'G.I.' So-So

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid, Marlon Wayans, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-08-07 (General release)
UK date: 2009-08-07 (General release)

It's definitely not the biggest flop of Summer 2009. That honor is still reserved for Transformer: Revenge of the Fallen (artistically) and either Year One or Land of the Lost (financially). And there really was no reason to avoid screening the film for the press. Sure, a few long time curmudgeons would and still will hate on this title, but it clearly wasn't made for them. Besides, the intended audience, who doesn't read such cinematic snobbery in the first place, won't be clamoring for their thoughts any time soon. No, if G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra becomes any kind of hit for studio parent Paramount, it won't be because of some specialized publicity, a pick-and-choose concept of criticism, or geek nation rebelling against the mainstream media. It will be because, like it or not, Stephen Sommers has made a pretty decent popcorn film - flawed, but fun.

Jarhead grunt Duke and his army buddy Ripcord are put in charge of delivering some sensitive nanotech warheads for the U.S. government. While on route, their convoy is ambushed by a group of elite fighting drones led by the lethal Baroness. They destroy most of Duke's men before another secret squadron, known as the G.I. Joes, saves the day. Under the directive of General Hawk, this collective of specialized forces has the latest in scientific and high tech weaponry advances. Unfortunately, the Baroness' efforts are bankrolled by aggressive arms dealer McCullem, who along with a mad scientist known as "The Doctor" are creating a race of super soldiers. The nanotech warheads will be used to blackmail the rest of the world into falling in line with the evildoers' demands. It will be up to the Joes to find the foe's hidden hideout, retrieve the bombs, and once again make the world a safe for freedom and justice.

If all you care about is action, G.I. Joe delivers. It offers up some of the best eye candy stunt set-pieces of the summer, easily besting the Bay bombast of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. While he's just as crazed and over the top as his brother in non-believability, director Sommers at least stages his chaos with a normal attention span in mind. During a terrific chase scene in Paris, the camera leaps and bounds around the F/X, allowing us to both feel the experience and follow it, logistically. Similarly, a last act dogfight underwater (don't ask) provides enough big screen scope and CG pyrotechnics to keep many a 14 year old's bubbling brain pan good and stimulated. Even the hand-to-hand combat between our two franchise ninjas - Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes - is a crackerjack karate kick.

But if all you care about is character, narrative logic, emotional depth - Heck, even something you'll remember an hour after you've seen it - G.I. Joe completely fails. This is a film that simply tosses personalities at the screen, unexplained and completely without context, coming back later for a few flaccid flashbacks in order to rebuild their already meaningless backstory. We know very little about Duke, even less about Ripcord, and the rest of the "Joes" are jerryrigged out of central casting conceits, multicultural needs, and a clear eye toward the budgetary bottom line. Don't come looking for A-list stars here. Dennis Quiad aside (he's our real American heroes aging father figure), the rest of the company is crap.

Indeed, the actor choices here are laughably bad. Sienna Miller does a decent job mimicking a Matrix-like female bad-ass (complete with a Trinity-lite line of tight black leather outfits), but she's hormone fodder, nothing more. Marlon Wayans might have been added for marketing diversity's sake, but his comic asides are just awful. As for our villains, there's not much to discuss. Both Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt may seem like unusual choices to play Cobra's kings, but they spend so much time doing little except explaining themselves that we grow weary of the endless exposition. But the worst marquee offender here is Channing Tatum. Totally talentless, without a lick of onscreen magnetism or presence, he represents the most low rent hero in the history of action films since the days of Steven Seagal. Had Sommers picked a better group of cinematic recruits, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra would be much, much better. With the current crop, he needs all the supercomputing power the production can muster.

And then there is the script, a slop jar collection of cartoon call-backs, contemporary tech buzzwords, jingoistic clichés, and every emotionless bon mot in the thriller love interest primer. We don't expect to buy or believe everything here - this is a property based on a kid's show fashioned out of some updated toys, after all - but it would be nice to have something resembling human interaction and warmth between the characters. Everything is declarative and assertive, from military directives to feelings of affection. Perhaps the problem goes back once again to casting, but it seems pretty clear that not even a director with a better grip on people than Sommers could elicit feelings out of the fake, pedantic dialogue offered as conversations here.

With a plethora of whiz bang pop rock and roll to provide the demo with some entertainment rules of engagement and just enough story to keep things from straying too far off course, G. I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra will be seen as the one time the studio rolled the dice and more or less came up a winner. Even if the movie doesn't make back all it's money, Paramount successfully avoided the predicted piling-on of an out of touch media in favor of finding publicity accomplices within the Internet's new specialized salesmen. Whether it will really mean anything in the end remains to be seen. After all, it's not all about the press. It's also about the presentation - and this escapist claptrap is goofy and cheesy, but mostly mediocre. And if a group of racists robots can monopolize this Summer's money pit with their overlong trip into tedium, these celebrated soldiers should easily recapture some of final fiscal glory. They're not heroes, or zeroes. Instead, these G.I.s are just so-so.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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