Bright Lights Film Journal

Memo to Michael Bay: GI JOE KICKS YOUR ASS!

Superheroes with toy franchise tie-ins get a lot of heat… unless critics had a real lively sense of humor they trashed both TRANSFORMERS (as well as WOLVERINE, TERMINATOR SALVATION, etc.) but GI JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA does everything right. AND it gets a lot less things wrong. One can only hope the Michael Bays, Brett Ratners and McGs pay attention when watching JOE (though its director, Stephen Sommers, certainly has some crap under his belt, such as VAN HELSING). Here’s some things they might look for:

1) DEADPAN: The key, as with the best John Carpenter films, is the universal Deadpan: Just compare Channing Tatum, first-rate in his second-rateness as the “Most American” Joe” to, say, the comedic everyspazzisms of (Tatum’s real life friend) Shia LaBeouf in TRANSFORMERS, and why is Tatum so good? Because he scraps the winks and wails, and underplays! Ditto the amazing Sienna Miller. When these two are together, sparks fly because they don’t! (Bay would show literal sparks, probably coming out of someone’s ass)

2) RACE: There’s a lot less racial “consciousness” and more of a racial celebration in JOE. For one thing, the main black character–Marlon Wayans in JOE’s case–is actually given a personality beyond the carefully compiled compendium of “safe” cliches that make most token black characters so invisible (i.e. they’re loyal and don’t interrupt when their white friends are talking). Instead he’s allowed to have a genuinely ballsy “take charge” persona as well as sensitivity. He knows when to move in and when to back off in his amorous pursuits of this fellow Joe chick who is… white! She ain’t blond (her dyed red hair could denote some ghetto roots), but hey, Sen. Strom, baby steps.

3) RELATIONSHIP DYNAMICS: JOE takes a a page from Joss Whedon’s BUFFY to see how relationships and events in “normal” life can reverberate to a larger mythic canvas. The Baroness turned evil because Joe couldn’t face her at her brother’s funeral (he just drove by on his badass motorcycle in the Arlington cemetery rain, etc. etc.) Rather than some drab “You killed my father” “But I AM your father” bit of linear by-the-portable-Jung cliche, we zoom back and forth from the present Bondian crisis to past traumas, most of which develop character AND expend firepower.

4) COMPLEXLY MOTIVATED VILLAINS: They all “fell” from grace at some point, and they mouth their bad dialogue in that rarest of styles: the selfless straightforward, not wincing or mincing when their dialogue clunks to the floor. One is a Halliburton-style industrialist, another a deformed mad scientist type (BRICK’s Joseph Gordon Hewitt!) and another a self-centered ninja still harboring a grudge against his little white adopted and better-at-kung fu brother who blew up his spot at kung fu school (Nothing it turns out, is cuter than two little tykes wailing kung fu on each other in a Chinese kitchen flashback – with cleavers!).

5) COMPETENT EDITING: No matter what’s going on in JOE, you can follow it. The edits are tight but not whiplash insane or Bay-level insecure, or shredded down to meaninglessness as in the disappointing QUANTUM OF SOLACE. There’s a trust in the thrust of the story to override the sugar-addict guitar pick whittling style of so many current action films, which aren’t happy unless they’re cross cutting by nanosecond between 18 different incomprehensible and overly loud set pieces. More than anything, JOE’s ingenious editing strategies remind me of the good early Hong Kong action films like MADAME CITY HUNTER and SUPERCOP 2!

Lastly, JOE manages to involve character arcs and development that for once are NOT cliches, because they connect to the truth…truths of being a tough, rough, heart of gold military type (they remind me of some very cool rangers I know) as opposed to a kid who is a “hero” based on his ability to own a possessed sports car or play a video game. While Michael Bay is spending millions on CGI to make a giant robot dance around like a spazz to bad top 40 rock, JOE is smashing up cars in Paris while flashing back to proposing to his girl (now the hot leather badass villain known as Baroness!) all without the requisite bullshit throwaway gags and punch lines. In short, all while keeping a completely straight face! It ain’t been this good since STARSHIP TROOPERS or, another classic JOE reminded me of, the Sam Hodges’ 1980 FLASH GORDON!

Like TROOPERS, JOE does the atom-splitting antithetical dichotomy bit, turning the CGI military spectacle into into both an effective critique of the military-industrial complex AND a veritable Sears catalog worth of cool new deadly stuff for sale! If the future is even half this rad, I’m glad I’m still alive to watch it happen… later, when it comes on DVD… and blu-ray! And did I mention Dennis Quaid as the leader of his beloved Joes? Shit son, there ain’t even a foul-mouthed robot or annoying anthem rock songs to fuck this up. I’m not saying Channing Tatum is the new Vin Diesel, but if even if he’s just the new Scott Walker, the sleeping 15-year old boy in all of us can finally wake up and look unashamed into the draft board future. Ride on, big Joes. Ride on…