I haven’t seen the new “G.I. Joe” sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” yet, but I’ve read plenty of its reviews (current Criticwire Network Average: C-). Even with director Jon M. Chu’s supposedly more “realistic” take on the material, the words I keep seeing in piece after piece are “cartoon” and “cartoonish” — as in “cartoonishly scripted and indifferently presented” and a “Saturday morning cartoon writ large.” It’s a completely logical description since “G.I. Joe” was indeed a Saturday morning cartoon (and a comic book and a Hasbro toy line). Still it’s sort of odd to see the live-action “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (and especially its predecessor, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) described as cartoonish movies, since the actual cartoon “G.I. Joe” movie, which bears the clever title “G.I. Joe: The Movie,” is not cartoonish at all. The word I’d use to describe that film? Nightmarish.
True, the movie is heavily based on the original “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” cartoon which, in turn, was based on the 1980s “G.I. Joe” action figures. The characters — square-jawed Hawk, fearless Duke, silent ninja Snake Eyes, evil Serpentor, scheming Cobra Commander — are largely the same, as is the basic outline of the heroic G.I. Joes against the villainous terrorist organization Cobra. The plot — the Joes and Cobra feuding over an alternative energy source — is your garden variety “G.I. Joe” storyline. The Joes’ guns still fire red lasers while the Cobras’ guns still fire blue ones, so that inattentive five years olds can always tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in even the most chaotic of action scenes.
But that’s about where the similarities end — and where “G.I. Joe: The Movie” takes a sharp left turn into bloodcurdling horror. Traditionally, the battle between the Joes and Cobra was a war of ideologies (the Cobras, with their near identical masked stormtroopers, represent cold, fascistic uniformity while the Joes, with their unique, quirky outfits and character traits, represented rugged American individualism) and technologies — as in “The Movie,” where the Joes have this all-important device they want to use for the benefit of mankind and the Cobras want the same device to destroy the world. But “G.I. Joe” adds a new dimension of slithery, supernatural mysticism to the conflict. The Cobra faction is enhanced by a new army from a previously unmentioned Arctic sanctuary known as Cobra-La, a land populated by gigantic, monstrous plants and bug life, and ruled by the megalomaniacal fiend named Golobulus, a half-man, half-serpent warlord bent on world domination.
Unlike the main Cobra team, who had their own high-tech gadgets and vehicles to rival the G.I. Joe’s advanced weaponry, the bizarre, serpentine forces of Cobra-La rely on biological warfare of a decidedly fleshy sort. Instead of hurling grenades, they lob pulsating pods, which burst open with deadly spores that blind or poison enemies. They fight the Joes’ tanks with enormous, burrowing slugs; in one scene, a Joe falls into the gaping, dripping maw of one of these beasts and is swallowed whole.
Seemingly everything inside the disturbingly carnal world of Cobra-La is alive. A bridge turns into an enormous stick bug. The ground opens up revealing enormous roots that encase the heroes in coffins of vines. Cobra-La troops fly inside what look like giant insects, firing weird blobs of white spooge that transforms on impact into lashing tentacle monsters whose frequent appearances in the second half of the film give “G.I. Joe: The Movie” the faint whiff of military-themed hentai.
Everywhere the Joes turn they’re met by flying crabs and snake men and winged, bladed paratroopers. Unlike the reassuringly predictable tactics of Cobra in the original animated series, Cobra-La’s weapons and tactics are totally erratic, and seem to operate with no rhyme or reason other than dream logic. Where else but nightmares do beetles turn into keys and footbridges turn into giant six-legged monsters, and madmen rave about “hypergenetic mutation” and space-bound “fungusoids” that will unleash total biological devastation on the human race?
This would be trippy stuff for a David Cronenberg movie, much less an animated film for children designed to sell action figures. The arc undertaken by the evil Cobra Commander is even more overtly Cronenbergian: usurped from his former seat of power at the head of Cobra, he is tried for treason by Golobulus and sentenced to exile — but not before he’s exposed to Cobra-La’s deadly spores.
The spores mutate Cobra Commander into a degenerative lizard man. Aligning himself with Roadblock, a captured member of the Joes (and, coincidentally, the character The Rock plays in “Retaliation”), the pair escape from Cobra-La in an attempt to alert the rest of the heroes to the villains’ plans and location. As the duo trek through an Arctic wasteland, Cobra Commander continues to devolve further and further, becoming less human and increasingly snakelike. By the time they reach the Joe’s search party, he’s barely able to string together cohesive sentences. “I WAS ONCE A MAN!” he hisses over and over. The close-ups of his gruesome ophidian visage and its six eyeballs are enough to scar a kid for life.
An even worse and more upsetting fate awaited the Joes’ commander Duke, who is struck down in a pivotal scene by a spear hurled by Serpentor (in true nightmare fuel fashion, it’s a live snake transformed through some unexplained alchemy into a venomous, living javelin). When the dust settles, Duke wishes his fellow Joes luck and offers one final, death-rattled approximation of the team’s “Yo Joe!” battle cry. A hasty ADR reassures the kiddies that Duke is just “in a coma” and after the Joes finally triujmph over the forces of Cobra-La, more off-camera voicework mentions that Duke’s “gonna be okay!” — but the character isn’t seen or heard from again, and might as well be dead and gone forever (in fact, that was the plan all along, until a similarly dark subplot in “Transformers: The Movie” was received so poorly by audiences that Duke received a hasty, voiceover-aided reprieve). Interestingly, one big part of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”‘s attempt to get away from the more outlandish tone of its predecessor was to lift this beat directly from “G.I. Joe: The Movie,” and to kill off one of its own main characters in an early battle scene.
Beloved heroes dying, beloved enemies transforming into hideous hellbeasts — what kind of kids movie is this? As a child, I remember being deeply unsettled by the slimily macabre might of Cobra-La, and by the sight of Cobra Commander reduced to a babbling basilisk. Today, I’m still impressed by the movie’s power to unnerve — and surprised that a movie based on a cartoon based on a toy line dared to tell such a potentially traumatic story. You see a lot less creativity in most modern blockbusters — which are supposedly geared toward an older and more mature audience. My wife summed it up best when she came into our bedroom and saw what I was watching during a particularly troubling scene.
“This,” she chuckled, “is not for kids.”
The Cobra-La-free intro to “G.I. Joe: The Movie.” This is about as non-horrifying as it gets: