It isn’t up (or down) to Sony’s notorious scam of creating phony critic David Manning to secure positive quotations for their ads, but Paramount’s cherry-picking of writers—most fan-boy types who could be expected to salivate over the movie—for invitation to pre-screenings of “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” while the real critical community was shut out, comes close.
But it has to be admitted that the studio’s decision makes sense. They certainly wouldn’t want audiences to be forewarned that the Stephen Sommers’ picture is practically a compendium of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood action flicks nowadays—a non-stop orgy of cheesy, chaotic CGI effects unencumbered by any human dimension (if you don’t count the laughable flashbacks revealing the characters’ interconnected histories) that’s exclusively suitable for viewing by people whose brains have been warped by constant exposure to video games into expecting a constant barrage of mindless visual stimuli without a single thought to interrupt them beyond “What gets blown up next?” And of course it has to follow the rule established by “Independence Day” that one major landmark must bite the dust in the course of the mayhem. Here it’s the Eiffel Tower, which comes crashing down in a fight that seems to destroy half of Paris. That probably trumps the destruction of the pyramids earlier this season in “Transformers 2.”
“Joe” shares a lineage with “Transformers,”of course, in that it originated with a line of Hasbro toys for which it basically serves as a two-hour advertisement. But its plot—to use the term very loosely indeed—actually derives from the Marvel comic books of the eighties that turned its back on the iconic American soldier figure in favor of an elite international “strike force” that battled a shadowy organization—Cobra—that aimed at, you guessed it, world domination. (Shades of Spectre.)
Here, two grunts—Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans)—are enlisted into the group after the precious cargo they were defending—a matter-eating WMP—has been stolen by its very inventor, Scottish bad-guy McCullen, soon-to-be Destro (Christopher Eccleston), who intends to use it to—you guessed it, conquer the world. They join other squad members—Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Breaker (Said Taghmaoui), all under the direction of grumpy General Hawk (Dennis Quaid)—to confront the evil Scotsman and his associates: the Baroness (Sienna Miller), with whom Duke previously had a romance when she was just plain Ana; Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), who has a past with Snake Eyes; and The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), master of nano-technology, who was formerly known as Rex, the Baroness’ brother and Duke’s erstwhile buddy. Much fighting and many explosions ensue as the two sides face off. Bam! Pow! Zowie! And, of course, boom!
There’s something really disheartening about all this, especially coming so soon after “Transformers” (which was produced by the same guys). Sure, the effects are okay, if rather cheesily cartoonish—after all, a couple of hundred million bucks goes far in that respect nowadays—but they get tiresome very fast when there’s no sense of invention or imagination behind them (as there was, for instance, in last year’s “Wanted”). All the bombast comes across as rote and uninspired.
And it’s truly depressing to encounter talented young performers like Tatum, Miller and Gordon-Levitt wasting their time on characters that might as well have been played by mannequins. (For heaven’s sake, Gordon-Levitt’s still lighting up the screen in “(500) Days of Summer.” Here he’s mostly stuck behind a mask so much, a bargain-basement version of Darth Vader, that a stand-in could be doing 90% of his scenes. Not a bad idea.) Quaid has the opportunity to growl out some orders, and Wayans—the comic-relief fellow—the chance to play the fool, though it’s less than sensitive to have the black guy always doing this shtick (and his repeated references to Duke as “my boy” are positively creepy after awhile). But certainly the filmmakers could have found somebody other than Jonathan Pryce to play the U.S. President. Not only is a reptilian figure like him unlikely ever to get elected (people seemed to have learned their lesson from Nixon), but he’s not even native-born. Sic the Birthers on him! (The Prexy is also involved in a cliff-hanging ending in concert with a badguy named Zartan, played by Arnold Vosloo, which is the invitation to a sequel—heaven help us).
“G.I. Joe” will probably make a lot of cash (although the gung-ho American connotation of the title may tamp down attendance abroad)—after all, if a piece of junk like “Transformers” can be a huge hit, why not this? It’s just as bad—or good, if brainless rubbish is your cup of tea.
At one point in the movie, Baroness/Ana says to the captured Duke, “Everybody’s sorry for something.” Paramount neede’t be sorry for withholding “G.I. Joe” from the critics, but the studio should feel ashamed for releasing it at all.