Thursday, August 13, 2009

Knowing Really Is Half the Battle

That is a bit more like it. By sheer odds, the evil alliance of Paramount and Hasbro had to land a summer spectacle somewhere in the ballpark this year. "G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" is a stupid movie, yes, but it gets the stupidity just right. The plot makes a shred of sense, the characters are not heinous stereotypes and the directing is coherent. (Michael Bay: Stop doodling boobies and pay attention.) Beyond that, it has all of the giddy fun most summer movies promise to provide, but rarely deliver. Best of all, you can take the kids and not have to worry about them learning what Megan Fox's cervix looks like!

"G. I. Joe" wastes no time telling you what kind of movie it is going to be. About five minutes in, a ridiculous shootout has our White Hero, played by a very lifelike mannequin called Channing Tatum, and his battalion getting attacked by high tech bad guys. He stops short amid the chaos and exclaims, "Ana!?" with all of the horror of a guy who has just run into his ex at a party. It makes sense, given that he has just run into his ex. (Sienna Miller. White Hero could have done worse.) From there, you know you can just sit back and enjoy this one. Secret military organization... Paris getting blown up... Arctic enemy base... threat of world destruction. It is all of the scraps left over from the James Bond franchise's recent reinvention, cobbled together into a script that knows better than to take it all seriously. Unlike "Transformers 2," it knows that you know better, too, and it wastes no time trying to lay on artificial complexity. There are good guys and there are bad guys. They fight. Done.

There are flashbacks. Thankfully, they are short and somewhat rare. They also play out like hilarious B-movies. They include a kung-fu master, a doomed army recruit and, of course, White Hero's lost love.

This movie has a pretty big cast, and most of it fares well. The role of Black Hero, for example, is handled quite charmingly by Marlon Wayans, transcending his archetypical role; he is the butt of jokes far more often than he should be, but far less often than one would expect. Rachel Nichols plays Wayans' love interest well, not bending over backwards to hide the fact that they are totally going to be together at the end of the film. Sienna Miller's Baroness, on the other hand, dances in circles around her love interest, but that is damning her with faint praise. I am still trying to wrap my head around the choice of Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Cobra Commander. This is, to say the least, not typecasting. Although it is hard to judge under all of the makeup, he seemed to be successful at making the character menacing, albeit in a campy way. He even hisses out one of his lines.

Props must go to director, Stephen Sommers. His "Mummy" remake franchise was silly fun in the same vein but, for whatever reason, directors often have trouble keeping their heads out of their asses when it it comes to military action-melodrama. Any number of Michael Bay-esque pitfalls are avoided here. The characterizations are thin, but Sommers seems to have made sure the actors were having a good bit of fun with this one (so, you know, we can). The American president figures into the plot but good luck finding any American flag-waving here. The Joes are an international organization, so the film is never dragged down by any palpable xenophobia or jingoism. (Most of the Joes are white, though. The women all look like they just came back from the hairdressers', too.) While an Iraq flashback plays things gritty, the director, for the most part, knows to keep things slick and simple.

The special effects, in fact, may strike one as too simple. "Speed Racer" leapt to my mind at a few moments in this film. The special effects team made a clear choice not to pursue realism in this film. While it may seem incongruous at times, I think it ultimately suits the film. Making a submarine battle around an underwater fortress look real would have been a bit of a challenge, anyway.

That battle is part of a long climax sequence that features a number of decent action scenes. The film's best action sequence, however, is easily the street chase through Paris. Those CG mechanical suits that are so prominently featured in the trailers (and made me cringe every time I saw them) figure heavily into this sequence, making a good argument for their presence in the film. Cars are flung every which way (it is the thing to do these days) and the Heros of Both Shades have to dodge them, employing the suits' superhuman speed and agility. It is giddy fun to watch and the chaos never gets too heady. (They do, however, rack up a high civilian body count. Upon defeat, Baroness sneers, "You saved Paris... most of it, anyway." No kidding.) Sommers is not exactly at the cutting edge of action movie directing, but he does not step on himself. It is more than many directors can say.

Is this movie remotely ground-breaking? No, but when Michael Bay tries to brush off his critics by claiming that everything he does is in good fun, this is the sort of movie he believes he has made. It may not push the genre forward, but it does not do any harm, either. Even "Star Trek," an admittedly decent movie, felt like a sham, as it devoted most of its running time to setting up a sequel. There will be a "G. I. Joe" sequel, rest assured, but I will be seeing it because of the first movie, not despite it. This film knows its audience and seeks to do right by it, not exploit it. That is the least for which one can ask.

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