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G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

g_i_joe_ver11Growing up in the 80’s I was a fan of G.I. Joe, and owned many of the toys that the cartoon generated.  However, I was never that hardcore of a fan.  As I grew up, the franchise didn’t stick with me as I gravitated towards Transformers overall.  When this live action movie, directed by Stephen Sommers, was being made and released, it didn’t grab my attention.  I didn’t give it a chance until a strongly opinionated friend of mine, who was a big G.I. Joe fan, stated that he did enjoy this movie.  One iTunes rental later, and I was approving of this movie.  Yes, it has problems, and has some serious unfaithfulness to the source material, but it’s a big, enjoyable science fiction stylized action movie, regardless.

Two soldiers stationed in Kazakhstan, Captain “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and his partner Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are ordered to transport special warheads created by MARS, an arms manufacturer controlled by James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston).  When they are attacked by a highly advanced terrorist group, led by Baroness Anastasia DeCobray (Sienna Miller), they are saved by a top secret, international special forces unit known as G.I. Joe.  The leader of G.I. Joe, General “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) is on the trail of these thieves: an evil organization called Cobra.  While Duke and Ripcord train to join the Joes, McCullen is secretly working for Cobra and plotting to recapture his metal-eating “Nanomite” warheads.  Duke and Ripcord, with help from Heavy Duty, Snake Eyes, Scarlett, and the rest of the Joes, must prove that they are Real American Heroes by stopping the launch of these warheads before Cobra uses them to take over the world.

There are several alterations to characters and their relationships from the familiar comic book and cartoon source material.  Why filmmakers have this compulsion to make changes of these kinds escape me.  I don’t mind adapting a concept or idea to suit the live action filmed media as opposed to the more fantastical mediums of comic books and cartoons.  However, the changes here didn’t need to be made to make the idea of G.I. Joe work as a live action movie.  They were simply creative decisions made for whatever reason to tell the story these filmmakers wanted to tell, despite whether or not it fit into who these characters had been for over a quarter century.  I’ll touch on these as I comment on some of the cast, as I have done some light research to understand the divergences at hand.

This movie has some acting talents that seem questionable to me at both the time it was released and in retrospect.  Obviously knowing Marlon Wayans from increasingly badly received comedic vehicles, he was the most peculiar casting choice.  While Wayans’ character of Ripcord does have a playful, somewhat silly personality at times, he’s decently enjoyable once you begin to take the film as a light, popcorn movie adventure.  He even has a moment or two of charm as he begins to develop some friendly relations with Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett.  As the film goes on, and the threats become more serious and imminent, Wayans rises to the occasion to make for a nicely respectable cog in this action centric cast.

Channing Tatum is someone that I’ve come to know as a rather uncharismatic actor with not much to offer.  While he surely doesn’t give us anything close to the Duke fans knew from the original cartoon series, who was a very strong, authoritative commanding officer, he is fine in this younger iteration of Conrad “Duke” Hauser.  It’s not a particularly dimensional performance, which could have helped in some instances, but Tatum decently fits the role as written.  It’s fortunate that the film has so many characters you can fixate on so not to be distracted by Tatum’s limited abilities.  It’s not an outright groan inducing performance, just a flat one that is aided by some decent comedic chemistry with Wayans.  Still, a far better actor was surely available to cast in this role to make him a more standout lead instead of blending into the ensemble.

Thankfully, we have some strong, vibrant villains to enjoy.  Christopher Eccleston is sophisticated, intelligent, but also despicably vile.  He injects charisma and slick savvy into McCullen, aka Destro, that is distinctly different from his Sunbow cartoon incarnation, but ultimately, follows the character as he has been developed through other media over the years.  Eccleston has a very good presence conveying a contemptuous weight towards the world without it feeling one dimensional.  He has a very elaborate, smartly devised plan to place himself in control of the world.  He works greatly as a global level villain whose motives nor agendas are shallow in the least.  Plus, the English actor works a very solid Scottish accent.

The filmmakers made serious changes to the Baroness, who is supposed to be an Eastern European straight-up villain, but is now simply Duke’s American ex-girlfriend Anna Lewis who has been specially manipulated into being a villain.  Regardless of this, Sienna Miller is endlessly and immensely hot in this very femme fatale role.  She plays it with a lot of bite and sexy assertiveness.  She is a bad ass villain that would’ve been perfect if the filmmakers played it faithful, but as it is, she does a damn good job making the Baroness alluring, dangerous, and intriguing.  Essentially, this character change was made in order to create a romantic relationship for Duke to grapple with, and while it’s nicely executed, it still would’ve been more pleasing to see the real Baroness here.

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park are probably the best parts of this movie portraying Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, respectively.  Both characters are straight awesome here.  Storm Shadow is beautifully lethal and stealthy with a real cutthroat, edgy presence.  I think he truly lived up to many fans’ expectations through an excellent, sharp performance.  Obviously, Snake Eyes has no dialogue, but Ray Park’s expert athletic and martial arts talents shine through.

Cobra Commander is here in this movie, but doesn’t declare himself to be as such until the end.  We are essentially given an origin story for him that is very much inline with that of the Baroness.  For those that haven’t seen the movie, I don’t wish spoil the film’s intended surprises, but let’s say that it’s not the Cobra Commander you’re used to or expect.  He was my favorite character from the 80’s cartoon series due to being a rather excitable, egotistical fool, and even there, his back story was never entirely consistent.  What we even got in the animated movie was not very palatable to me.  So, when I saw this movie, none of this new back story really hit a bad nerve, but it would have been nice if the filmmakers attempted to make him look like Cobra Commander in his final moments on-screen.  Reportedly, they were fixated on the hooded look for the character, and avoided using it for understandable iconography reasons.  Still, as the sequel demonstrates, the chrome masked version was easily adaptable, and its absence comes off as even stranger since the filmmakers put an odd translucent mask on him at the end, anyway.

The question is if all of these objectionable changes make this a poor movie.  I suppose that depends on your perspective.  I would imagine many very serious G.I. Joe fans with a knowledgeable and loyal history for the franchise would be upset by these arbitrary alterations.  For a more casual fan, like myself, they don’t break the movie, but certainly make it less than it potentially could have been.  It’s a tad surprising that this movie was co-written by Stuart Beattie, who I recently gave vast amounts of credit for his screenplay for Michael Mann’s Collateral.  That was a brilliant, introspective movie of great, unique depth.  This is far from that.  Beattie’s co-writers have shallow filmographies with nothing much to really say they are exceptionally good or bad screenwriters.  I’m not saying that this script is bad, though it has some shortcomings and flaws, but in terms of attempting to be a faithful adaptation, it has a lot of wrong turns that I’m not sure who is to directly blame for them.

Now, the quality of the CGI here is about standard for a Stephen Sommers movie, unfortunately.  The effects in The Mummy were really good for 1999, and still hold up fairly well today.  However, Sommers’ films have since become larger scale productions requiring more elaborate visual effects, and this is evidence of that.  The CGI is used extensively, and is not really that good to be given so much screentime.  Among six visual effects companies that worked on this, there’s no real distinguishing level of quality.  I would be hard pressed to say any of the visual effects shots are anywhere in the neighborhood of great.

Still, despite the lacking digital effects, Sommers delivers some solid action sequences.  They are big, explosives scenes with some inventive ideas and nicely choreographed fights.  All of this action is very well shot showing that Sommers knows how to present and construct action sequences very competently.  Plus, he knows how to inject a real sense of entertainment value into everything, even if some of the funny bits are somewhat extraneous.  Still, the sprinkles of comedy entirely suit Sommers’ style that we saw in The Mummy and so on.  A definite action highlight is seeing Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow battle, and Sommers treats it as a special attraction.  There’s an early on battle between them, but the climax gives us the real juicy stuff.  It’s just bad ass all the way through, if delivered sparingly, and I only wish there was more of it.  Hopefully, I will get my wish in the sequel.

While G.I. Joe always had a bit of advanced technology giving it all a slight science fiction edge to it, this movie really pushes that full boar by even stating it takes places in the “not too distant future.”  This is a movie of very advanced technology with people communicating through holograms, using nanomite weaponry, energy based weapons, entire underwater Antarctic lairs, and various other fantastical items.  It does fit alongside much of the established franchise mentality, but it probably pushed the envelope further than it needed to.  I like a little high tech gadgetry in G.I. Joe to make it feel special and unique, but I think a live action movie should probably ground the ideas more.  Take it more away from the cartoony aspects, and make it a little tougher, more hard edged with contemporary weapons.  While I found the film fun, this film franchise really does need to go that direction so it can plant its feet in the ground and push forward with a strong foundation.  Take away the almost cyborg-like accelerator suits and the energy guns, and give us more down and dirty stuff.  Ultimately, I think that sells easier and stronger to a wide audience.  We can take a little fantastical science fiction every now and then, but if you’re setting the film in a recognizably contemporary time and not the especially distant future, sell it that way.  Give us a bad ass military guy unloading live rounds from a machine gun.  Laser weapons were used in the cartoons because they were cartoons.  You couldn’t show people getting shot with bullets and dying in that medium.  This is a live action PG-13 movie.  Mature the content a little, and give action fans and the adults who were kids in the 80s something that appeals to them more.  Don’t make it too violent, but do enough to be bad ass, which is what the soon-to-be-released sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, seems to have done.  Still, we’ll see about that in a few days.

The climax itself is full of plenty of action with both Ripcord piloting a Night Raven jet to intercept McCullen’s nanomite warhead missiles, and the assault on McCullen’s Antarctic lair.  Like with the whole film, it’s tightly edited with constant energy propelling the story forward.  The dramatic tension is kept high, and these intercut storylines flow very well.  We get some very good, heroic pay-offs, but we ultimately understand that this is just the setup.  G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the story that puts all the heroes and villains into their proper places to give the franchise a launching point.  Plots have still been set in motion by Destro and Cobra Commander that will be followed up on in the next film.

Again, this is a film that I do find enjoyment from, but surely not frequently as I’ve watched it maybe four times in three years.  It’s a nice, enjoyable ride with some very well executed action sequences that do aim to please, and a fine dash of humor and levity to keep it fun.  It has a decent cast that generally does enough to be closer to Stephen Sommers better work, but it’s still a movie that could’ve benefitted from some better creative direction.  I’m hesitant to give it a big endorsement because, again, there’s plenty of bad CGI all over the place and it fails to faithfully adapt the source material.  For what it is, I think it’s mostly well done.  It’s not the G.I. Joe movie that fans wanted or expected.  The animated movie really diverted into very strange territory that I still find not to my taste.  I don’t own that movie, but I do own this one.  It’s closer to what a G.I. Joe movie should be focusing on terrorism and advanced technological warfare, but it did need someone at the helm that could shape it into what the fans desired.  I do think it’s a better movie than reputation has seemed to label it with.  There is plenty of entertainment value that surely never gets to the annoying levels of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.  I would recommend giving it a chance, but knowing that it still falls short of its potential in several areas.  If for nothing else, it’s worth seeing Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes clash.


28 Days Later (2002)

It’s a strange thing to be very impressed by a cutting edge movie in the theatre, but then, not watch it again for nine years.  Such is the case for me with 28 Days Later.  I even purchased the DVD a few years ago, and only just now dedicated myself to watching it for this occasion.  Now, the common misconception about this movie is that it is a zombie flick.  While it does have the trappings of one, these people are not zombies, merely human beings who have been infected with a virus that turns them into rage-filled animalistic people.  This film presents a very interesting and clearly expressed departure from that classic subgenre while still baring some resemblance to it.

It has been twenty-eight days since Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, was knocked off his bike and injured in a car accident.  When he wakes up from his coma, the world has changed.  London is deserted, litter-strewn and grim, and it seems the entire world has disappeared.  The truth, however, is even more horrifying – a devastating psychological virus has been unleashed upon the world, turning the population into blood-crazed psychopaths driven only to kill and destroy the uninfected.  Jim coincidentally joins up with the tough and strong-willed Selena (Naomie Harris), who has become accustomed to the hard reality of survival.  While out-running the savage infected, Jim and Selena add the father and daughter survivors of Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) to their struggle to get out of the city to a military encampment at Manchester, but there, their troubles are just beginning.

This movie was shot on standard definition digital video camcorders, and so, it offers a rather unique visual quality.  Director Danny Boyle even did post-production work to further degrade the picture quality to give it an even rougher look to reflect the film’s harsh reality.  I think this was an immensely successful artistic idea.  The Canon XL1 camera clearly performed well in low light situations allowing the filmmakers to create some strong contrast and atmosphere.  From that digital video quality comes a bleak appearance which dominates the movie, even in broad daylight.  28 Days Later is shot amazingly well with a lot of intense, kinetic camera work heightening the chaos and adrenalin pumping terror.  The cinematography regularly highlights the desolate landscape of London, and shows how isolated these characters are from any semblance of civilization.  The overall tone and visual style is unlike any film I believe I’ve ever seen, and in those dark scenes, this movie can look immensely gorgeous.

This movie doesn’t focus heavily on the intense fury of the infected.  While it does that exceptionally well creating many tense and violent sequences, and making them count when they do occur, it instead takes most of its screentime to focus on its characters, and make the story about their struggles for survival.  We are given strong character building scenes which create an emotional context for the audience.  It let’s us know how this horrific event has affected them, and invests the audience in the depth of those characters.  They are heartfelt and intelligent people that you can come to care about.  On the most part, this is a very well-acted movie with some strong recognizable talents.

This was my first exposure to Cillian Murphy, and he delivers a very grounded and human performance.  He and Naomie Harris really warm to one another as the film goes on, and create a very heartfelt chemistry.  Harris herself slowly peals back the tougher exterior of Selena to ultimately show the vulnerability deep down inside.  She had to be tough to survive, but Jim allows her to show her true self.  Harris displays a wide range of talent in this role that starts out as a self-minded survivalist willing to cut loose anyone at a moment’s notice to a strongly sentimental and hopeful person.

Brendan Gleeson does a fine job making Frank a very wholesome father.  He has a lot of heart, and rarely allows despair or desperation to creep into himself.  He keeps a positive attitude which really boosts the mood of the picture, and gives hope to all of the characters.  Christopher Eccleston turns in a hardened and off-putting performance as Major West, the leader of the military encampment.  He certainly has the presence and authority of a leader, and gradually creates an intimidating foil for our protagonists.

Composer John Murphy created a very aural, almost ethereal score that taps into the hope, sorrow, isolation, and humanity of the film.  It really elicits a wealth of heavy emotion from its ambient style, and never does exactly what you’d expect from a horror movie score.  It’s more about establishing mood than enhancing scares.  Case in point is that the climax is not scored with pounding drums or shrieking strings.  It has a very impending sense of doom with a slow, deliberate rhythm given edge by a rising electric guitar.  The horror is never telegraphed.  There is no musical warning that something terrifying is about the befall our heroes.  One such moment has almost pure silence as an infected child jumps down from above and creeps up behind Jim.  This creates a stronger and more unique suspense that has greater pay-off when the visceral violence hits.  The only other work I know from Murphy is his bleak and very heavy toned Miami Vice film score, and so, it’s nice to experience a different range in his musical abilities with something like this.

I believe that, from one perspective, you could call 28 Days Later a far more realistic and believable sort of zombie movie.  Instead of people rising from the dead, which is an extremely fantastical idea, humanity is being wiped out by a man-made virus that turns the populace into nothing better than mindless creatures.  They scavenge for food by attacking those who are still normally human, and can infect you with just a single drop of blood.  The change is near-instantaneous, and there is no cure, no way of fighting it.  So, while these are not actually zombies at all, this film does take the conventions of that genre, and apply it into a context that we can take with seriousness.  The concept is easy to comprehend and accept, and the imminent fear of infection is something we can all grasp onto.

As opposed to the slow, lumbering characteristics of the classic style of zombies, these fast moving, bloodthirsty infected create the heart pounding urgency and tension that this film required.  Screenwriter Alex Garland cleverly took only the base elements of the zombie movie template, and adapted them into a different sort of horror movie full of immediate danger and frightening excitement.  Again, the film is not about blasting away hordes of ravenous infected humans, but about these characters struggling for survival in a desolate landscape where even those they believe can save them turnout to be no more human than those who have been infected.

The movie does take a more unsettling turn when our protagonists join up with the soldiers.  The fact that they are welcomed there, not out of a pure humanitarian reasons, but for far more traumatic and frightening reasons creates a whole new style of danger and threat.  They are ultimately held captive by Major West, and will be forced against their will to do whatever these soldiers want with them.  Once Jim escapes execution, the film really ramps up the danger and suspense as it practically becomes a horror film version of First Blood.  While Jim is no soldier himself, he takes his fierce determination, and uses it to strategically strike back against these military men in merciless fashion all while more infected run amuck.  Cillian Murphy becomes greatly impressive handling the physical demands fantastically, and adding a fearsome quality to his performance.  Part of what makes the film so effective is that we are not following around a group of highly trained military professionals.  These are average people who do get frightened, and are pushed to their limits.  They are generally no more capable of surviving this situation than you or I, but they never give up on the chance of survival or rescue.  They continually trudge forward through whatever horrors they encounter.

28 Days Later is an excellent horror film that may not be for everyone.  It does have a slow, gradual pace that nearly fills up two hours of runtime.  There is plenty of gore and ravenous violence to go around, but it’s never an onslaught.  The characters are the central piece in the film, and the filmmakers want you invested in them with the horror and action being secondary.  That is not at all a bad thing, but it is something that might not be everyone’s appeal.  The cast features some names that have really come into wide prominence since this film was made such as Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, and I believe that should give you confidence in the quality of the performances and characters.  Danny Boyle really delivered something dark, intense, and innovative for its time that was creatively and commercially successful.  I’ve never been much into the zombie subgenre, but this film smartly took the right ideas from those films and injected them into a very effective and fresh approach.