Daily Archives: August 8, 2009

“Duke wasn’t born; he was government issued.”

Wow.

Wow.

Wow.

 

That blew Transformers away.

After 27 years, Cobra Commander has a name, and it is . . .

Well, I won’t give that away, except to say that, at the beginning of the film, Destro’s ancestor is put into a metal mask by King Louis XIII of France, and Cobra Commander’s name is an obvious play on King Louis’ name (also perhaps a vague reference, in that respect, to Serpentor?)

When I heard Stuart “The Mummy” Beattie was doing G. I. Joe, I kept my expectations low.  Actually, The Mummy films were OK, but Van Helsing was nonsensical.  Plus, all the rumors and such (most of which were true).

But the execution was fantastic.  Various homaegs to elements from the Marvel and Devil’s Due comic series, as well as the Sunbow cartoon and other elements of the Joe mythos.

It worked out some of the things that didn’t make sense (e.g., Duke is an officer, not a Sergeant; ironically, “Lt. Stone” of _G I Joe Extreme_ and _Sigma Six_ fame is now “Sgt. Stone”). 

Yes, in many ways, things are different, but while they’ve caught the basics of many of Larry Hama’s classic characters, they’ve also worked out some of the flaws.  For example, the whole “Baroness is out for revenge for her brother’s death, for which she falsely blames Snake Eyes, and then turns good when she finds out the truth” is used, but without Snake-Eyes.

The Snake-Eyes/Storm Shadow origin is used, with the umpteenth variation in the story since the line was revived in 2002, this time making them kids.  There’s a key moment at the end of the film that is hopefully (and likely) a fake-out, so that the story can be continued in the sequel.

Sometimes, if rarely, there’s a “teaser” scene at the end of a film.  Apparently, X-Men 3 did it with Professor X’s body, but I haven’t seen the scene.  In my generation, it’s a legend of sorts, because Masters of the Universe ended with Skeletor popping out of the water and saying, “I’ll be back.”  This also formed the basis of the figure Scare-Glow, the “Ghost of Skeletor.” Last year’s X-Files movie sort of did it, giving Mulder and Scully their happy ending.

So, between that and wanting to hear all the music, I always sit through the very end of the film.  I was hoping for some such teaser, especially about the event I just mentioned.

No such luck.  Nor, as I hoped, did they treat us to the original theme song (or, better yet, the 1987 movie version).  While I’m on the subject, the music was rather lame.

Now, Transformers, while the producers have claimed they need to avoid various elements to avoid being dismissed as a “toy movie,” notoriously backfired.  They inserted such absurdities of their own, and made such outlandish character designs, that they invited the horrible criticisms.

I don’t know why this particular kind of franchise invites such criticism.  But one must remember that comic book movies used to be similarly dismissed.  And we can call anything a “two hour advertisement.”  One could call Schindler’s List a 3-hour advertisement for the Anti-Defamation League or the Holocaust Memorial.  One could call Gone with the Wind a multi-hour advertisement for Margaret Mitchell’s novel.

Unlike Transformers, G. I. Joe is a solid adult action/sci-fi flick, and is definitely on par with the best in the genre.  The characters are not lacking in depth, and, unlike, asy, the Jason Bourne films, depth is not created by obscurity.  The depth is instead provided because, unlike Transformers, this film honors the comic book backstories and uses them–even if it changes them (and, again, in some ways improves them). 

I argue that the source material improves this film over other action films, because it tells us more of the characters’ backstories than is normal for the genre.

There’s no secret that, in redesigning the G. I. Joe brand as A Real American Hero, Hasbro was trying to compete with Star Wars, and several aspects of the line are very reminiscent.  So the battle sequence at the end is *highly* reminiscent of the various Star Wars finales, with Cobra’s underwater base replacing the Death Star, the ninjas replacing the Jedi, and the mini-subs replacing the X-Wings and Tie Fighters. 

Speaking of which, I recently mentioned that I felt the Pirates of the Caribbean series is probably the recent film franchise that best captures the spirit and universality of the original Star Wars trilogy.  This is a strong competitor.

While TF goes out of its way to be ridiculously humorous, this film was admittedly a bit lacking in humor, but it does have its humorous elements (more on those later).

There isn’t anything seriously objectionable, other than some profanity and violence.  Now, given my recent post, I’m not dimissing the profanity, and much of it is gratuitous, but thankfully a lot of it is fairly muted and used in the heat of battle, so it’s a bit overwhelmed by the noise.

The violence is very intense, and there are one or two rather gory moments, but, again, nothing really worse than Star Wars, for example.  I do get sick, as a norm, of seeing films where violence occurs in cities, and buildings or cars driving down the road–with people obviously in them–are destroyed left and right, meaning there are needless, gratuitous and callous civilian deaths.  That in one of this film’s biggest flaws, especially as some of the “collateral damage” in the Paris battle is done for “humor” involving Damon Wayans’ character.

Again, this is a criticism I make of many films, including the classic Superman movies–or even the recent live action/CGI Underdog movie.

So, as an overall review, I think this film is great.  I am a bit overwhelmed still by everything.  There is even a reference to a famous moment from the UK’s Action Force comic books.  I could do a 5000 word analysis of all the specific references I caught, as I did with Revenge of the Fallen, but suffice it to say that these guys were far more respectful to the source material and the fans than Michael Bay and company.  But when it comes to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzmann (writers of the Transformers films), they didn’t exactly show respect to Star Trek fans, either.

Indeed, while the end credits didn’t include any homage to the original theme, it involved this weird turning metal thing (which eventually pans out to be the new G I Joe logo), and on it are various labels, reminiscent of various vehicle labels.  There are some of the code numbers for classic Joe vehicles, such as “X-30” (for the Conquest X-30), the traditional US Army star on the early vehicles and the Air Force star from the jets.  There are warning signs like on the old vehicle labels, and even the Sigma Six logo.

That, in and of itself, showed the producers’ concern for fans.

I was bracing myself for something totally stupid, and I had made the comment months ago that one must sit through Adam West and wait a generation to get Michael Keaton or Christian Bale in a pop culture franchise.  But this film is definitely to GI Joe what Tim Burton’s 1989 classic was to Batman.

Now, for a bit of negative or semi-negative criticism.

1.  Cobra Commander’s voice: this was a major point of contention/worry for fans.  Yes, Chris Latta’s voice was iconic to our generation and part of what made Cobra Commander a memorable character.  Yes, all the cartoons and CGI animated films of the last 7 years have tried to imitate Latta’s portrayal of the Commander.  But while Latta’s known for his screechiness, and while both Cobra Commander and Starscream were very screechy and virtually identical as their series progressed, both characters were more subtly voiced during the beginnings of their series.

In the case of Cobra Commander, Latta used more of a soft, hissing whisper in the early mini-series.  That is the voice that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt uses.  In fact, his voice sounds almost identical to another of the classic voice actors, but I don’t know the guy’s name.  The voice sometimes sounds more like Serpentor than Cobra Commander, but that’s OK.  He does a good job.  Now, here’s the negative: when he puts on his mask at the ending (and while it is very loosely based upon the 1987  battle armor mask, it doesn’t really look like Cobra Commander), his voice sounds *exactly* like Darth Vader, including the wheezing.  *That* is a bit too much (and his mask looks a lot like Vader’s too).

That said, “the Doctor’s” design looks very much like the 1989/1990 character Overlord, who was (while never used in cartoon or comic book) supposed to be the up-and-coming Cobra leader.  His filecard said he was probably a former Crimson Guard, but the popular idea of fans, inspired by little hints, was that Overlord was actually either Cobra Commander or Serpentor in disguise (e.g., he had an injured eye where Serpentor was hit by Zartan’s arrow in the comic book). 

Nice cameo by Dr. Mindbender in the film.  That wasn’t expected.  I expected to see Firefly, but didn’t.  There’s also an Asian woman in a couple background scenes who is very likely supposed to be Jinx.  They use the idea behind Devil’s Due’s “Wraith” character–a special suit that uses holograms to create invisibility–as a suit the Joes already have.

2.  The killed  . . . .  But it does a good job of establishing the characters of Zartan and Storm Shadow, especially their rivalry.  Zartan kills X from behind.  Storm Shadow shoots him a glance.  Zartan says, “Oh, that’s right.  You don’t kill women.”  “No, but I”ll make an exception in your case, Zartan.”

3.  NATO.  OK, it was revealed a couple years ago that they intended to make Joe a NATO group, more like Europe’s “Action Force” line.  This of course created a big outcry not only in Joe fandom but in the blogosphere in general, with conservatives outraged that a name that refers specifically to the US Army would be adapted to a globalist unit, especially with the idea that Hasbro’s intent was to make the film more marketable internationally.

I agreed with those criticisms, and still do.  I have no problem with the Joes being based out of Egypt–I have always imagined the Joes having an Egyptian base, anyway.  I also liked the appearance of the USS Flagg (including the 99!) at the end.

But forget Barack Obama’s missing birth certificate: “The President” in Washington in G. I. Joe is played by British actor Jonathan Pryce, and he doesn’t really do much to disguise his accent. 

4. Ripcord and Scarlett, and Damon Wayan’s portrayal in general.  It’s better than peeing robots or foul-mouthed mothers, but this attempt at slapstick still detracts a bit from the film (see above about violence).  He’s not too over-the-top, except in the Paris scene.

Over the years of development, there were supposedly 3 scripts written that Hasbro merged into what we have now.  One of those proposals was a “buddy flick” focusing on Duke and Britain’s “Action Man.”  I’m guessing that was kept by the use of Duke and “Ripcord.”  Fans have also wondered if Ripcord is a replacement for Stalker, perhaps out of fears of using that particular code name (esp. since Damon Wayans fits the build for Lonzo Wilkinson and sports a moustache in the film).  G I Joe Resolute sort of answered that by including what were known about movie characterizations (including the black Ripcord and his being Duke’s best buddy) but it still had Stalker.

But what really annoys me about Ripcord is the Scarlett flirtation. 

Now, Scarlett is already a notorious subject in fandom.  In the Marvel Comics, she had a thing with Snake-Eyes, period.  In the Sunbow cartoon, in the original mini-series, she clearly had a bond with Snake-Eyes but was Duke’s “girlfriend” (this was further ambiguated by a couple points at which Duke flirts with and/or kisses Cover Girl).  This has led to one of the basic fandom debates, and, in some of the later media (e.g., the short-lived Reloaded series), a blatant triangle.

And the potential triangle is the stuff of great romance, though it has never been utilized: it’s the basic Beauty and the Beast/Phantom of the Opera echetype: beautiful girl torn between the scarred masked man with a tortured but sentimental soul, and the blond macho hunk.  I’ve always wished the triangle would be executed by some incarnation of the story in a manner similar to Catherine and Vincent in the Beauty and the Beast series: she loves Snake-Eyes, but they have a mutual understanding they can’t be together, so she carries on superficially with Duke, her “Elliott Burch,” but she always holds back because her heart belongs to Snake-Eyes.

Oh–here he’s taken a vow of silence.  No reference to US military service (so far; again, a lot of those aspects of Snake-Eyes are incorporated into Duke), and no reference to being scarred.

Unfortunately, it’s never been executed that way, and the movie writers sorta blew their chance.  The film presumes fans’ knowledge of the Snake-Eyes/Scarlett relationship.  There’s definitely the sense, early in the film, that they work well together and he kind of looks after her, but there’s no real implication of feelings either way, and they hardly interact at all.  There isn’t even the level of sensitivity in their relationship portrayed by the original Sunbow miniseries.

Just a couple references early on, then her being a “cold fish,” and eventually kissing Ripcord.  It’s a whole “Leia/Han Solo” thing instead.  It’s also a bit more reminiscent, in Joe lore, of Flint and Lady Jaye early in the comics.

The *nice* thing is that they’ve traded in that meta “triangle”, as well as the comic books’ early Destro-Baroness-Cobra Commander triangle for a Destro-Baroness-Duke triangle (with the Baron thrown in for good measure).

That is a new development handled very well.

4.  Redesigining the Cobra uniforms seemed kind of pointless.

Lastly, as this rather lengthy review comes to a close, a comment on the science fiction.  Yeah, it’s there.  Plausibility-wise, it’s not nearly as absurd as what was done in the Sunbow series, or even in the Marvel comics.  When someone on a message board a few months ago was griping about super suits, I commented, “Yeah, having special battle armor is far less plausible than guys in brightly colored pajamas running through barrages of laser beams unscathed.” 

Well, that about sums it up: in some ways, the science fiction elements test the limits of credibility.  But the action moves so quickly you ignore them, and they probably aren’t really much farther off than what you’d see in any other superhero film.  Again, it starts to feel like were in Star Wars at some points (and in some ways recapturing what that franchise lost), but that’s all part of the fun.

Oh, yes, it won’t be a regular “watch over and over” film, but I won’t mind if the kids watch this one with me when it comes out on DVD.