Monday, August 24, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Quite a bit better than I expected, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was actually a pretty fun summer movie. At the very least, it was far more enjoyable than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I never saw any of director Stephen Sommers's previous films, because, to be frank, I thought those Mummy movies and Van Helsing looked really stupid, but I suppose his quaint, campy, kid-friendly style may have been a good fit for an action figure picture.

As an action movie, as opposed to a special effects flick, Rise of Cobra is more balanced and better-edited than either of the Michael Bay Transformers movies. No, there's nothing so life-changing as seeing the CG Transformers, but it's no cheapo affair either. The "accelerator" suits from the trailer may not be "G.I. Joe," but they would make a cool addition to almost any superhero movie. There are also some neat James Bond-esque submarine vehicles that are essentially underwater airplanes.

Is it the live-action G.I. Joe movie that I've always wanted? Not really. (Not that I ever really wanted a live-action G.I. Joe movie in the first place.) I've already seen about ten different incarnations of the Joe characters, but these are something else altogether. This is another case where I must ask why, if they were going to largely discard the designs, personalities, and backstories, they even bothered to use the names of beloved characters. The only fans for whom those names will mean anything are the ones who will be disappointed at how unfaithful these interpretations are. Rise of Cobra Duke is not Duke. He's not even "Ultimate" Duke. He's a completely different, completely unrelated character. That's true of everyone, except for Snake Eyes, who looks, sounds (harhar), and moves just as everybody's favorite ninja ought to. The casting is also questionable all across the board, so there's no need to single anyone out in particular.

That said, the characters didn't affect my experience as much as I would have thought. I mean, I don't think I liked the movie's take on Cobra Commander, but it didn't dwell on my mind. This was a movie driven by some exciting action delivered at a brisk pace. That the actors were fairly likable was merely a bonus.

A minor controversy revolved around Roger Ebert's review of the movie, wherein he summarized Marlon Wayans's contribution thus:
But because us fans liked the two jive-talkin' robots in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "G. I. Joe" gives us Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), who is comic relief, says black stuff, and can't control his high-tech armored suit, so he runs into things.
You can probably guess what some people took issue with. I'm not here to assess Ebert's choice of words, but, after having gone and read the whole thing for myself, it's clear from the outset that his mocking review was never meant to be taken in earnest, because he did not have the patience to write a serious review about a movie he could not take seriously. He gets story details wrong, but early on admits that he probably did get them wrong, "because that's more fun that [sic] getting it right." For what it's worth, from my perspective, Marlon Wayans as Ripcord is just Marlon Wayans doing a rather subdued version of his usual self. He's nowhere near as obnoxious as any of the human characters in Transformers. And for a comic relief role, Wayans gets probably the most heroic moments in the movie.

I'm not saying it was a great film. My fanboy complaints aside, there's also plenty of "dumb action movie" script silliness. I came away pleased largely because I entered with lowered expectations. I think it's also important to admit that I personally would not have even considered going to the theater if this movie had not had the G.I. Joe license attached. As hard a sell as it was for me, as a fan wary of having my childhood trampled upon, I think it would have been a much harder sell had I cared nothing for G.I. Joe. In that case, I might have viewed it as just another gaudy carnival show, a la The Mummy or Van Helsing. Since it turned out to be a fun enough ride that appealed to the kid in me, I'm inclined to give it even an extra star on my internal scale just because it's G.I. Joe (even if it really isn't).

* * * * *

Not really pertinent to a discussion of the movie, it's time now to focus on the always pressing matter of Scarlett's romantic relationships.

Over the many lives she's lived, the redhead has split them about evenly at the sides of two different men. In Larry Hama's Marvel comic, she was paired with Snake Eyes, probably because Snake Eyes was Hama's obvious favorite, while Scarlett was the most prominent female and consequently the love interest by default. For the same reason, in the Sunbow cartoon, where Duke was the leading male, Scarlett was romantically involved with him instead.

I grew up watching the cartoon first, but I came to prefer the more serious, more fleshed-out characters of the comics. I was always particularly intrigued by the Scarlett-Snake Eyes relationship, and I wondered why, when she could have had any guy she wanted, she would have picked the mute loner. Perhaps it didn't make the most sense, but, hell, Snake Eyes is my favorite too, so I've always preferred that pairing, and I do come away a little disappointed each time Scarlett ends up with Duke instead.

Back on the topic of Rise of Cobra, the movie wisely chooses to downplay the romantic angles, but her leanings seem to point elsewhere altogether. Of course, like I said, two of the characters in that meta "love triangle" are completely unlike previous incarnations anyway, so this settles nothing.


Czardoz said...

"I must ask why, if they were going to largely discard the designs, personalities, and backstories, they even bothered to use the names of beloved characters."

What would it have served to have changed the names? They at least retain some of the iconography - Scarlett as a redhead, Duke as a sandy-haired grunt, the Baroness as a bespectacled brunette.

Would you say the same about the Merlin TV show, where all the characters are "largely" unrelated to their universally recognized originals? What if you just changed all the names, and had Marlon the magician serve Prince Rubbishes Mendragon in the court of Fartalot? What would be the point?

I see movies like this and Transformers, and the Merlin show, and I think to myself that when someone makes a movie based on a long-standing franchise or myth, one route would be to try to make the definitive telling (re-telling) of the long-familiar stories. Obviously, these three have not gone that route, and there are plenty more that have made this decision. I imagine it's because the writers/directors are trying to put their stamp on the stories, and maybe they're reluctant to tell the story that everyone already knows.

To me, it's not a good or bad thing, but it might be a fact of life. We are awash in new renderings of old myths, and they depart from their originals in ways both small and vast, but very few try to tell the old story straight, with just a fresh coat of paint.

Back to G.I. Joe, I rather bemoan the casting of Ray Park as Snake Eyes. Or rather, the movie's use of this actor. Why enlist this glorified stuntman and then do so little with his talents? I was woefully unimpressed with his work here, or the way it was edited, or both. The kid Snake Eyes did far more than the real Snake Eyes in this movie, and that's just criminal. Darth Maul rolls in his grave.

In some ways, I prefer the Flint era to the Duke era.

Henry said...

"What would it have served to have changed the names?"

The names are not the issue, and I'm not suggesting that they change them. You see, I don't wish that the Rise of Cobra characters were made distinct from the Joes I know. They already _are_ distinct by their personalities and stories. What I wish is that the characters were themselves. If they are not going to be those characters that I know and recognize, then they shouldn't pretend to be either. For the fans that love this franchise, these names belong to specific characters. But the movie would invoke these sacrosanct names to slap them on different and unfamiliar characters. What does _that_ serve?

Why take control of a character or license if you have no intention of keeping the things that make them what they are? If the filmmakers are determined to create something original, then they should just create something original, and spare us the poorly reasoned compromise that is of no benefit to anyone. Too often is it the case that an adaptation will clearly intend to trade on the name value while making no effort to understand the property itself, which is more than just a name. Moreover, for fans of the originals, there is the fear that, if an unfaithful adaptation is additionally bad, then it may unfairly reflect poorly on the source material, which has happened before.

In the specific case of Rise of Cobra, I'm not actually that concerned, because, as I said in my post, I rather liked the movie. I think it's good fun and, whether intentional or not, faithful to the action figure plays of a child's imagination. I'm not thrilled at having the classic Joe names (and sometimes looks) co-opted for characters that are fundamentally different, but the movie characters are fairly likable otherwise, and next time I'll be ready to regard them as different people.

For a number of reasons, I don't think Merlin is the same situation, though I've complained about that too. The Arthurian story actually has been almost universally known since long before any of us were born. There's nobody alive who can sanely claim the fight to preserve the integrity of legends that were muddy and inconsistent to begin with, nor should anyone feel the need to. This is not a case of mercenary exploitation and abuse of an established franchise and fan base. Rather, the whole point of the show is to provide a fresh take on things, and I think the creators fully intend for the viewer to notice the deliberate changes that have been made with specific consideration of classical tradition. We may question the decisions, but we don't doubt the writers' knowledge of the material they are adapting.

Also, there have already been numerous film and television productions mining that material before now, and the existence of the current Merlin show will not stand in the way of there being many more in the future, whereas, in the case of G.I. Joe and Transformers, a lot more people are going to know the new movies than who remember and care about the things that I grew up with. You say that the filmmakers did not opt to give the definitive tellings of those stories, but, until something newer and bigger comes along, these movies _will_ define these properties for the masses. For those of us that cherish what came before, it's natural to be a little annoyed at and threatened by that prospect.

What if they took a dog, dressed it up in your clothes, called it Czardoz, and thenceforth every time someone spoke the name "Czardoz," people would picture that dog? I'm sure it wouldn't ruin your life or anything, but wouldn't you feel it rather amiss, as well as a little disrespectful, all the same?

"To me, it's not a good or bad thing, but it might be a fact of life."

Does being a "fact of life" somehow preclude it from being a bad thing?

Czardoz said...

No, being a fact of life doesn't preclude something from being bad, but it doesn't preclude it from being good either.

I see your points about the Joes and Transformers, and I see why Merlin is not the right comparison. I think the better analogue is Lord of the Rings, which 7th grade Czardoz considered to be world-shaking literature. By the time the Peter Jackson movies came out, I didn't care enough about the property to want the rendition to be faithful to or reverent of the originals. The fact that it seems like the movies were both is perhaps part of the great disappointment of those movies. Well, that and the fact that the movies sucked.

More specifically, it was the filmmakers' slavish devotion to the books that doomed the movies to a rather juvenile quality. If they were to be as good as the books, they needed to acknowledge the inherent differences of the film medium, as well as the film audience. I may be the only person who loathed those movies, but so be it.

As you said about G.I. Joe and Transformers, so it is with Lord of the Rings - whether intentional or not, this has become the definitive telling of the story for many people.

Now, having said that, what if I had had great expectations going into the Hobbitfest? I might have come out of it thinking, "Yeah, that was pretty much what the books were like, but why was it so stupid?" Just getting the aesthetic, story details, and character traits right doesn't mean that the movies captured the author's ability to make the material mean something. Or, it's possible that the books really were stupid, too.

Haven't you yourself said that the Transformers cartoon was a product of marginal quality? I might look back at Lord of the Rings now and find it was ridiculous. How does a new movie make the original look bad if the original wasn't all that great to begin with?

"What if they took a dog, dressed it up in your clothes, called it Czardoz . . ." Well, would it be a good dog? Are you worried that a new movie might be a disgraceful cash-in on the original, or are you worried that the movie might be different in any sense at all? Just being a dog in my clothes doesn't mean this is a bad thing, unless it behaves badly.

I'm sure there is a lot of fan fiction that departs from the originals, but wouldn't necessarily be disrespectful of the original. Now of course, they're not cashing in on anything, but I think a movie could be made based on some 80s cartoon, but be rather different, and still be good.

So why use the same name if it's not going to be like the original? I suppose it's annoying no matter how good the product turns out, no matter how good the dog is. I can only say that maybe half of the G.I. Joe movie characters seemed faithful, in terms of personality and aesthetics. Scarlett, Hawk, Heavy Duty, Snake Eyes - were they really great departures from the TV show?

And look at Final Fantasy Tactics. Great product, but the FF name was clearly a cash-in, as the game had nothing to do with FF. Did that make you mad? Should they have ceased the pretense and just called it Square Tactics?

Henry said...

This was never a discussion of principles on my end. As a matter of fact, I don't personally care about Transformers as an IP, so it doesn't really matter to me what Michael Bay does with it. My argument was never about Transformers, and you'll note that I only mentioned it briefly in my last comment, with no explicit remark on the quality of the adaptation, and only because I felt obligated to address it after you brought it up. I've previously complained about the looks of the movie Transformers, because, for me, the iconic toy designs were the most essential part of that franchise. More passionate fans may not feel the same way, but I'm not adequately acquainted with the original material to fairly assess the overall faithfulness of the movies.

I'm going to say that it's rather beside my point whether an unfaithful adaptation is independently good or bad. Yes, it is annoying almost any time an adaptation is untrue to the source material, no matter how good the product turns out. But an adaptation can be true to the essence of the original without necessarily preserving every detail. I can think of few cases where a work has pulled that off and still disappointed. I don't ask for more than that. In the case of Rise of Cobra, it is in the essence, rather than the details, that characters like Scarlett and Hawk really depart from the originals.

Of course, I've already said that I like the movie and think it is good (not great). But just because I like a movie does not mean I have to be happy about every aspect of it. When the product is good, however, that at least makes it easier to bear the disappointing elements, which is why, like I said, the changes to the characters didn't really impact my enjoyment of Rise of Cobra.

There are also those rare cases where the new product transcends adaptation and surpasses its origins. In those cases, I'm happy to excuse any alterations. It may be a stretch to classify this as adaptation, but the 3 3/4" G.I. Joe action figures were way cooler than what came before, and, in my opinion, there is no reason to look any further back with that franchise. Then, when Larry Hama was assigned the task of adapting those toys to comic form, while Hasbro probably asked for nothing more than glorified advertisements, Hama took the job seriously, drawing upon his own military experience to deliver a legitimately gripping story full of human characters that were suddenly more than just cool designs. As the writer also behind most of the action figure file cards, it was Hama who really set down the mythology and made G.I. Joe more than a toy.

Back in the realm of movies, we should never fail to credit Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan for creating Blade, but I think it's fair to say that all subsequent takes on the character must be measured against David S. Goyer's interpretation. Meanwhile, if a movie markedly differs from the original without surpassing it, but still turns out decent, as in the case of the Thomas Jane Punisher, I'll be mildly disappointed at the perceived missed opportunity, but it won't significantly impede my enjoyment of the experience.

Apart from whether the Czardoz dog was good or bad, the annoying part was supposed to be the fact that it was a dog at all. I suppose I overestimated your pride as a human being, so how about if the dog is neither good nor so much bad, but rather a mental retard that devours its own excrement?

Regarding Final Fantasy Tactics, I don't agree that the FF name was a cash-in, but, all the same, about half the game mechanics were traceable to Final Fantasy. No other tactical RPG plays like that series.

Czardoz said...

"Retard" - the one word you were never to say, and now, it's out there.

So, to you, the Tom Jane Punisher and Rise of Cobra are more or less the same situation?

"There are also those rare cases where the new product transcends adaptation and surpasses its origins."

Please, if you would, some examples outside of the action figure arena?

Henry said...

"So, to you, the Tom Jane Punisher and Rise of Cobra are more or less the same situation?"

Kind of. Characters aside, Rise of Cobra actually is a true G.I. Joe experience. As for the Punisher, there have been differing interpretations of the character even just in the comics, and I'm sure the Tom Jane movie was true to some version. That it could not keep to the original and still most meaningful concept is due mainly to the differing moral standards between Hollywood action movies and Marvel superhero comics.

On adaptations that surpass the source material, the only one that really comes to mind is Batman: The Animated Series. The show adapted the comic characters to varying degrees of faithfulness, but most of the episodes were original stories not based on particular Batman comics. As a specific example, the character of Mr. Freeze was given an entirely new personality and background. Not only did the Mr. Freeze episode win an Emmy, but the changes were reverse adapted into the comics, and it also became the basis for the Batman & Robin take on the character.

That may not be far removed enough from the "action figure arena," and unfortunately I can't think of any good book-to-movie examples. I hear people list The Godfather and Silence of the Lambs as examples, but I can't personally attest because I don't know the originals. I'll say that The Bourne Identity was a better movie than a book, partly because the adaptation was less chauvinistic, but mainly because the material was just better suited for film.