I am waiting to be inspired again. I am waiting for another Ripley, another Tank Girl, another Selene. While I am waiting, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a perfectly acceptable way to pass the time.
Despite my misgivings about the ridiculous directorial decision to have Sienna Miller wear a padded bra to play The Baroness, I did indeed head to my local always-deserted-for-7pm-showings movie theater to see the transformation of one of my favorite childhood cartoons into a big budget action spectacle.
Now when I say “favorite childhood cartoons,” I don’t mean that I actually recall many details about the series. There was a team of good guys called G.I. Joe, there was a team of bad guys called Cobra, and that’s about all I got. In this incarnation, G.I. Joe is an international military superforce that swoops down to save Our Hero, Duke (Channing Tatum), a regular military guy, just as he’s about to lose some nasty nanomite warheads to an attack force headed up by his ex-honey. Ex-honey, Ana a.k.a The Baroness (Sienna Miller), turns out to be working for the team that officially turns into Cobra by the end of the film, and now we’re all caught up, yes?
My husband declared G.I. Joe the best movie of the year until he remembered (a.k.a. I pointed out) that Watchmen came out in 2009. (Also recall that we don’t get out to movies unless they are for Heroine Content, sad to say.) I have to admit, though, that it was a damn fine action film. Things blew up, the pace was good, and I never got bored or disengaged enough to spend time wondering about supply chain issues a la Terminator 4. The gadgets and weapons didn’t seem cheesy, and they had fun with the movie without turning it into a farce. I enjoyed watching it.
But how does it rank on the Heroine Content scale?
Let’s talk about racial diversity in casting first. Duke is our main character on the good guy side, so of course he’s a white guy given how Hollywood works, but after his rescue by the Joes, he joins their Alpha team along with his colleague Ripcord (Marlon Wayans, African-American). The existing team is composed of Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, British of African descent), Breaker (Saïd Taghmaoui, French, of Moroccan descent), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols, white), and Snake Eyes (Ray Parks, white, always wears a mask that covers all of his skin.) Heavy Duty is unquestionably in charge of the team. His boss, General Hawk, is played by Dennis Quaid (white).
So for large chunks of the film, we are following and rooting for a team that visually appears as 1 white guy, 2 black guys, 1 middle eastern guy, 1 white woman, and 1 guy in a mask. That’s really not too shabby, even if the “funny black sidekick” role played by Wayans is a little tired.
It was interesting, though, to think about why that diversity exists in that team. It’s because the G.I. Joe force is international. (It reminded me a lot of Wing Commander, a film I haven’t had a chance to review yet here. Wing Commander was one of the first science fiction films I ever saw where I was struck by the display of non-Americans in the future in space.) It’s like that thing where if I’m a white American and I learn another language, it’s admirable, but in Texas being bilingual in Spanish and English because your parents speak Spanish at home is not celebrated. International diversity is awesome, domestic diversity not so much?
If my alternative is watching a team of all white guys, though, I welcome international diversity.
The bad guy side doesn’t do as well on this kind of diversity, but they also don’t have as many people. Byung-hun Lee plays Storm Shadow (ninja bad guy), and Brandon Soo Hoo plays him as a child in scenes from his past. Of the other bad guys, we only see The Baroness, McCullen (chief bad guy), and Rex a.k.a. The Doctor (evil scientist bad guy), all of whom are white, for the same length of time as we get with the Alpha team on the Joe side.
Moving on to the women, there were three characters used out of the source material, and all are white. Cover Girl (Karolina Kurkova) appears briefly and then meets a tragic end (during an invasion of the G.I. Joe base that severely damaged my respect for them as a military operation.) So we basically have Scarlett for Team Good and The Baroness for Team Bad. Scarlett is a brainy beauty ass-kicker with high standards. I thought they were setting her up to be a damsel in distress in her first fight scene, when she fell down and stayed down WAY more easily than the guys around her, but after that, all was well on the fighting vs. saving front. The Baroness just about outruns and outfights Duke in their first encounter, and it’s not until the end that her past history with Duke begins to weaken her character. For most of the film, she is all Bad.
Given, a film like G.I. Joe is not going to add to the diversity of female action heroines. The women are going to be skinny and typical sexy. However, I was surprised at the lack of much gratuitous… anything. The Baroness is definitely using her sex appeal for great injustice, and I did wonder why Scarlett graduated from college at 12 but couldn’t finish zipping up her own (military uniform!) top, but strangely both of the leading female characters got progressively more dressed as the film went on. They also got more boyfriend-ed, which was depressingly predictable, but they did not spend most of their time on romantic issues. They had jobs to do, and they did them. They were not jokes, victims, or weak links.
(Of course, someone else watching it could feel completely differently.)
This review feels somewhat flat to me, and I think that’s because in some way, the movie did too. I didn’t really care about either Scarlett or The Baroness, which I wanted to, and that was disappointing. I feel like they were treated decently by the filmmakers, and they did some very cool stuff, but they didn’t achieve full personhood. Unlike Duke, whom I did connect with, and may I just say that I love envisioning his character as the continuation of the rebellious street dancer he played in Step Up?
There are ways the film could have been improved. Despite the G.I. Joe commitment to international excellence, I found the casting of the extras in the Joe headquarters lacking. I would have to watch it again to double-check this, but I don’t recall having the feeling “Oh hey, all colors of people.” I may have been focused too hard on counting women, of whom I saw about three out of about 30+ extras. A little attention to detail here would have been nice.
I give it three stars because within the spectrum of movies we’ve reviewed here on Heroine Content, it does quite well for itself in casting and representation of women and people of color. It reminded me of Resident Evil on this front. It’s not radically pushing the boundaries of dominant society, but it was impressive to see this many diverse characters treated seriously by the filmmakers – especially given the image that probably pops to mind when you think “G.I. Joe.”
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.