Saturday, August 8, 2009

Film Review: G.I.JOE The Rise of Cobra

In the early 1980's an editor at Marvel Comics by the name of Larry Hama took on the task of turning a line of 3 3/4 inch action figures and vehicles into a complex mythology with intriguing story lines and rich characters. To this day no one has achieved anything near what Hama accomplished in bringing compelling and exciting story lines to what would have otherwise been just another toy based comic book originally intended to help sell action figures. Hamma went on to script 155 issues of G.I.JOE at Marvel, creating a world and a mythology that is still celebrated by fans all over the world after more than 25 years.

With such a rich background and such an amazing collection of tales you'd think the folks at Paramount would've been able to come up with a film that could at least work on some levels. Unfortunately what we got this weekend with the release of G.I.JOE: The Rise of Cobra is nothing more than a mess filled with terribly written dialogue from characters that have been watered down and drastically changed in order to service one dumb action sequence after another. To make things worse the action sequences feature some of the worst computer generated effects ever put on screen which makes it even more difficult to buy into such exaggerated action set pieces.

With a reported budget of 175 million dollars at his disposal director Stephen Sommers has managed to craft a film that puts its characters in peril scene after scene without making us audience members feel anything for them. These Joes are more plastic than any character Larry Hama ever wrote. At the heart of the G.I.JOE mythos are two of the most tragic characters ever created in comic book history. On the Joes side we have Snake Eyes, a Vietnam vet who discovers his family has died in a tragic accident soon after returning home from duty. He later goes on to suffer even more as a series of tragic events leave him disfigured and mute.

On the Cobra side we have the leader of the organization: Cobra Commander, a former used car salesman who was never quite able to grab a hold of the American dream, a victim of the system who decides to take matters into his own hand after his wife leaves him for being what in the Reagan era would be considered a failure. Unfortunately the complex storylines of these two characters which form the foundation for the G.I.JOE mythology are nowhere to be found in the film. Whatever little backstory the film gives us for Snake Eyes is seen through a series of laughable flashback sequences as Storm Shadow remembers some of the regrets in his life, and without giving too much away lets say that writer Stuart Beattie has significantly altered the story regarding our favorite Ninja warriors by reducing the cause of their rift to childhood squabbles which don't justify their later actions in any conceivable way.

Cobra Commander is also re envisioned by Beattie. He's now a mad scientist wanting nothing more than revenge for events that don't truly justify his motives clearly enough since the film just brushes over them quickly in another series of terribly realized flashbacks which by the way borrow some footage from the film Black Hawk Down. The production had to purchase the rights to utilize clips from that film's action sequences in order to tell the tale of how the lives of Duke, Cobra Commander, Baroness, and to a lesser extent Ripcord are all intertwined.

I was really excited to see the film at midnight Thursday night with a crowd of hard core JOE fans at the historic Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. I thought even if the film didn't turn out to be great it would at least be a fun screening since the true fans were in the house. I couldn't believe what happened as the hardcore Joe fans turned against the film and soon began laughing and cringing scene after scene during the film's so called emotional moments. From Duke and the Baroness' tragic love story to Ripcord and Scarlett's love hate relationship, every time the film tries to bring some heart and genuine emotion to the proceedings it fails miserably.

First because the characters are so poorly written and second because the dialogue seems to belong in an after school special every time it forces its sentimentality. Good films simply evoke emotions naturally because the audience is invested in the characters. There's no reason for anyone to give a crap about any of the characters in this movie. What makes it even more heartbreaking is that if you read the comic books by Larry Hama you know there's plenty of dimension to these characters and over the years we've been treated to some pretty compelling stories about their sense of loyalty, camaraderie, and the multiple sacrifices they've made in order to fulfill their duty. None of that is present in the film either. Solid actors like Dennis Quaid and Sienna Miller are laughable in this. I never ever thought I'd be in a theater laughing at how bad these two amazing actors can come across when they are working from a bad script.

The film is full of plot holes and things that make no sense whatsoever, especially when it comes to the film's McGuffin -- a case of nanomyte missiles which is meant to be delivered from M.A.R.S. (Destro's weapons research and fabrication plant) over to NATO. Some of the film's highlights include a cameo appearance by Brandan Fraser as Sgt. Stone, a character first conceived as part of G.I.JOE Sigma Six. The scene is pretty bad unfortunately and not even Fraser's presence helps out the proceedings. As cool as it is to see Snake Eyes and storm Shadow go head to head in some pretty cool Ninja battles its pretty disappointing to feel like no matter how cool the fight looks you are just not invested. The only two decent action sequences in the film for me are the invasion of the Pit when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow first duke it out and then their last encounter at the end of the film. Although they lack any emotional resonance they do feature some great martial arts and stunt work.

Stephen Sommers seems so committed to making everything so over the top that he doesn't stop to think for a second about the sequences he is creating. Lets take the Paris pursuit scene for example. Sommers has said in various interviews, quite proud of himself, that he had an idea for a film over ten years ago about a group of heroic characters decked out in accelerator suits and that his inspiration for this sequence came from that un-produced script. I don't buy that as a smart decision for even a minute since the sequence actually would've worked much better without the suits and the proof is actually in it. Sommers didn't realize that he was putting both Snake Eyes and Scarlett in the same sequence without any accelerator suits and the stuff they are doing is more exciting to watch because at least it feels a tad more real and there is more of a sense of danger to what they are doing since they don't have the added protection of the suits, making their participation in the sequence the only compelling bit. To me it truly feels like this scene was conceived without the suits and Sommers just forced the writer to put those damned suits in since recent hit films such as Iron Man and Transformers feature that type of extreme action. Even if that wasn't how it happened the fact remains that the suits ruin what could've actually been an exciting chase sequence.

Sommers also said that his inspiration for the film's underwater battle was the classic Bond films, specifically the great underwater scene in Thunderball. By telling us this he gives us another brilliant example of what makes him a lousy director. Even though Thunderball is a film full of fantasy elements it never looses sight of its main character and the underwater sequence in that film actually feels real by creating a sense of peril for the character of Bond. The underwater sequence in Rise of Cobra is full of fake looking computer generated imagery and so many cuts that after a few minutes you forget about the characters completely as you simply try to make heads from tails in the visual mayhem.

I went into the theater really excited. Over the last two weeks I began to think this was going to be a fun film. I knew they had to make some changes to the characters in order to be able to make it all work and come together in a two hour film but I never thought they would come up with such a mess. The reason the new Star Trek film works is because it managed to embrace the characters, respect what has come before, and update it in a way that makes it relevant to a new audience while at the same time making the fans feel satisfied. This film fails at doing that. It also fails as an action movie. The secret behind the great action films such as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard is the ability to make the audience care about the characters before putting them in peril. Iron Man also accomplishes that beautifully. G.I.JOE doesn't. It also fails as eye candy since most of the effects sequences are full of computer generated elements that don't even look fully rendered or even texture mapped adequately. A lot of shots look like preliminary shots. With a combined investment of over 300 million dollars when you add up the production budget and the prints and advertising this film will have to rake in a lot of dough to be considered a financial success. At this point that could be the only success left for this film to try and reach for.

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