G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Runtime: 118 min.
In his perceptive, unillusioned review of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, critic Edward Douglas cites how the movie “really gets to the appeal of G.I. Joe’s fanbase, although far too often, the movie veers into territory that seems more like advertising for the cool vehicles and playsets.” Because it’s the summer—hell, the era—of capitalist domination where junk movies win front page newspaper headlines and tie-in commercial products become “news” stories as well as Happy Meals, G.I. Joe must be understood as an authentic measurement of our cultural values. Its unabashed appeal to the pop-commercial synapses also demonstrates livelier filmmaking than such utter banality as Iron Man and Star Trek and Harry Potter’s Half-Blooded Chintz.
With G.I. Joe, we don’t have to put on that we’re above trash—after all, it’s based on a Hasbro toy and a popular animated TV series for kids. Channing Tatum as Duke, the archetypal All-American soldier and Marlon Wayans as Ripcord, his soul-brother sidekick, fight biological-weapons untrustworthies (Christopher Eccleston and Sienna Miller, whose British accents add to their villainy) with the assist of military elites General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park). Sommers creates a big-screen version of “Let’s Pretend” which means his knack—inoffensively displayed in The Mummy—hits the Jackpot.
The Jackpot (cashing in on the thrill-seeking curiosity of generations raised on popcorn and plastic) is a reality that today’s politically unconscious movie critics try to disavow when dismissing this brand of entertainment. With inconsistent and arbitrary affectation, they demean defensible movies like Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe as if to deny that what used to be called “mass culture” has, generally, lost its former standards.
It’s a self-protective reflex by which they’ll praise undistinguished junk like Wanted, 3:10 to Yuma and Drag Me to Hell to defend Hollywood’s routine, commercial U.S.S. Enterprises. The fun part of G.I. Joe grasps its own junkiness. None of its stunts are especially witty—and real distinctions must be made for Transporter 3 and Torque’s superior pop art—but G.I. Joe’s in the same innocuous class as the Laura Croft and Thunderbirds movies. It has the spirit of Saturday Afternoon toy commercials, even to the extent of extolling basic American values: the very realistic appreciation of militarism as a foundation for capitalist freedom that supplies delight in both G.I. Joe and Transformers 2. There’s more realpolitik here than in the now-overrated The Hurt Locker.
As for acting, operatives Tatum and Wayans look great in their special Accelerator suits, surging through the air, tumbling and weaving in dreamlike acrobatics to gladden the wide-eyed part of your aesthetic sensibility. Like race cars approaching Mach speed, they dodge missile plumes, then zoom toward the soon-to-be-legendary Eiffel Tower sequence. Maybe it’s revenge for Franco-snobbery after 9/11. Perhaps it’s also decadent exercise of CGI license (carrying an inherent warning about technological excess), but like the aircraft carrier and Great Pyramid sequences of Transformers 2: Wow.
Sommers isn’t quite in Michael Bay’s directorial class, but he has the ability to envision a nightmare and spin it into a provocative coup the Surrealists wouldn’t dare. Propriety was already breached in the post-9/11 exploitation of United 93 and the dull cynicism of Cloverfield’s decapitated Statue of Liberty. Sommers’ Eiffel Tower sequence ranks with Tim Burton zapping the Washington Monument into a deadly pendulum in Mars Attacks. Sommers’ outrageous spectacle is what kids cheer as “sick”—the worst spectacle of their gleeful, sandbox-era imaginations.
This Eiffel Tower image also recalls the postmodern epigraph that closes Godard’s In Praise of Love : “I will go to my grave with more visions than man has previously ever known.” The trashy secret of G.I. Joe is its ironic capitalizing on the fact that awesome, dread-filled visions don’t necessarily destroy childhood innocence. Seeing the Eiffel Tower fall is part of loving it (which could not be said of the World Trade Center). The Brothers Grimm understood. That’s why people are queuing-up, contributing to the Jackpot.