We're all expecting G.I. Joe to be one of the worst movies of all time — but we were actually overestimating it. Judging from the novelization, G.I. Joe will be a masterpiece of badness, Showgirls meets Plan 9. Spoilers ahead...
We were lucky enough to get a copy of Max Allan Collins' novelization of G.I. Joe: The Rise Of COBRA. And we had not fully appreciated the dementia of this storyline, which really is all about nanotech and how it'll eat the world.
In the G.I. Joe universe, nanotech can do almost anything — turn regular people into super-soldiers, control your mind, devour the Eiffel Tower. I wouldn't be surprised if this movie's script was actually written by nanobots, which sliced up a million other action-movie scripts and mashed them up into a wonderfully incoherent mess. There are undigested scraps of Sho Kosugi movies and bad war movies floating around this gray goo of a story, and it's nice to watch them sail past.
This might actually be the most prominent nanotech action movie ever — I'm straining to think of another movie where nanotechnology is so central to the plot.
The central villain of the movie, of course, is the Scottish James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), an arms merchant who secretly hungers for power. In a flashback, his ancestor gets tortured by the French by being fitted with a searing-hot metal mask, and so McCullen has a special hatred for French people. When we meet the present-day McCullen, he's selling the NATO brass on his latest weapon — nanomites, which are basically nanomachines that eat anything metal, until you hit their "Kill Switch" and turn them off. They can disarm an opponent without the need for bloodshed, and so one NATO suit jokes that McCullen may be the first arms merchant to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
But McCullen, of course, has other plans — after he delivers the nanomites to NATO, he launches an attack of his Neo-Vipers to steal them back. The Neo-Vipers are supersoldiers who have been enhanced by nanotechnology — which also controls their minds. At one point, McCullen gloats that his troops still have their own thoughts, but they're incapable of doing anything but obey his orders. The convoy escorting the nanomites is led by Conrad "Duke" Hauser and Wallace "Ripcord" Weems, and they're the only ones who are prepared when the Neo-Vipers attack.
The convoy gets wiped out, but luckily the G.I. JOE squad shows up — an international team of super-experts who don't officially exist, but appear as if by magic when they're needed. There's Heavy Duty, who's heavy and does his duty. There's Scarlett, who has red hair. There's Cover Girl, who's blonde. There's Breaker, who... uh, breaks things. And there's Snake Eyes, a ninja who's taken a vow of silence. And then their leader, General Hawk. The JOEs save the day, but Duke is loath to hand over his hard-won nanomite cargo to them, so they take him and Ripcord back to their secret base. And of course, Duke and Ripcord wind up joining the team, to the sound of people shouting "Yo JOE!" (That's their rallying cry.)
Meanwhile, McCullen has his own colorful squad. There's Zartan, a fiendishly exotic killer who can impersonate anyone. The Baroness, who turns out to be Duke's ex-fiancee — but now she's married to a Baron, who's not allowed to touch her, or a ninja will kill him. (Seriously, it's a running subplot: if her husband so much as kisses her, the always-watchful ninja will kill him. Try bringing THAT up in marriage counseling.) There's the ninja, Storm Shadow, who's taken a vow of nastiness towards Snake Eyes. And finally, the Doctor, the fiendish nanotechnology genius with a crazy mask who makes the whole wacky operation possible.
When Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes finally face off, Storm Shadow hisses in Japanese, "You took a vow of silence... Now you will die without a word." Sho Kosugi, eat your heart out.
There's also this great bit, towards the end:
Heavy Duty told them: "You know the mission: Find Duke..."
"...grab the warheads," Rip said.
"And kill all the bad guys," Scarlett said.
"Roger that," Heavy D said.
Snake Eyes, of course, said nothing.
But they all knew that when it came to killing bad guys, he was the man.
Snake Eyes can't talk, but he can send text messages, which is kind of cute.
Eventually, we learn that the reason why Duke and the Baroness are no longer together is because Duke got the Baroness' brother killed on a mission. Except that there's a shocking twist, and if you can't see it coming a mile off, I have no hope for you.
Last year's summer movies were all about the relentless advances of weapons technology, and what they cost us. Iron Man was about a remorseful weapons maker, Incredible Hulk was about a remorseful military experiment, and The Dark Knight bemoaned the fact that all of Bruce Wayne's fancy armaments only spurred on the homicidal maniacs. This year, though, it's gung-ho militarism season, spearheaded by toy movies — literally, movies based on toys.
The advantage that G.I. Joe has over this summer's other Hasbro movie, Transformers 2, is that its human characters are action figures. In Transformers, the robots were toys but the people were just standard movie characters — almost every movie nowadays has an Italian Jewish male stripper who blogs about killer robots, after all. But in G.I. Joe, every single character feels like an action figure walking around — reading the novelization is like watching a five-year-old play with figurines, while a middle-aged guy narrates portentously. In other words, it's probably the most perfect action-adventure novel ever.
So because this is all about toys, there are lots and lots of loving descriptions of military hardware, from flying drones to fighter jets to a stealth van called the Scarab. You've already seen the ridiculous Iron Man-esque power suits which Duke and Ripcord wear in one crucial Paris sequence, but the story is loaded with insane hardware. Scarlett gets to wear a special combat suit, which renders her totally invisible.
At one point, Collins refers to Heavy Duty as wielding a massive "machine-gun-cum-grenade-launcher," which put a mental image in my mind that I don't think he intended.
When the Vipers attack the convoy, they arrive in a super-armored stealth ship called a Typhoon, shooting pulse lasers that fling the dead bodies of Duke's Special Forces squad "like discarded refuse." And then there's this great description of the Baroness, who shows up on the scene:
The neckline of the body armor exposed the upper part of her swelling bosom, an exposure of flesh that arrogantly dared bullets to try for her, as if she could walk blithely across the battlescape.
Even amidst an army of plastic characters and silly dialogue, the biggest problem is probably Ripcord, who's played by Marlon Wayans in the movie and is exactly as emasculated as you might have feared. Towards the beginning, when the convoy is attacked, Ripcord gets startled by a shape coming up behind him, and squeals "like a Girl Scout whose cookies had been snatched from her" — before he realizes it's just a stray cow. Later, in the big Paris chase scene, Ripcord runs through a lingerie store and winds up with a bra on his powersuit helmet. He's the one who spouts the jokes about "kung-fu grip," and he's the dumb one who needs everything explained to him. He's constantly saying things like "I'm livin' a brother's dream, man." To be fair, though, he does get to save the day in the end, and he has a quasi-romance with Scarlett.
Here's my favorite passage in the whole book, after the JOE squad gets back to their base:
In his stateroom, General Hawk was in the office area, at his desk, humming a jaunty military tune.
He was going over the paperwork regarding the new JOEs, Hauser and Weems, when a crisp knock came at the door. He rose, answered it, and found his lovely blonde aide, with the smart tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other.
"Sorry to disturb you, sir."
"Not at all, Cover Girl."
"I just need you to sign here, here, and here..."
He did so.
Then she said, "And here, and here."
This he also did.
"Anything else?" he asked.
"No, sir, just this..." She gave him a rare, unguarded smile. "And another thirty-six pages."
He grinned at her. "Maybe you should step inside."
She hugged the smart tablet to her, and began to say something, but it never got said, because the tip of a Katar dagger thrust through the tablet, having taken a path through Cover Girl's back.
As she fell to her knees, eyes large with the shock of dying, the figure of Zartan in camo-cap and jacket revealed the source of the blade.
Her name is Cover Girl... but she gets stabbed in the back. Get it? Get it??
A lot of the violence is amazingly sexualized, actually — there are several scenes between Duke and Baroness where they're so close they can feel each other's breath, as they grapple or wield guns at each other, and it's the nearest and hottest they've been since they used to make love. When the Baroness and Scarlett have their inevitable girl fight, Collins describes the two women as being "locked in a violent embrace." There's a flashback where the young Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes train together and vie for the approval of their teacher, the Hard Master.
Oh, and I should mention that Max Allan Collins is one of my fave writers, and he does a great job with an incredibly silly story. His Ms. Tree is one of my favorite comics of all time, and I love his work on Batman. Here, he occasionally manages to channel the great Mickey Spillane, his idol with whom he collaborated on the underrated Mike Danger series, with some very loopy prose and action-packed jaw-gritting.
It all explodes into a James Bond villain-esque climax where McCullen plans to wipe out three major cities and do something unspeakable to the U.S. president. (And it ends on a genuinely lunatic cliffhanger, which I won't spoil.) The nanotech threatens to devour everything, unless our heroes can hit the kill switches, or unless Ripcord can shoot down the nanotech warheads in mid-air. And as you've probably heard, James McCullen's face gets hideously scarred, and he winds up with a new mask made out of nanotech. A mask made out of nanotech! Sadly, it doesn't reshape itself into new forms or create emoticons or anything.
In the end, that's the thing that still gives me hope for G.I. Joe — with Christopher Eccleston playing McCullen/Destro and Joseph Gordon Levitt playing The Doctor/Cobra Commander, all of this over-the-top growling about using nanotech warheads to blow up the world may actually cure our recent villain ennui. Like so much else about this film, it really depends on whether flesh-and-blood actors can fully embody the plastic miens and jerky-limbed heroism of the toys of your youth. If not, you can always buy the newest line of toys and zoom them around your bed while you read Collins' musky prose.