Saturday, August 15, 2009

Movie Review: G. I. Joe

There was a time when I was a connoisseur of big, dumb action films. I saw pretty much every Stallone, Willis, or Schwarzenegger film during the 1990s. Then--I don't know. My tastes changed. Ahhhnuhld became The Governator. Stallone retired. Bruce Willis started getting fewer gigs. The Batman movies turned silly and homoerotic. And I just couldn't gin up much enthusiasm for the latter-day James Bond franchise. So aside from a couple Star Trek films or the newest Batman movies, I don't get out to the big, dumb action films as much as I used to. I needn't have fretted. G.I. Joe is just as big and dumb as the movies I watched in the '90s, with the added benefit of being based on a childhood cartoon I watched, as well as being incoherent, visually stunning, and super-fast, as only late '00 CGI movies can be.

That is not to say the movie is utterly without merit--though I will mention some additional demerits in a few sentences. Two of the big MacGuffins in this movie are nanotechnology and "accelerator suits," both of which are in development.

In this film, nanotech does a couple of different things, such as dissolving/consuming anything in sight, reconstructing faces/bodies, and changing body chemistry (up to and including suppressing "ethics"). I'm not a huge fan of nanotech, but even I knew some of the things the filmmakers had the stuff doing were a bit of a stretch.

The accelerator suits are armored and armed exoskeletons that allow soldiers to move faster, carry more equipment, and remain protected from a wide variety of threats. The movie shows a couple of soldiers tearing up cars, buildings, and streets in Paris with these getups, and the sequences are impressive. And what bears thinking about is that the Department of Defense is developing this equipment today.

On the other hand there are several physics- and technology-defying moments that even an English major had to chuckle at (random thoughts during the movie: "I didn't know ice could sink" "How do you weaponize a warhead?"). It can overload someone's common-sense filter, even if you have the sense to turn it off before you walk into the theater--which is a good idea, by the way.

The problem, of course, is that these technologies are being showcased in what amounts to a live-action updating of a comic book...and a gruesome updating, in some case. One of the laughable things about the cartoon I watched was that, Mirable Dieu, every time a tank or airplane was blown up, the crew always managed to bail out and not get killed. A cartoon about G.I.s without blood. Which was probably just as well for a kid's show. The point was to get you or your parents to buy the toys and play soldier, not freak you out. This movie can freak you out a bit, if you're under 13 or so. Lots of cussin', lots of explosions, some quick shots of bodies being maimed, shot, or burned. In all, some creepy stuff.

But this is a kid's movie, in nearly every sense of the word--or an adolescent's, to be closer to the point. The dialogue and characterization are laughable. The attempts at flashback or "back story" are not nearly as deft as the recent Batman movies. There's some hint at sexuality, but it's subsumed in quick montages or clumsy repartee. I guess I really didn't have high hopes for this film, but some of these efforts are better than others. Great effects do not overcome serious gaps in logic, and there are gaps a-plenty in G. I. Joe. Like you expected something better from a big, dumb action movie?

Additional Thoughts

I gave a glowing review to the Batman movies in the last couple years, so I had to ask myself why I was so hard on G. I. Joe, which is hardly more realistic. Part of it was that I didn't have quite the attachment to that old cartoon series that I did to Batman. Batman is one of the more known commodities in the comic world and has had some better stories told in his world. It's one brooding, smart, tough guy against the underworld. It's as illogical as a gang of super-competent soldiers fighting armies of bad guys, and yet Batman ends up in a better movie. Perhaps it's just because the Bruce Wayne/Batman character is much better developed, however fantastically.

No, I'm not giving up on comic book heroes or big, dumb action movies. I'm just getting more selective about the kinds of stories that are getting told. It is possible to tell a not-dumb story or have a not-dumb message, even in the big, dumb action movie genre. Batman has them, G. I. Joe does not--that's about as simple as I can make it.

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