Week in Brief: “G.I. Joe”, “Gamer”

Poster for "G.I. Joe".
Check out the trailer here.

This film almost made me reconsider my love for Team America: World Police. There are no lengthy musical numbers to speak of, nor are there any wooden puppets (with the exception of Dennis Quaid), but the premises feel very much the same. IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, an uber-patriotic team of American heroes (well, they’re actually a multi-national NATO force based under the sands of the Sahara, but who’s counting) utilize high-tech weapons and a complete disregard for national sovereignty to fight the forces of evil. In this case, the forces of evil include a rogue weapons manufacturer with a plot to “steal” some high-tech nanobot warheads – which he also manufactured – and use them to destroy three major cities, which will allow him to take over the world. Somehow.

Why he can’t skip the pretense of stealing the warheads is unclear, since he does have an underwater base and an entire army of fearless, mind-controlled super-soldiers at his disposal – a base which, according to the Joes, is “the perfect location – difficult to locate, and easily defensible”, and yet becomes the perfect deathtrap as soon as someone cracks one of the windows. What it becomes is a climactic set-piece for an underwater version of a Star Wars battle, and the result is cheesy, but satisfying.

Conversely, the Joes’ base was one of the worst setpieces in the film. At no point does the base feel like it could be a real place on this planet. It makes Team America flying out of Mt. Rushmore seem plausible. The CG design of this place was laughable, and indeed, a lot of complaints have been made about the “bad CG” in this film.

But I must speak to one sequence of “bad CG”, in which the two lead Joes (played with great gusto by Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans) don “Delta-6 Accelerator Suits,” which allow them to run and jump at superhuman strength and speed through the streets of Paris. The movement of these entirely CG characters does indeed look cheesy and artificial, but I must question whether any such CG could ever truly look realistic. Even the best uses of CG involving humans will inevitably break the illusion as soon as the characters engage in impossible stunts. And while this particular sequence could certainly have looked better, I don’t think it could possibly have looked real.

They’re chasing a Humvee with a spiked snowplow on its front – a vehicle with the uncanny ability to hurtle skyward any car that it smashes through. It’s as if Stephen Sommers’ saw the legendary car-tossing sequence from Bad Boys 2, and thought to himself, “Needs more cars.” The sequence is absurd, plays freely with the laws of physics, but is nonetheless quite fun. The only drawback was the complete lack of tension over whether or not the Eiffel Tower would be destroyed, thanks to the film’s trailer. The only real surprise is the sheer amount of collateral damage inflicted upon the population of Paris by both sides in the process.

I won’t speak too much about the acting, since the only actor that seems to be straining his craft is Channing Tatum… Dennis Quaid swaggers maniacally as General Hawk, with a voice somewhere between John Wayne and George C. Scott. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Lost”, “Oz”) reverts to his native, but nonetheless uncharacteristic British accent, and Jonathan Pryce dons a half-assed American accent as the completely useless American President. I was pleased to see the return of Brandon Soo Hoo (Tropic Thunder) for one of the film’s many brazen flashback sequences (in a scene that was shockingly brutal and effective for one involving child actors).

I’ll say very little about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, except that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, and his comical (and digitally-enhanced) voice reminded me a great deal of gay porn star Brandon St. Randy* (Justin Long) from Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (clip is likely NSFW, due to language and brief Seth Rogen ass):

*An observation I first heard from IFC.com’s Matt Singer on a recent episode of the /Filmcast, but the resemblance of the voices was uncanny nonetheless.

Laremy Legel of Film.com, in a recent article, makes a pretty convincing case against lowering one’s expectations for any film. The point applies quite broadly, but really didn’t apply to this film for me. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra delivered on most of my expectations, and to say that I lowered them would be an oversimplification.

I’ve had a great affection for director Stephen Sommers ever since the Mummy films. He’s an earnest Michael Bay – a purveyor of CG diarrhea who seems to genuinely believe that he’s creating artful cinema, and the results are generally pretty satisfying. And despite my nitpicks about this film (of which there were many more than I included in this review), I actually had a very good time with it.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Poster for "Gamer".
Check out the trailer here.

IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, the top spectator sport in the country is “Slayers”, a first-person shooter in which gamers take mental control of a real human being in full-scale combat. The top competitor in this game is Kable (Gerard Butler), who is controlled by Simon (Logan Lerman), an overprivileged teenager. From the trailer, this film looked like a second-rate knockoff of a third-rate remake, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race, and indeed, the backdrops are very similar. In both films, the participants are ostensibly volunteers – death row inmates (of which there seems to be an ample supply) playing in exchange for a slim chance of freedom. And in both films, society revels in the violence inflicted by the inmates upon each other.

Unlike in Death Race, the viewers aren’t just casual observers of a gladiator-like spectacle; they’re active participants. In addition to “Slayers”, there is a game called “Society”, an X-rated mind-control version of “The Sims”, in which blubbery leviathans take control of attractive people and force them to engage in every kind of debauchery. While the gamers who play “Slayers” use full-body controls and appear to be in good shape, we are shown a typical “Society” player who is depicted, to put it mildly, as a fat, self-deluding, sexually deviant waste of life.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this film, if not for the fact that it is written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the same team of manic guerilla filmmakers behind the thoroughly entertaining Crank series. Neveldine and Taylor bring their usual frantic handheld style to this film, along with their particular flavor of over-the-top action.

But unlike in the Crank series, this film starts out taking itself completely seriously. And the result is a rather boring first half. The gaming sequences, which make up the majority of the first hour, exist in the same generic grey/brown ruined city and shaky-cam style that all boilerplate first-person shooters include at some point. These sequences are jarring, frenetic, and subject to constant interruption by fake static and video cutting out, which made them almost impossible to comprehend.

Nonetheless, there’s still some pretty compelling imagery in the first act. The prison where these men are held (when they’re not playing) appears to be set down inside a canyon, and is shot in such a way that the desaturated blue sky feels huge and all-encompassing. The resulting setpiece feels bizarre and otherworldly – an almost Limbo-like place for these men to await their doom.

The film really hits its stride in the third act, when we’re subjected to the most hilarious scenery-chewing from the Southern dulcet tones of Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) as Ken Castle, the inventor of “Slayers” and “Society”. Castle is basically Dr. Evil – a parody of a James Bond villain, and Hall is immensely fun to watch in this role.

This film’s most significant improvement over Death Race is that it effectively depicts just how backward, complacent, and violent a society would have to be in order to support this kind of system. And this may also be its most significant disadvantage. Gerard Butler plays his part completely straight, given that Kable has real stakes (wife and child), but the film just doesn’t make enough sense to be taken seriously. And while the ending is immensely satisfying, I can scarcely say the journey was worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

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