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G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Heroes are made in America.
Filmmaker(s): Jon M. Chu

Framed for crimes against the country, the G.I. Joe team is terminated by Presidential order. This forces the G.I. Joes into not only fighting their mortal enemy Cobra; they are forced to contend with threats from within the government that jeopardize their very existence.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

Guys and Dolls

I suppose it is natural to define a self from negatives: what you are not. So much in public life depends on this dynamic. It is a dangerous urge that I often see out of control, and one I want to closely monitor in my own life.

One place I really let it go is when I see a bad movie. Under the best of circumstances, I’d be able to see only films that nourish some creative evolution in my soul. With some discipline, bad movies allow me much the same benefit if I can understand what separates me from it.

There’s the obvious stuff to react against of course. The movie borrows as much as it can from the 1970s and does so with no irony. It really is misogynistic, jingoistic and celebrates dumbness. None of this is a joke. Plot points are from 35 years ago: the suitcase, the complex plan with nukes, the notion that national leaders really can do absurd things by themselves… even with Goldfinger this was a joke.

The idea that two turbaned (?) Pakistanis would be hand carrying a nuke on scaffolding is bizarre, Plan 9 from Outer Space level stuff.

The focus on guns as icons; when Bruce Willis reveals his hidden arsenal, we are supposed to have a frothy pumped up admiration of the devices, a flood of admiration for the size of the cache. Willis isn’t allowed to wink at us as he usually does. We really are supposed to cheer.

Even when there is some modern reference, they carry it with a dated juvenile attitude: ‘they call it waterboarding but I never get bored’; is possibly the most revolting failed joke of the era.

All that is obnoxious. This is a franchise movie, designed to sell toys to nine year olds, so the intent of these offensive tropes is particularly unsettling. I’d never want a child to see this until he/she could build fences around the weeds.

When I’m in the US, I see films in an audience dominated by military and their families. After the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are particularly conscious of good honest souls doing their duty. And then having their lives wasted. They know that the guys guarding the president at the end are just regular soldiers who showed up for duty. It is hard to cheer when they get wasted for our amusement. For that matter, what about the several million inhabitants of London who get annihilated as a demo.

But if I just react to these sorts of things, I lose, because there is no cleverness, no construction is seeing these stupidities. What is it about this that makes it bad storytelling and bad cinema?

I heavily criticise the Marvel movies. But that is because they are poor cinema; generally the storytelling is crackerjack. I think Tarantino is usually worthless but I do credit him with knowing how to put together a cinematic story.

Why this film is uncinematic is an easy shot. Clearly, what they did was divide up the film and budget and send the parts out to centres all over the world. That means that it has no soul. One moment, you’ll be swinging with cartoon ninjas in the Himalayas in three D effects clearly added afterwards, and then the fight goes through a window and an amateur crew shoots two huffy guys rolling in the snow. We are jerked from a writer-director stance of a buddy movie, to cheap explosions, to more than one poor imitations of comicdom. It lacks coherence so it lacks soul.

One would almost think it was intended. If the idea is to sell dolls so that juvenile testosterone surges can be monetised, then perhaps there is some wisdom in erasing the humanity from the thing so that kids can pour themselves in more readily. But no. As was once said of a past US president, the stupidity is not a sly act.

You can see some of the difficulties they faced. Because they are selling dolls they have to interrupt the situation at hand to give character-defining backstory, so you have built in fragmentation. They have to live with the legacy dolls, I suppose. Marvel has a similar problem with The Avengers, which they solved by having each major character have his own introductory movie(s).

The fascinating part for me is the shuffling of two worlds. One world is the gutsy army guy with big guns. He has no superpower and it is all about the guns and the mania. This world is elaborated by having an eternal enemy army and a group of special forces types including a woman. The stereotypes draw from war movies and there is a sort of beauty in closing the loop from movie concepts to toy play to movie about the play.

But there is also the ninja world, wholly separate in concept and with an origin in a different film genre. Here, ninja magic is routine and derived from a magical jewel. Something like superpowers are assumed. The skill in battle comes not from being bold but from long training with masters.

Previous comics and cartoons provide extensive backstory of the Arashikage Clan (the good guys) and the characters we see here. There is (I read) a thorough weaving of the two worlds in the backstories: some soldiers join the clan and the clan evolves to support the GI Joes. But the problem is not that someone hasn’t ‘explained’; the connection, but that they really do live in worlds with different physics.

One is a world of bravado and bullets while the other is a matter of stealth and skill. Battle, devotion, honour, comrades all have different non-overlapping meanings. It just cannot work.

Posted in 2013

Ted’s Evaluation — 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.


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