Monday, 29 April 2013

Iron Man 3 Review

Iron Man opens to the sound of Back in Black. Iron Man 2 opens with Shoot to Thrill. It's a little jarring, then, when Iron Man 3 (or possibly "Three" according to the title card) begins with Blue (da ba dee da ba die). This is a mission statement of sorts: more than anything else, this Iron Man film is different.

This is the first Marvel movie since The Avengers, and there has been much talk of whether or not Marvel's individual heroes can still work on their own in a world where we've seen them all team up. Cleverly, this is worked into the movie itself, with Tony Stark (genius millionaire playboy philanthropist) suffering panic attacks over what happened in that film. Not because he nearly died - which is what many have assumed - but from the trauma of suddenly existing in a bigger universe, where aliens or gods could rip a hole in the sky at any moment. He's trying to make sense of his place in this new world and, in a way, so is the film.
That kind of introspection sounds slow and ponderous but, in Iron Man 3's case, it's anything but. Forcibly driven from his home by the brutal terrorist leader known as the Mandarin, Tony Stark starts moving and doesn't stop - this is self-reflection by fire. It's a crazy, chaotic film that dashes breathlessly from location to set-piece to entirely-new-location too many times to count. It even cycles through quite a large cast of sidekicks; alternately teaming Stark with Pepper Potts, Jarvis the computer, some random kid whose house he breaks into, and James "War Machine" Rhodes (now the star-spangled Iron Patriot). Throughout, though, it always keeps a grip on Tony's story.

As well as not having any AC/DC (or even Black Sabbath) in the entire film, new-to-the-series director Shane Black brings a new look and feel to the movie. It's darker, in both the literal and figurative senses, but it thankfully retains the streak of humour the series is known for - in fact, the film even has Tony Stark cracking jokes in narration and voice-over, which is another new touch. Somehow, it feels more grounded than the first two films, while also being more ridiculous. The scope is larger but the focus is narrower. Suitably for a film that draws inspiration from the comic Extremis, everything about Black's film is more extreme - from comedy to drama to violence.

The biggest difference, though, is that this isn't really an Iron Man film. It's telling that none of the posters show Iron Man with his faceplate on - this is a Tony Stark movie, he just happens to wear armour some of the time.
The first time Stark seeks out and confronts the Mandarin - in one of the movie's best scenes - he does so on his own, without the suit. Likewise, in the spectacular final battle, he spends as much time out of the suit as he does in it; maybe more. The suit in question is the prototype Mark 42 (Tony's been busy) and it's a modular system that comes together piece by piece. This means that he can wear just a glove, or the chestplate, or boots, without the rest of the armour.
The upshot of this is that Robert Downey Jr. gets to be physically, visibly, in almost all of the film - even the action scenes. There's only one sequence (a brilliant one with a dozen people freefalling from a plane) where the whole suit stays on for the duration. The inevitable downside is that Iron Man the superhero, as opposed to Tony Stark the character, never really makes much of an impact - the Mk42 just doesn't have any iconic moments to make it stick in the mind. But that's a small complaint when the film's doing so much right.

Where Iron Man 3 really gets it right - where it surpasses its predecessors, in fact - is in its villains. Both Ben Kingsley's Mandarin and Guy Pierce's sinister arms-dealer, Aldrich Killian, represent types of threat we have not seen Iron Man face before. They're a psychological and intellectual threat respectively, where Stark's previous foes (despite all being engineering geniuses) eventually came down to brute force and metal suits. Both actors are incredible in the roles - Kingsley in particular dominates every scene he's in. Which, when competing with Downey, is no mean feat.

There's still a physical threat, of course, in the form of Killian's modified henchmen. Augmented with super-strength and speed, they can stand against Iron Man without any need for armour of their own. The fact they're essentially just people opens things up for far more dynamic fight scenes - acrobatic and balletic instead of the clunky, robotic battles we're used to. There's even some martial arts!
This film boasts the series' best action scenes by a huge margin, and they're all unique, exciting and inventive. There's one in a burning building; one in an exploding building; one where Tony has no armour; one where he has all the armour; one where he's tied up; one against people; one against helicopters... The fights are brilliant, but the chases and rescue scenes (and, indeed, the Rescue scenes) are equally great. The modular armour is constantly used in unexpected ways, and nothing ever plays out quite as you'd expect.
The final showdown, in a night-time dockyard, threatens to break down into a confusing brawl as a bunch of indistinguishable protagonists face a group of equally indistinguishable bad-guys - but this quickly becomes just a backdrop for Tony's very personal fight to take place against. The camera sticks with Stark, diving and weaving through the carnage around him, making it not just Iron Man's best fight to date, but also his most personal. It's expertly judged, and it all comes to an explosive head for both Iron Man and his alter-ego.

The Iron Man series was the first superhero franchise where the second film, traditionally the point at which they peak, was weaker than the first. It's only fitting, then, that it should also be the first superhero franchise to overcome the dreaded threequel curse - delivering a third entry that does justice to the first film's potential and to the character himself. With by far the best action and strongest villains of the franchise, Iron Man 3 quickly lays to rest all doubts about surviving beyond The Avengers.
If this is what Marvel's "Phase Two" looks like, count me in!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

...from a Certain Point of View

Iron Man 3 comes out this week.
Hopefully I'll be seeing it on Friday, with my own review online by Monday at the latest. But the actual press reviews are already out, and the consensus seems pretty damn positive! Empire magazine, in their review, have called it "by some distance, the Man In The Can’s best solo outing so far." Which would make it easily Marvel's best solo film, too. That's all they say, though - they don't qualify or explain it, they just throw it out there and then talk about something else.
Firstly, I've never heard Iron Man called the Man In The Can before, and I love it. Secondly, that statement is fantastic news if it's true, but I'm not sure how far to trust it.

I've said before that it's really hard - kind of impossible, in fact - to judge films of a similar quality as objectively "better" or "worse" than each other. There is no single value to compare; all films do some things well and other things badly (except Twilight, which does nothing well). So, when Empire say that Iron Man 3 is the "best" of the three, which attributes are they talking about?
They could mean that it's just clearly out-and-out better - like the obvious difference between Iron Man and Iron Man 2 - but the first film is so strong that I can't believe the improvement this time is that pronounced. The first Iron Man is, simply, one of the best films of its kind.

What kind of film is that, exactly? Well, this is where it gets interesting. They get called several things, these kinds of movies, and, for me at least, each name comes with a different set of values to compare:

The best comic-book movie (about a superhero or superhero team) is The Avengers. It just is. No film ever made has so perfectly captured the way it feels to read a comic-book - the hyper-realism of it all, the dizzying sense of adventure and fun, the way it makes you care about the most ridiculous things. Before last summer I would have called Thor the best comic-book film, for much the same reasons - it just felt like a comic.

On the other hand, I would say that the best superhero film (based on a comic-book) is Spider-Man 2, with the original Iron Man close behind. These films focus on the nature of superheroes - showing us who they are, why they do what they do, and how important they can be to both their world and ours.

If you shift the emphasis from superhero film to superhero film, the best candidates (much as I hate to support their slightly scary fanbase) are probably The Dark Knight or Batman Begins - films which are brilliantly made and function incredibly well as films, regardless of (perhaps even in spite of) the fact they are about a guy in a bat costume. I've heard a lot of support for Captain America in this regard, too, though I don't really see it myself.

If we define these films by their action then The Avengers takes it again, for its perfectly executed escalation. And for that one long shot. And for Hulk.

Avengers is also the best film as a complete experience, and as a piece of entertainment - though Iron Man, Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2 all deserve a mention.

Finally, if we define them as character pieces, the prize goes to Iron Man - a detailed picture of one man's broken life, and the events that push him to do the right thing. The two Batmans take the runner up spots.

I doubt that there's any way Iron Man 3 will trump the original's brilliance as a character piece - and I have trouble believing that it could be a more entertaining experience either (though I certainly believe it could match it). Perhaps Empire were referring to the movie's action - the series has always been quite lacking in decent fights - or maybe they mean it's a better film in the same way as Batman Begins. I just wish they'd been more clear what they meant; value judgements like "better" and "best" are tricky at the best of time, and some context really would have helped.
Not that it actually matters - we'll all find out this Friday! In the meantime, please feel free to yell at me in the comments about which films I should or shouldn't have included - or which metric you think is the most valuable. Please do, because no-one ever comments on these things and I feel kinda lonely.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Riddle of Sir Ridley

While we're on this weird bad science kick of the last few weeks, I want to return to Prometheus one last time. Sorry, but I swear it will be the last one for a long while - and, frankly, every post about Prometheus gets much higher traffic than anything else I write. Apparently I'm not the only one who finds it so interesting!

A couple of minor spoilers follow.

Writing my post about Prometheus misconceptions, I realised something. While I maintain that the questions people seem determined to ask about the opening scene have no baring whatsoever on the rest of the movie, one of those questions does have a large impact on the universe of Prometheus and, therefore, the whole Alien franchise (by which I mean Alien to Alien 3 - the rest don't count). That question is whether or not the opening scene takes place on Earth.
As I wrote in my first post, the answer to this question is "Almost definitely." The entire film is about how the Engineers seeded Earth with DNA, and we see no evidence of any kind to suggest they ever seeded any other planets. So, when we see an Engineer seeding a planet, it's a pretty safe assumption that it's Earth. From all the evidence on hand, this is the most sensible conclusion.

But I vaguely remembered reading an interview with Sir Ridley Scott, the director of the film, where he had said that it didn't matter. I assumed he meant it didn't matter because, as I've said, it didn't affect the story of Prometheus. But then I looked the interview up. Does Sir Ridley think it's Earth?

"No, it doesn’t have to be. That could be anywhere. That could be a planet anywhere. All he’s doing is acting as a gardener in space."

Scott thinks it doesn't matter not because it doesn't affect the story, but because this "gardening" thing is just what the Engineers do, and that their seeding Earth is not unique or even special. This is backed up by the director's commentary, where he seems even more adamant that there's no reason to assume it's Earth - he himself actually seems to believe it's not.
And that's fine. Or rather, it would be fine, if the Engineers were only seeding these planets with DNA. But they're not. They're seeding these planets, very specifically, with human DNA. That one utterly stupid line about Engineer DNA being 100% identical to that of humans has, once again, reared its ugly head.

The Engineers have not simply dumped DNA on Earth and waited to see what kind of life appears. They have dumped DNA on Earth (which already seems to have some primitive plant-life, somehow) and knowingly waited for it to reform into 100% identical (but also somehow different) copies of themselves. It's a pretty impractical method of cloning, honestly - especially when the whole process seemed to get distracted by giant lizards for two-hundred-million years and it took an asteroid to course-correct. But whatever; the point is that evolution apparently had a target in mind all along.
If, as Scott suggests, Earth was not a special case, and the Engineers have done the same thing on other planets too, this implies that we are not the only humans out there. It implies that other planets were seeded with life that would also have evolved to be 100% identical (but also somehow different) to their creators.

This is the creator of Alien saying that, in the universe of Alien, there are multiple unconnected societies of humans, independent of ours, scattered throughout the stars. In the same way that this doesn't affect the story of Prometheus at all, it doesn't directly affect anything about the Alien films either - but the question is certainly an interesting thought exercise. And it spawns another, even more interesting question: does Ridley Scott actually realise that this is what he's suggesting?

Going back to that interview for a moment, immediately before the line about gardening, Scott says, "...the weight and the construction of the DNA of those aliens is way beyond what we can possibly imagine."
Except that we know that's not true. The DNA of those aliens is exactly the same as ours - the film is very clear on this. Is it possible he doesn't realise that's what his movie is saying? It would certainly explain his attitude to the "gardening" - rather than not realising what his interview answers imply, he doesn't realise what the film itself implies.
And anyway, what does that quote even mean? It's DNA - four bases paired off and chained together in a sequence. If the "construction" is different (or even the "weight") then it ceases to be DNA.

Elsewhere on his DVD commentary, Scott explains that the film's mysterious "galactic configuration" (which looks like a constellation, but apparently only contains one star) is made up of planets. Planets: those things around stars that by definition move around a lot. A fixed configuration of those. And if that's the case, why do they not call it a "planetary system" since, y'know, that's what those are called.
There's a bit later on where he talks, at a very basic level, about how life adapts to its environment, and it's clear he's already out of his depth. As well as not understanding what his movie says, it's beginning to look like Ridley Scott doesn't understand the basic science that his movie deals with.
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with his lack of knowledge in general terms - not everyone needs to have an interest or familiarity with science - but the director of a science fiction film has a responsibility to at least understand the fundamentals of their film's scientific concepts. Especially when those concepts are as simple as these.

And then, finally, I found another interview in which Sir Ridley said this:

"...there are probably thousands of different lifeforms in this galaxy... It’s entirely ridiculous to believe that we are the only ones here. That’s why my first thought is that for us to be sitting here right now is actually mathematically impossible without a lot of assistance."

Let's break that logic down. Ridley Scott believes that life is common in the universe, not rare. And because life is common, he finds it unlikely ("impossible" even) that life could exist on this planet without help. It is common; therefore it is unlikely.
That's, um... That's pretty contradictory, Ridley.

I realise I'm coming across as mocking and insulting one of the world's top film-makers, but that's not my intention at all. I just want to figure this out.
I think what's happening here is not that Scott is crazy or stupid - though those were certainly among my first thoughts - but rather that he just doesn't think these things through. He believes life is common in the universe and he also believes that life on Earth is unlikely - he just hasn't looked very hard at how either one affects the other. Likewise, I'm sure Ridley Scott knows that planets move (because, d'uh) - he just hasn't applied that knowledge to his idea of the "galactic configuration".
Taken on its own, the idea that the Engineers are space gardeners makes sense - or, at least, it doesn't not make sense. Taken on its own, so does the idea that their DNA would be very similar to ours (though 100% identical is still too much of a stretch). It even makes sense, taken on its own, that the original Engineers would have more complex genetics than the copies that became humanity, depending on the meaning of "more complex". It's only if you think through the entire process, from start to finish, that you realise it leads to a place of craziness. I think it's clear Ridley Scott has not done this - that he has instead looked at each in isolation, nodded, and then moved onto the next.

Going back to his commentary, at the point where Dave the android finds a living Engineer in a stasis pod, Scott says that there's actually Engineers in all six (I think) of the pods in the room - then he suddenly backtracks, says they all died in their pods and he knows why but it's too complicated to get into right now. He's not a great liar.
He hasn't thought through the sentence he is saying, apparently, and he's certainly never thought through this aspect of the scene before. Again, "David finds an alien in a pod" and "there are six alien-filled pods in the room" both work fine as plot-points on their own, so Scott accepts both - but in combining them he discovers some uncomfortable questions, and hastily tries to patch them up. This is quite a minor problem compared with many of the others, but hearing it play out in real-time on the DVD is pretty illuminating.

We've seen this pattern before - things that work in isolation but do not work when examined together. It's a perfect description of Prometheus itself. The entire film is a chain of scenes that work beautifully well on their own, but make no sense when placed inside the overarching story. It's a collection of interesting but separate ideas that were never properly thought through.
Having an amazing holographic map of the alien structure is a great idea! Having people get lost in the creepy structure is also a great idea! But nobody seems to have thought through how one idea affects the other - just as Ridley Scott doesn't seem to think how one interview answer affects another.
I honestly think this is how Sir Ridley approached the film - maybe how he approaches all his films (though most of them are much more successful). If something works or makes sense on its own then it is assumed to have worked and made sense within the story, and it's never brought to mind again. This is the impression that these interviews and comments seem to paint, and it's an impression heavily supported by the movie itself.

But, in a sudden twist ending that you probably don't want to hear after reading sixteen-hundred words of pseudo-analysis, Scott's attitudes and opinions don't actually matter. Which, finally, brings us to a sixth common misconception about Prometheus:

6: Ridley Scott is Right

Scott says that there are dead aliens in the other five pods.
Frankly, I think he's wrong. I saw the film and, to me, it seemed pretty clear from David's actions that that was the only inhabited pod and that the other five were empty. I disagree with the director. The point being that there's no reason to assume his interpretation is any more valid than mine. Or yours.

There is a theory called "Death of the Author" which claims that when interpreting a text of any kind (book, film, comic, music, painting, sculpture, long-winded blog post, etc.) one must approach it from the position that the author died the moment the project was complete and never explained it to anyone, even if you know full well that they are alive and talking about it constantly. If the author is dead, this means the only source of information about the text is the text itself.
How this applies to Prometheus is that if Ridley Scott tells us in an interview that the Engineers' DNA is "beyond our imagination", it doesn't matter because he is dead so he can't have said that. If he tells us in his director's commentary that we are looking at a galactic configuration of planets, it's irrelevant because he is dead so he never said that. Oh, you still read or heard the comments, but they were the comments of some random guy, not the director - because the director is dead - and, as such, they are no more or less "correct" than the thoughts of any other random guy.
Scott says they are planets. That's fine - that's his opinion - but it's not law. I can continue to believe that they are stars, because that makes more sense to me based on what I saw in the film. Scott says the planet in the opening is probably not Earth - I maintain that it almost certainly has to be, based on what I saw in the movie. Scott (to very quickly mention a different film) has said many times that Deckard in Blade Runner is definitely, undoubtedly, a replicant - and yet the debate rages on, regardless of what the director thinks. The film has to speak for itself - the original intent is effectively irrelevant.

That seems counterintuitive in a lot of ways, but it's really the only way interpretation can work. Otherwise a film (or book, or any text) could make no sense at all, but the director (author) could explain away any problems and we would have to accept those explanations - even though the text itself still makes no sense.
It's the same reason that “it makes sense in the book” is no excuse when things aren't adequately explained in the film version (think Patronuses in the Harry Potter films). It's the same reason that articles like this one, which analyse an entire movie based upon hearsay information that isn't actually in the movie, aren't a fair assessment. It's the same reason people can come up with conspiracy theories about the ambiguous endings of The Dark Knight Rises or Mass Effect 3, even though the creators never intended those endings to be ambiguous. And, more positively, it's the same reason that songs or art can come to represent social causes or cultural ideas that have nothing to do with the people who created the works originally.

Ridley Scott is free to say whatever he wants, to interpret his film in any way he wants, and to think those interpretations through as little as he wants. He's allowed to contradict himself and to contradict his movie, and it's not a problem because, once the film is out in the open, his opinion holds no authority and becomes just one more possible view. Death of the Author liberates us from the idea that the director's opinion is the correct one - or that there is only one "correct" opinion at all - and gives us the freedom to interpret a film on its own terms.
In this case, though, it's a bit of a moot point because, sadly, the film itself isn't very well thought out either.

Friday, 12 April 2013

GI Joe: Rectification

I just realised that I've written two posts in a row about GI Joe, and I haven't once said the line. To be fair, I don't think the second movie said the line either, but that's not the point. I screwed up and I intend to rectify that.

In the immortal words of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje:

Thursday, 11 April 2013

GI Joe: Rediculation

My last two posts have dealt with why we shouldn't tolerate outright nonsense in science-fiction (or even fantasy) and why GI Joe: Retaliation sucks respectively. Which gives me a very neat (yet still contrived) segue into talking about the outright nonsense in the first GI Joe.

I went into Retaliation for a very specific and unusual reason: I wanted to laugh at some bad science. GI Joe: Rise of Cobra is a fun film and actually pretty good, but it's the absolute king of bad movie science. It doesn't have the biggest number of scientific errors (that honour probably goes to something like The Core) but it has by far the grandest. This is a film with such disregard for basic science - and even basic common sense - that it not only takes the biscuit but uses the biscuit to fly into space somehow, and then happily carries on breathing in a vacuum. It's so gung-ho about the whole thing - so proud of itself - that I almost respect the movie for it. Almost. Naturally, I was expecting something similar as I entered the cinema last week.
Sadly, as with everything else it promises, the sequel fails to deliver. Apart from one gobsmacking sequence involving a room full of people and every single nuclear weapon in the world, there is nothing in Retaliation that even compares to Rise of Cobra's transcendent idiocy. And that scene is more a failure of logic than of science, anyway.

But, as tremendous a failure of logic as it is, it still pales in comparison to the original's demented logic. In Rise of Cobra there is a super-advanced jet (which Google tells me is called the Night Raven) which defies not just logic but common sense.
The Night Raven's primary weapon (possibly its only weapon) is fired by voice-command. Voice-command is a very advanced technology - one we are only just beginning to master - but is it really the best way to fire the weapons on a jet? Rather than pulling a trigger and getting an almost-instant effect, the pilot has to shout "Fire!" (which takes a full second) and then wait for the system to process and interpret this (which may take less than a second, but will still be much slower than processing a trigger-pull). In fact, the pilot has to shout it in Gaelic for some reason, where "Fire!" is a two-syllable word, is harder for the computer to understand, and takes even longer to say! Keep in mind that this thing flies at Mach 6 so, in the two seconds this process takes, the Night Raven has potentially overshot its target by two-and-a-half miles - maybe more if the target was moving. Triggers may be pretty old technology, but we still use them for a reason.
Now, this would all be fine if this jet were a bomber. Bombers don't need to fire quickly, so the two-second delay wouldn't matter. One character does call it a stealth-plane at one point, further suggesting that it's a bomber. But it doesn't fire bombs or missiles - it fires sonic blasts or something (possibly the only tech in the film that doesn't involve "nanomites"). This, of course, brings up questions about the effectiveness of using sonic weapons at six times the speed of sound - but, even if we assume it works somehow, these blasts fire directly forwards, not downwards. Unless the plane is in a nosedive, there is no way these could be used to hit ground-targets, so they must be intended to fire at other aircraft. This is a fighter, not a bomber. Yet it only fires one shot at a time! If you miss, you have to shout another two-syllable Gaelic "Fire!" to try again - all the while being strafed with constant fire from the "technologically inferior" machine-guns of your opponents.

Nothing about the Night Raven makes sense. This is what I mean when I say I nearly respect the film: it's so stupid that it's almost magnificent. And to be fair to the engineers who designed it, they had much bigger problems to deal with than making it useful in combat. Frankly, it's a miracle they managed to make it fly.
Physics, you see, are different here. At the end of the film, the GI Joes attack Cobra's secret base, beneath the Arctic. The base is at the bottom of the ocean with long, spindly elevator-shafts connecting it to the Arctic ice above. Then someone blows up those elevator shafts and, incredibly, the ice falls onto the base. The ice falls through the water onto the base. This is a world where ice does not float! Science is broken - everything is backwards! How they managed to make something that could fly in this world, I'll never know.

But the film goes one further, and manages to combine this world's broken rules and its terrible engineering logic into one truly godlike moment of bad science. The worst science in all of moviedom. The Joes reach a corridor that is booby-trapped with pressure-sensitive panels; they need to cross, but can't do so without setting off an alarm. So Snake Eyes, the lovable ninja, crosses the floor on his fingertips, and the panels do not detect him.
Now, correct me if I'm wrong (I'm not), but isn't pressure defined as force divided by surface-area? This means that reducing the surface-area of something (by, say, treading only on fingertips) actually increases the pressure caused by that object. That's why sharp things are more dangerous than blunt things: the smaller surface-area exerts much higher pressure, even when the actual force behind them is the same. So, in decreasing his surface-area, Snake Eyes is actually increasing the pressure upon the floor - which should make him more likely to trip the pressure-sensitive alarm!
But it's ok, because someone in the film specifies that the panels "will detect anything larger than a quarter". Clearly this means that it is not a pressure-sensitive floor, but rather some new kind of "size-sensitive" floor. Honestly, people have said this to me, as though that makes it better! It does not make it better - it makes it worse. I would rather believe that science in GI Joe is just stupid and wrong (ice does sink, after all) than believe that Cobra's engineers went to the effort of inventing a new kind of security system that works really badly, when they could have just installed the old kind that works really well. They did invent the world's worst fighter jet, I admit, but this floor is on a whole other level of dumb. You could trick this thing by rolling across it on an office-chair, or by wearing football-studs! It's either a debasement of simple physics, or it's a debasement of common sense. Whichever way you go, it still fails. The terribleness is circular and kind of beautiful.

The reason stuff like this bothers me so much is how simple it is, and how easy it is to catch. Anyone who has ever had a drink with ice in it (that's everyone, by the way) knows that ice floats. Yet at no point in the development of GI Joe: Rise of Cobra did anyone - anyone - point this out. The writers, the producers, the director, the editors, all the people involved in actually creating and rendering that scene; not one of them said anything. Did they genuinely not notice? Did they think that we wouldn't notice? Or by the time someone noticed, was it already too late to go back?
Surely it would not be hard to get someone to glance over the script and point this stuff out. To spot it at the earliest stage, so that it can be fixed with the least expense. A school physics student could do it - hell, I could do it - so why is there not a "science advisor" for films like this? Surely it's better to have someone qualified tell you beforehand what doesn't make sense than to have some idiot picking it apart afterwards on their blog.

Friday, 5 April 2013

GI Joe: Retaliation Review

My relationship with the original GI Joe: Rise of Cobra is, as Facebook would say, "complicated". It's the first film my brother and I really fell out over - he believed it was a fun film with some crappy bits while I found it a crappy film with some fun bits (it's since been replaced by the first Hobbit, which he thinks is excellent but I think is just very very good).
Well, David, I take it back. I take it all back! Rise of Cobra is definitely not a crappy film with some fun bits. That's Retaliation.

Buried somewhere in the new film there is an actual sequel to the first movie. But there's at least two other, different films nailed on to it.
Whenever the villains are on screen - the mask-faced Cobra Commander, the master of disguise Zartan, the ninja who died last time but we're going to pretend he didn't Storm Shadow, and Ray Stevenson's new explosives guy Firefly - we are very much in the universe of Rise of Cobra. This is a universe, lest we forget, in which "Doctor Mindbender" is a viable name! There is ridiculous technology, there are bright primary colours, there's an overabundance of shiny CGI, people are evil just because they are evil, their schemes are totally insane, and the dialogue and acting are gloriously hammy. Jonathan Price, playing Zartan playing the President, is a joy to behold - he's having the time of his life and it's infectious. When he's on-screen you can't help but enjoy it. This movie - the one that's actually a sequel - is great fun.

But there's also a gritty militaristic reboot going on here. Unlike the primary-coloured film the bad-guys are in, the good-guys' film is drenched in sweat and grease and dirt, and everything's shot with that washed-out, grainy look. The combat is all shouting and running and firing, and they seem to kill a hell of a lot of people (they're pretty brutal about it too). Gone is the cartoon violence and accelerator suits - replaced by a hail of gunfire and not much else. The good-guys' film wants to be Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker, except for a bit in the middle where it wants to be a spy film and the bit where Bruce Willis turns up as a veteran (read "NRA nutjob") and it suddenly wants to be RED.
To go with this new, grittier feel, there's an entirely new premise, too. Remember how the GI Joes were a multinational team of experts in different fields, equipped with amazing technology and a massive futuristic base under the Sahara desert, who dealt with the problems that were too big for any one nation? Well, now they're an elite American team of American soldiers, working with only-slightly-modified American military equipment out of a standard army camp in the Mojave desert in America, who perform the same kinds of operations as normal American soldiers and take their orders directly from the President. Of America.
Also, wasn't this organisation a secret? Because everyone seems to know about them now.

It almost feels like it's an entirely different group of people fighting Cobra this time round. In fact that's exactly what it is, because none of the good-guys from the first film return except Channing Tatum's Duke, who gets unceremoniously killed off in the first quarter of an hour (not a spoiler).
Instead our protagonists are the Rock, and two people who are not the Rock. Dwayne Johnson plays Roadblock, who everyone just calls "Block" (yet nobody ever asks what the Block is cooking), and the other two play other people. There's nothing wrong with the performances but, just in case you're missing the subtext, nobody makes any kind of impression except the Rock. I genuinely can't even remember their names.
Johnson, as always, is dripping with charisma - but even his enormous shoulders can't hold up the whole film on their own. It's partly that he has to play intense and serious the whole time. It would really help if he had someone to play off - like that Channing Tatum guy, for instance. Those two have fantastic chemistry, and when Duke dies (not a spoiler) you really miss the buddy movie that could have been.

There is actually one other returning character: Snake Eyes the mute ninja. Yes, this team of American army-grunts still have a ninja for some reason. Except Snake Eyes isn't really in the same film as the good-guys. He's not even in the same film as the bad-guys. He's in some impossibly bad martial arts movie, along with Storm Shadow, a new (and totally unnecessary) ninja called Jinx, and some guy who's apparently named after a cigarette paper. We're suddenly in a dojo that's also a garden, and people are slamming their swords into the ground and proclaiming that they have been shamed or betrayed - sometimes both! It's laughably bad even before you take RZA's horrible acting into account. I'd probably believe it was a deliberate parody if it wasn't bookended by the super-serious war movie parts.

One would hope, then, that this is all in service of the action. The three different films at play here don't gel at all, but they should offer a rare combination of ridiculous doomsday weapons, intense, visceral gunplay, and awesome sword-fights. But Retaliation doesn't deliver on any of them.
Say what you like about Rise of Cobra (and, believe me, I have), but you could always tell what was going on. Here, every single action scene is torn to shreds by choppy editing and chaotic cameras. I honestly couldn't tell if the ninjas' fight-choreography was any good because it was shot so messily. Likewise, when Duke dies (still not a spoiler) I wasn't actually sure who had just died until later. There's another character who dies but I'm not even sure when or how it happened!
Even the doomsday weapons disappoint. You see a couple of shots of a city exploding in the trailers, and it looks fantastic. But that's all there is - that same couple of shots - in the entire film. It's just empty spectacle, too. We cut to it, then we cut back, and it's never touched on again.

GI Joe: Retaliation is an ugly, clunky, messy film. It has some great bits (though they generally make you root for the bad-guys) - but the heroes are too bland, the tone is all over the place, and the action is mostly incoherent and actually kind of dull.
On the plus side, it's really made me appreciate the first one. I'm ready to embrace the fun of that movie - crappy bits and all!