By Noah Berlatsky
One of the special effects set-pieces in the middle of G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra involves a terrorist attack in a major city upon one of the most famous buildings in the world. Said building is struck in its center, and then catastrophically collapses, killing, presumably, thousands. The whole scenario is played, not for pathos or drama, but for slam-bang action thrills; the fall of the building is greeted with a surprised disappointment that actually verges on joviality.
Granted, it's been a few years now since the 9/11 attacks. Still, you wouldn't think you could get away with gratuitously digging up its memory, pissing on it, and then filming the results. And yet, G.I. Joe does exactly that, and, honestly, it doesn't even seem all that offensive. Partially the film manages this because the world city in question is Paris, and the building is the Eiffel Tower. Dead Americans are tragic, dead Arabs are un-P.C., but dead Frenchmen? That's funny.
Even beyond the natural amusement value of massacred Parisians, however, G.I. Joe avoids potential controversy through a bland stupidity so determined that it almost seems like insouciance. One tragic backstory substituting for characterization is irritating, but more or less what I expect from Hollywood. But...two? Four? With at least a couple of them not even interconnected? That really starts to look like parodic bravado last seen in Team America. As, for that matter, does the choice of human mannequin Channing Tatum to play a character based on a toy. Fill in your own "responsive as a hunk of plastic" joke here.
The really impressive bit, though, involves not the characters, but the geopolitics. You'd think, with a name like G.I. Joe, that this movie might be about American military heroes kicking ass, taking names, waving the flag for truth and freedom. But, apparently, that was considered too retro. Or perhaps the creators just figured that nobody really wants to think about the handful of wars we've actually got going. So, instead, the G.I. Joes in this movie are a kind of elite force drawing the best from all over the world. Like Star Trek, but with a higher body count.
The thing about Star Trek, of course, was that its creator Gene Rodenberry actually had a vision; he was a liberal One Worlder, praying for the Cold War to end and the UN to take over. Joe Director Stephen Sommers has a vision of a sort, too, but it's less UN and more aphasiac American hegemony. Sometime, in the near future, the movie posits that soldiers from every nation will gladly leave their home countries to serve in a "multi-national" force named after American soldiers, led by an American general, and apparently answering more-or-less to the American president (who personally works to get the Joes out of jail after that whole destroying Paris thing. Silly excitable French people.)
Even those formerly troublesome Middle Eastern countries appear to be on board; Egypt, at least, allows the Joes to build their secret base under its territory. Of course, the base is targeted by the bad guys, resulting in violation of airspace, massive destruction, and the death of the one actual Egyptian we ever see (he's leading a camel, naturally.) But really, who wouldn't trade all their sovereignty in a second for the adrenaline rush of hearing some random foreign national stand tall on your land and shout "Good luck, Joes!"
This knee-jerk deference to all things American isn't just a transient, incidental bonus. It's integral to what I suppose we must refer to as the plot. The evil arms dealer McCullen—clearly labeled with a safely uncontroversial ethnicity—builds his entire plan around the presumption that if several major cities are blown up, everyone on earth will instantly rally to support the American president. The world loves a strong leader, McCullen figures, and in this near future, America is strong, rather than, I don't know, crushed by debt, or involved in various disastrous military ventures. Nor indeed, is American predominance threatened by China, a country which is conspicuously ignored throughout the film. Instead, when McCullen has an extra missile to play around with, he points it at Moscow, of all places. I guess he didn't get the memo that the Cold War is over and nobody cares about Russia anymore.
The movie ends with the requisite flurry of twisty surprise identity flips. The evil villainess is actually good! The goody-goody dead pal is alive and evil! American president: replaced by scheming twin double! Though it's hard to tell the difference, honestly. Good or bad, everyone seems indifferent to killing large numbers of civilians, and everyone loves America, or at least American-led coalitions. But, really, I shouldn't kick. If I'm to have American imperial propaganda, I couldn't ask for it to be any more shoddily made or any more unconvincing than this.
By Noah Berlatsky