side, and I’m sort of grateful for it. This belongs in the “Good Things” list, FYI.
Things I wasn’t sure about in Sloppy Joe: That’s So Cobra!:
- Midway through the movie, in Snake Eyes’ flashback — which, if I recall correctly, starts with the same “looking into the distance” thing even though Snake Eyes’ eyes are hidden behind a bulbous visor — we’re treated to the sight of two twelve-year olds kicking the shit out of each other, kung fu style. I really don’t know whether that was sick genius or deeply fucked up.
- I was thrilled to see two of the most respected actors of their respective generations clad in silly masks or poorly animated metal heads walking around their submarine base and intoning dread words of purest evil. It was even better when they got captured two seconds after reaching their pinnacle of superevil, and then hastily shoved away in a hi-tech prison the end. Even with the SHOCK CODA that is utterly unshocking, it felt like Sommers just got bored of his toys and put them down to go and play Dropzone on his Commodore 64. By then, I knew how he felt. That it is left open for a sequel with shameless desperation just ruined my day. Probably because I know I’ll see the damnable thing as well.
Luckily for Sommers, this has probably been my worst ever week for movies, what with Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li giving X-Men Origins: Wolverine a run for its money as worst film of the year. As a result I think better of G.I. Joe than I usually would, but it’s still shit, because Stephen Sommers is a terrible filmmaker, and even if you get Stuart “Collateral” Beattie to script it, Sommers will still do his best to wreck it in the name of improvement.
I’ve said this before elsewhere, but it sums up why I don’t like his movies, so I have to repeat it. When I was a kid, I hated when action movies would feature talking and boring stuff when they should surely just have wall-to-wall action. Now that I’m older I look back on those movies and feel deeply ashamed for doubting the wisdom of the directors. For example, I’m currently rewatching and loving a lot of Walter Hill movies, and those long, action-free passages are more thrilling than most action movies made in the last ten years because Hill’s approach, imbuing his films with unapologetic machismo, raises tension levels through the roof. Sommers, on the other hand, has only one setting: GO JOES GO! It’s too much and not enough, simultaneously.
¹ Sadly operating in Dungeons-and-Dragons mode, not Requiem-For-A-Dream mode.
² “I’ve finally killed you, Cobra Commander, after an epic two-hour battle!”
“Ah hah! Your bullet was deflected by my armour again. Now we shall fight to the death once more!” Etc.
³ The use of the term “Joes” to describe the soldiers causes much unintentional laughter, though it’s an uncomfortable laugh when it’s Dennis Quaid forced to talk about how “WE’RE GONNA GET ALL OUR JOES BACK!” I was hoping that, if he got some bad news from Ripcord or Duke, he’d growl, “SAY IT AIN’T SO, JOES!”