Welcome back to We Can Fix It, the series that takes a look at movies that went wrong and, with an air of naïve optimism, tries to determine how they could have gone right. Last week we took a look at the Stephen Sommers’ 2009 blockbuster G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a debacle so debaculous that it’s taking two whole editions of We Can Fix It to, well… fix it. Having covered some of the sillier plot conceits, distracting asides to the audience and of course the rampant misogyny, this week we turn our gaze towards how the film could have better adapted its source material, how it could have beefed up its villains and how a montage is supposed to work. With G.I. Joe: Cobra Strikes gearing up for production, this is our last chance for our constructive criticism to actually be constructive. Let’s hope they’re paying attention…
(SPOILERS ahead, obviously.)
4. DON’T REWRITE THE STUFF THAT WORKS
G.I. Joe wasn’t known for its preponderance of subplots. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s rivalry, infighting at Cobra headquarters, and the love triangle between Duke, Scarlett and Snake Eyes… that was about it. Cobra may have been a work-in-progress in The Rise of Cobra, so infighting was minimal, but those other two are serious problems.
Obviously the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow feud was a factor in Sommers’ film, but it’s an afterthought. Sommers seemed unaware that Snakes Eyes and Storm Shadow are, to most G.I. Joe fans, the selling point of the film. The quiet, mysterious badass and his more outwardly charismatic nemesis who – in the grand martial arts tradition – killed their master (allegedly). The brothers, of sorts, turned enemies. That's fabulous drama. Sommers flashes back to this rivalry but does nothing to make it relevant to the present. Snake Eyes is a non-character in the film, as opposed to the breakout character he could have been. In G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra he mostly stands around in the background and kicks ass in action sequences but he has no direct relationship to the storyline. Back stories are only effective if they inform the present, and by limiting Snake Eyes’ involvement in current events Sommers nullifies the dramatic possibilities of flashing back at all. It was necessary to either make Snake Eyes a main character (which should have been a no-brainer), or at the very least save his subplot for the inevitable sequel.
As for the love story, a prerequisite in just about every mainstream movie, it was shifted away from the triangle everybody knows and loves – again, between Duke, Scarlett and Snake Eyes – to give Duke an unnecessary back story with The Baroness which, as we covered last week, neutralized her efficacy as both a villain and a strong female character. Scarlett’s love interest was switched from two heroic and capable men to the comic relief character, eliminating the drama inherent a love triangle and, again, diminishing her as a character. What’s odd is that there’s a moment early in the film where, during a briefing, Scarlett can be seen draping herself around Snake Eyes in the background, implying that somebody on the production knew the significance of their relationship. They should have spoken up. The plot point would have raised Snake Eyes’ visibility – which would have been appreciated – and strengthened everyone’s characters in the process. Further, it would have freed The Baroness to actually enjoy her relationship with Destro, which for better or worse was one of the happier (if evil) romantic relationships in the history of popular culture.
In other words, if it ain’t broke don’t @#$%ing fix it. But if you do break it, I guess We Can Fix It for you.
5. MAKE COBRA ACTUAL BADASSES
Heroes are defined by their villains, that much we all know, and actually Cobra has a pretty good track record in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, mostly succeeding in their goals right up until the end (when the heroes obviously "have" to win). They successfully infiltrate and destroy G.I. Joe headquarters, they totally @#$% up Paris and, in the end, take control of the United States of America. Good for them! But it’s the incidental stuff that nullifies their ability to be threatening.
Here’s a simple fix: early in the film, Cobra Commander introduces his new breed of super soldiers, genetically altered to feel neither fear nor pain. He illustrates this by ordering one of them to be bitten by an actual cobra, and to his credit the soldier neither flinches nor utters a single “Ouch.” But despite devoting several minutes of precious screen time to introduce the conceit, every time we see these soldiers in action they scream in pain and fear. A lot. What, exactly, was the point here? If it’s an oversight it’s a big one. If it’s by design, somebody broke the film. There's nothing wrong with make your bad guys badass. Do it.
Another plot point that weakens Cobra is this baffling one: Destro uses American funds in order to finance his superweapon, and then steals it from them under the guise of a terrorist organization to deflect suspicion. Makes perfect sense. However, he then has to manipulate The Baroness’s husband in order to weaponize them. So Destro invented the weapon but doesn’t know how to weaponize them? How much do these guys suck? Let Destro weaponize his own damned weapons.
It’s also unclear why Cobra is threatening the world in the first place. Clear motivations are significant, particularly in popcorn entertainment. In The Dark Knight The Joker wants to create chaos: simple. In Richard Donner's Superman movies Lex Luthor wants beachfront property: stupid, but simple. Cobra wants to take over America. That’s simple, but it begs further scrutiny. Why do they want to take over America, and by extension the world (since their goal was to throw the planet into chaos, forcing other nations to turn to the United States for leadership)? They can’t just be profiteers. There are better ways to make money, and given that they have an underwater sci-fi wonderland at their disposal it’s fair to say that they already have enough of it. So they must be ideologues. But what is their ideology? In the series, Cobra Commander was insane enough that his straightforward megalomania was a suitable driving factor. But Destro is in charge in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and he has no better motivation than exacting revenge for a centuries old (perceived) injustice to his ancestor.
Weak motivation, weak villains. Speaking of "weak"…
6. GET YOUR OWN ENDING
The ending of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is eerily reminiscent of Bryan Singer’s original X-Men, and not as effective. The main villain(s) is (are) captured and confined to a giant sci-fi prison, and their most effective underling has shapeshifted and replaced an important politician, setting up a significant threat in the sequel. We don’t need to spend too much time on this. Aping an earlier movie at this point diminishes your own film’s climax, and in this case not just because it’s distractingly familiar (although that's a factor as well).
For one thing, the climax of the film finally establishes Cobra Commander as the leader of Cobra (makes sense), and almost ends with him getting away to terrorize the world yet again. When the Joes finally catch Cobra Commander it actually plays as an afterthought. Why, exactly, did the filmmakers need to arrest this guy in the first place? Having Cobra Commander at large at the start of G.I. Joe 2 would have allowed the sequel to get started quickly. As it stands, Jon M. Chu – assuming he doesn’t ignore the original film altogether (which would be wise) – will need to spring the guy from jail, and he has no better means to do so than making Zartan, under the guise of the American president, spring him from jail… much like in X-Men 2. That’s another reason to get your own ending. It allows you to get your own sequel, too.
7. IF YOU’RE GOING TO PUT BRENDAN FRASER IN YOUR MOVIE, THEN PUT BRENDAN FRASER IN YOUR MOVIE
Brendan Fraser has a bizarre cameo in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra as a ranking G.I. Joe member who participates in the training montage but then disappears entirely for the rest of the film. Again, no reason to dwell on this. He’s too recognizable a star to waste him in a meaningless role. Either give him something to do or leave him out of the film. I’m sure he’s good friends with Stephen Sommers after their time on the Mummy movies together, and he’s a likable actor, but even giving him a smaller, off-the-cuff cameo would be distracting, let alone unnecessary. Either let him play a real character or cut him entirely. It's just weird.
8. LEARN WHAT A MONTAGE IS
Montages are used to condense time, not expand it. They are frequently used, as Trey Parker famously intoned, to allow our hero go “from a beginner to a pro” quickly. The process of developing useful skills takes a long time that most movies just don’t have to spare, so by using a series of brief clips of the heroes training and progressively getting better you can demonstrate that passage of time in a short period. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra has such a montage, but somehow it actually expands the passage of time instead. I can’t think of a single other film in which this has happened, although I’d be curious if any of our readers can in the comments below. Team America: World Police might count, but then again that montage was a joke in the first place.
Duke and Ripcord are forced to undergo rigorous training exercises in order to join the team on their mission, more-or-less the following day. So: montage. But the montage consists of a wide variety of training exercises that would take gobs of time to complete, like training on experimental underwater crafts, the super-suits we talked about last week and so forth. Taken out of context, it would appear that the montage condenses days – if not weeks – of time. But in the context of the plot it clearly is supposed to take place during what is essentially a 24-hour period, if not a shorter one, which is implausible at best and in complete disregard to the very nature of time and space at worst.
Montages are not complicated devices, and I’ve never seen one screwed up this badly before. It could have been fixed by minimizing the training depicted therein, or by expanding the plot to take place over a greater amount of time. Simple as that.
We could go on, honestly. The costume and production design is cartoonish enough to keep the entire film from being taken seriously, for example. But apart from giving Snake Eyes lips (did you learn nothing from the “Nipples on the Batsuit” controversy?) that’s more a function of Stephen Sommers’ decision to make a popcorn movie than a genuinely faulty creative decision. I think those are the big bullet points, but if I’ve missed anything I’d be curious to hear about it in the comments.
Incidentally, fans of G.I. Joe who missed the recent animated movie G.I. Joe: Resolute are encouraged to check it out. It was written by famed comic book writer Warren Ellis and although it’s a little choppy (it was originally planned as a series of short episodes) it’s an infinitely better adaptation than what ended up in theaters.
That’s all for We Can Fix It this week. Join us next Wednesday when we’ll take a look at one of the most embarrassing sequels in Hollywood history: Speed 2: Cruise Control. Aw, crap. Now that means I actually have to watch Speed 2: Cruise Control again…