G.I. JOE: THE MOVIE
Not all feature-length films about Hasbro toys are created equal, though Joe: The Movie certainly manages to have its moments.
Directed by Don Jurwich
Written by Buzz Dixon and Ron Friedman and Hasbro
With Don Johnson (Lt. Falcon), Shuko Akune (Jinx), Michael Bell (Duke), Kene Holliday (Roadblock), William Callaway (Beach Head), Sgt. Slaughter (Sgt. Slaughter), Chris Latta (Cobra Commander), Arthur Burghardt (Destro), Morgan Lofting (The Baroness), Zack Hoffman (Zartan), Richard Gautier (Serpentor), Jennifer Darling (Pythona), and Burgess Meredith (Golobulus)
Spoiler alert: high
Though its three efforts are all still remembered today, it cannot be said that Hasbro's plan to advertise their major toy lines in movie theaters went especially well at the time. When the idea was conceived, the first property that got the push was, of course, the cross-media phenomenon of G.I. Joe, based upon the work of many people but mainly Larry Hama, and the war/spy/quasi-superhero book he did for Marvel Comics, which brought his Clancyesque interest in military matters to a series mostly about fighting snake-themed supervillains. However, when G.I. Joe: The Movie encountered production difficulties, Transformers: The Movie, the film based on their second-most-popular toys, surged ahead. TF:TM premiered in 1986, beating the Joe TV-to-screen adaptation by a year. And, as it turned out, forever—because when TF:TM was released, it failed, egregiously so. My Little Pony didn't do so hot either.
Not only did TF:TM fail, however. For a movie that practically nobody in the world seemed to have actually paid to see, it had one awfully lopsided impact on the culture of 1980s boys. When the children saw their now-beloved Optimus Prime heroically eat it in battle against his dread rival Megatron, they cried and they cried, until Hasbro heard (their parents' complaints, that is), whereupon G.I Joe: The Movie was pushed back a little further still, in order to remove the largely-identical plot point that had been, ironically enough, developed first for the Joe film before it was replicated in TF:TM by Hasbro's bloodthirsty execs. And thus did Joe: The Movie enter the marketplace: neutered of its major emotional hook, and on video cassette. (As a result, contemporary releases have a presentation problem; but as this review is likely already taking it far more seriously than one ought, I refuse to go into what the "correct aspect ratio" of G.I. Joe: The Movie might be, especially because it was, like TF:TM, intended to work on both theater screens and old CRTs.)
Naturally, you'll wonder who the hell Hasbro thought they'd upset, since if you've ever met anybody who cared about Duke, the heroic leader targeted for elimination this time around, then you must know even dorkier people than I do, inasmuch as Duke is also the single squarest squarehead in the Joes' roster of boring squareheads—very few of whom are remotely interesting characters in the first place, as opposed to occasionally-interesting collections of colors, design elements and (sometimes) ways of speaking. (Okay, fine, I overreach. Snake Eyes is indeed very cool, and there are those who are partial to Shipwreck, and I am talking about the Joes, rather than Cobra, and about the cartoon and toys, rather than the comic. But you take the point.)
Anyway: when we discussed TF:TM a few years back, we found that it remains a very unique and precious thing: a kid's cartoon willing to go genuinely nuts, not just in terms of sheer body count (though God knows, that count is extravagantly high), but in terms of upending everything its audience of snot-nosed first-graders thought they knew about the show they loved. If we're being objective, however, and we should try to be, even about things we have great nostalgia for, TF:TM is not unique at all in what it attempts, only in its success—for Joe: The Movie is cut from the exact same cloth.
Or, cast from the exact same mold? Don't hit.
In either case, TF:TM clearly lifted more than the idea of a hero's death from its stablemate. The formulae behind both films are breathtakingly identical: in turn, both films radically redefine their villains and the scope of their series' universes, in order to sell a new line of toys; both films foreground new characters, and push the older ones into the background, in order to sell a new line of toys; and both films center themselves around a callow male protagonist who needs to learn some discipline, but demonstrates the spirit of a hero in the end, in order to appeal to an audience of rambunctious young boys who see themselves as put-upon and unfairly-maligned, and to whom Hasbro would very much like to sell a new line of toys. The difference in quality between these two equally-earnest attempts to fulfill Hasbro's corporate mandate by expanding the ambit of what amount to (if we're honest) a pair of fairly lousy television programs is just fascinating; I can only offer partial explanations as to why. (It's weirder still when you consider that, at least in the fog of my early childhood memories, the G.I. Joe series actually was markedly superior to Transformers.) Some reasons are pretty obvious, though.
The plot is different enough, nevertheless: in the aftermath of one more stupid, inept, and inevitably-foiled scheme, the recently-demoted Cobra Commander and Cobra's new Actual Commander, Serpentor, along with their various subordinates (Destro, The Baroness, those dumb rich twins who finish each other's sentences and look like Tucker Carlson, etc.), fight and argue about who was at fault. The answer, obviously, is "everyone," and give Joe: The Movie this much: it has the intellectual and ethical fortitude to more-or-less explicitly agree with this proposition, which is where the seeming assassin now sneaking into the Cobra Terrordrome comes into the picture. Not till after a stunning demonstration of what amounts (by Cobra standards) to god-tier competence is it revealed that this "assassin," Pythona, is but a messenger, sent from the mysterious realm of Cobra-La to effectively take command of the global terrorist organization it turns out they created.
What's that, now?
This is where Joe: The Movie gets extremely complicated for such a short little trifle, and needs a little unpacking: Cobra-La, in TF:TM terms, is the Unicron of the Joes' picture, representing an upgrade of Cobra from the essentially-apolitical collection of killer misfits in the show to the paramilitary arm of a long-slumbering, Lovecraftian race of terrestrial aliens, who predated humankind but fled the Ice Age to a refuge in the High Himalayas (I present this plot point without comment). Cobra Commander, as it happens, is one of their number, a scientist disfigured while testing one of their unknowable technologies, based on organic life; he was sent to bring low the human civilization that Cobra-La's leader, the wormtaur Golobulus, views as an abomination, usurpers of Cobra-La's rightful place in the world as well as wielders of an obscene, machine-based technology. Cobra Commander, of course, did not succeed, not even remotely, and if Cobra itself couldn't stand his failures anymore and removed him from its leadership, you can imagine how his actual superior feels. Pythona has come to give Cobra their new mission: to steal the Broadcast Energy Transmitter, basically a giant microwave emitter that can beam power from place to place, Tesla-style. All involved are kind enough not to point out that Cobra-La's plan requires blasphemous human machine-technology to function, but with the BET in hand, Golobulus can ripen the spore missiles he intends to launch into orbit. Once ripened, they'll fall upon humanity, mutating them into useless beasts. And we get a sneak-peek of such a fate when it is inflicted upon Cobra Commander, who is reduced, minute by minute, into his base form.
I would like to point out at this juncture that all of this is kind of fucking great, and virtually nothing in this movie that has anything directly to do with Cobra, or Cobra-La, is actually bad. It has elements of badness in it—this is a movie based on an 80s kid's cartoon, and it is unfair to expect any film to transcend those elements the way TF:TM did—but they're minor flaws, mainly, like Richard Gautier's outright atrocious voice performance of Serpentor, who, like everyone else, was always a visual idea first and a character second. You get the impression someone might have been punishing Gautier, though. For what infraction, we can only guess, but writers Buzz Dixon and Ron Friedman (the latter also of TF:TM, though word is that this was predominantly Dixon's work) give their very worst material to poor Serpentor. He's forced to utter his catchphrase, "This I command!", far more times than it can bear (as it could bear, perhaps, two times, separated by about an hour); he does it with such a consistency of tone I half-wonder if the VA only actually recorded it once. We learn, also, that Gautier is singularly incapable of performing the quasi-racist ululations of Cobra-La's indigenous warriors; and, in one unforgettable moment, that Serpentor is incredibly confused by the whole situation, referring to his Joe enemies as "arrogant Earth scum!", which is so thoughtless it rounds its way back to charming as we entertain the idea that Serpentor, like the rest of Cobra, hasn't had a second's rest to actually process what his new, surprise allegiance means, and he's simply going with the flow as it happens, so it's only natural that he might slip up, and think for a second that he's working for outer space monsters now.
It's a lot to keep track of and it's easy to sympathize.
Certainly, between TF:TM and Joe: The Movie, somebody at Hasbro had Fantastic Planet on the brain, and while Dixon has explicitly apologized for the name "Cobra-La" (hell, I like it; this is for children), and God knows this was a bridge too far for many fans, you can't fault this film for its ambition any more than you can TF:TM's for its. Cobra-La does a lot of things very right: besides turning Cobra from the pet project of a stupid lisping lunatic into an organization with an actual organizing principle, it ups the stakes from the show in an incredibly surprising way, while also being extremely cool, at least in and of itself—from Cobra-La's bat-winged, silent superhero Nemesis Enforcer to the crustacean-based royal guards to the moment that Golobulus, feeling mildly threatened by Joe intruders, orders the creatures of the living city of Cobra-La to "detach," there's nothing that isn't crazy and weird and wonderfully gross about the whole affair, with Cobra regulars and Joes alike looking at everything they see as if largely unable to comprehend it.
So this is G.I. Joe: The Movie, is it?
Does it fit in especially snugly with Joe's "realistic" (or whatever) world of cartoon terrorism? Clearly not. But as an answer to the challenge posed by the decay of Cobra over two seasons, Cobra-La were the villains this movie needed: terrifying, bizarre, and, for the first time in forever in a Joe property, dangerous. Meanwhile, about the only thing I remember at all about the Cobra Commander, thirty years on, resides in this very film: specifically, his genuinely sad devolution into a snake (Chris Latta, at maximum sibilance, and in stark contrast to Lautier, is possibly in his finest form ever here). We find his tragedy enacted over the course of a miniature Hell in the Pacific scenario with the rhyming Joe, Roadblock (Kene Holliday, also one of the valiant few putting in a solid voice performance), as both men try to make their way out of this madness.
Unfortunately, this is the part where 80s kids will wonder when I'll get to the other half of the plot.
Because the actual story of Joe: The Movie revolves around its attempt to shoehorn in some new good guy toys, too. This turns out to be a batch of new recruits, most of whom are terrible, from the basketball-themed Big Lob (who has over a dozen lines, and whom I believe speaks to literally no one except himself) to the sewer-themed Tunnel Rat to the apparently bigness-themed (?) Chuckles. Their training has been entrusted to Beach Head; their main narrative purpose appears to be to emasculate him, and they succeed. The only one with any redeeming qualities is Jinx, who has an appealing design—part conspicuous ninja, part Patrick Nagel painting—and, as a mostly-boilerplate martial artist (the only twist is she fights best blindfolded), she would've been hard to completely ruin. (Though they try: VA Shuko Akune is neither good in her delivery, nor is she the recipient of anything adequate to say.)
But heading this pack of unwanted dogs is Lt. Falcon, played by the film's putative "star" (Don Johnson, when he was big, and who's patently unenthusiastic about the whole thing; TF:TM got Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, and Orson Welles; Joe: The Movie gets Johnson, and practically nobody else, though its other "star," Burgess Meredith, does do well as Golobulus). Anyway: there is scarcely a more unacceptable protagonist in all the annals of 1980s popular cinema. 1980s popular cinema!
His arc is that of the fuck-up made good; in other words, he's Joe: The Movie's Hot Rod. It's worth contemplating that Hot Rod's major fuck-up was still undertaken with the best of intentions; he was just too callow to get the job done. By contrast, we meet Falcon absent from his post and giving a honeypotting Cobra undercover agent a tour of the Joe facilities. We follow up with Falcon when he abandons his post again, this time leading to a rare Cobra victory (whereas the reason for his detour was to sexually harass Jinx with, no exaggeration, a surprise pussy-grab—you know, for the kids). And at last, Falcon is handed his redemption arc when we learn that he is Duke's half-brother, a point made to a board of inquiry who see no reason to question this good Joe's naked, unashamed nepotism. Even Falcon's design is dreary: like Duke, he's basically one more "generic diamond-jawed white soldierman," except with a beret rather than a helmet or a crew-cut. The problem is G.I. Joe's already got one of those, even in that specific model. Admittedly, the neckerchief is a kicky touch, but it was a mistake to have Flint show up in this film, routinely confusing me as to why Falcon is talking like a grown-up now. The best we get out of Falcon is, in fairness, the best we get out of anything to do with the Joes, and that's Sgt. Slaughter, playing himself as always, who is enthusiastic to be here, and who, as Falcon's remedial trainer, treats Falcon the way we would like to see him treated: like a complete piece of shit.
Then Duke "dies"/is mortally wounded and goes into a coma, and Falcon gets his revenge quest, and it's all narratively dreadful, because we'd really prefer to see the worm-man coil around him till his eyes pop out of his skull. It all leaves Joe: The Movie terribly unbalanced—even structurally, the film doesn't want anything to do with Falcon, the supposed protagonist who, if you're timing it (and I did), doesn't show up till after thirty full minutes have already passed. (The film, incidentally, is 93 minutes long.) It even leaves it only half-successful as a toy commercial. I desperately wanted a Nemesis Enforcer and a Golobulus and a crab-man and a Sgt. Slaughter. Though I was much less discerning then, if I'd gotten a Falcon, I'd like to think I'd have set it on fire.
Tying things together is a production that does not, I'm afraid, do justice to the company responsible for Transformers: The Movie. That film was not without its animation mistakes (many of them), but it never felt less than passionate, and surely never felt like the TV show it was based on. Joe: The Movie does, a lot, with the same kind of unsteady figurework that tends to be a little offensive to the eyes, and with a budget that simply does not propel it too far past the animation limitations of a half-hour episode. Character animation is routinely awful, wooden and made of repeated movements (or no movements at all), or otherwise inhumanly overwrought (there's a very extended shot of the Baroness whipping her hair back in a moment of triumph that clearly feels like the animators going for something and failing miserably). The exceptions are on the margins: the set-pieces involving Cobra-La, that necessarily involve horrific creatures and a lot of interaction with the backdrops; the frankly bravura infiltration of the Terrordrome by Pythona, done as a solid thriller module that climaxes with a "cutaway" image of crashing blast doors and the acrobatic monster-woman passing through every one right before it closes. (Joe: The Movie is, overall, competently staged—though to what we owe director Don Jurwich and what we owe the storyboard artists is an open question. But I do like the little notes, here and there, like the shot of a sunset that turns out to be a reflection in a swamp, disturbed by a water strider. Don't let me say that nobody was trying to make a good movie.)
The big exception is the opening, which is everything Joe: The Movie ought to have been, if it ever wanted to compete seriously with its big brother, an incredibly dynamic sequence, essentially a music video set to a blood-boilingly bitchin' expansion of the Joe theme. It reduces the entire conflict of the series into a series of broad, immediately-understandable gestures: a Cobra plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty; a swirling kaleidoscope of Cobra villains and Joe heroes and patriotic party balloons amidst an aerial battle to save the very concept of freedom; and Cobra's failure, even upon their own goofy-ass terms. It's the loveliest thing in the movie by miles, and it's kind of all downhill from there—Robert Walsh and Jon Douglas do a better-than-credible job on the score (though I think most of the music has been repurposed from the series), but no sequence ever again manages this full-spectrum assault of image, sound, and kineticism.
Joe: The Movie is not, even so, a total wash. While basically almost everything about its central arc is detestable, everything surrounding it is at least imaginative and novel, and if (outside of its opening) it never even pretends to be a masterwork of animation, as such, it's good, gaudy fun nevertheless. But unlike its predecessor, I have no illusions about its quality outside of the corrupted memory of the child who was raised with it.