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Script Review: G.I. JOE

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageWell, since the movie’s been out for a year, I figured it’d be all right to re-post this script review.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Stuart Beattie and Skip Woods’ script for G.I. Joe employs bodice-ripping romance, fanboy horniness and outright thievery from the canon of military science-fiction to produce a surprisingly spry, funny and action-packed adventure. The script also provides us with an origin story for both Cobra Commander and Destro that not only explains how the Commander’s face got disfigured, it also explains why Destro wears a silver mask.

First, a disclosure: I’m not familiar with the G.I. Joe comic book series, which I’m sure laid down all kinds of mythology for these characters. My only knowledge of the franchise is based on a foggy memory of the cartoon series, which I watched regularly, even though I didn’t like the toys.

I approached this script with zero expectations, but that was only because I hadn’t looked up screenwriter Stuart Beattie on the Internet Movie Database. Had I given him a cursory search, I would have discovered that he cooked up the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, as well as the solid-though-underwhelming Michael Mann thriller Collateral.

But who cares about a gritty Tom Cruise vehicle when Beattie has already demonstrated his capacity for taking a goofy property (a theme park ride) and using it as a catalyst for an impressively rich movie? There’s a larger essay to be written about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but suffice it to say that Beattie took the material much more seriously than he had to while still conjuring a lighthearted, swashbuckling romp. True, his work was later extensively reworked by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, but someone had to do the initial heavy lifting to get the Pirates script going. Seeing as how Beattie took a goofy theme park ride and made a fun movie out of it, surely he and his fellow writers would be able to take an even goofier property and do something fun with it — right?

Right.

I’ll discuss specific details about the globetrotting plot, but I want to break down my review based on the specific science-fiction properties that Beattie, et al, borrow from to construct their screenplay. I’ll call these the “awesome elements” of the screenplay.

Awesome Element #1: Power Armor

G.I. Joe will bring the Mobile Infantry of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers to life onscreen for the first time. Let me explain:

Heinlein’s classic of military science fiction made it to the big screen under the direction of Paul Verhoeven in one of the most misunderstood and underrated literary adaptations of all time.

I love Verhoeven’s movie, but even as an ardent apologist for his vision of Heinlein’s loony fascistic future, I concede that it’s incomplete. Besides his extended contemplation on the merits of fascism and militarism, Heinlein’s novel includes two memorable additions to the canon of science fiction:

The bugs. I doubt Heinlein invented the idea of giant, killer insects, but his portrayal of the hive-mind enemy planet Klendathu still stuns.

The Mobile Infantry’s power armor. Heinlein equipped his intrepid Mobile Infantry with high-powered exoskeletons that gave his soldiers the abilities to run super-fast and jump great distances. The armor also included an elaborate visual interface that combined all the best parts of a tricorder, a bioreadout and a good, old-fashioned targeting scope.

Although Heinlein’s armor has never made it to the big screen in one, fully realized movie, different parts of it have made it, mostly in James Cameron’s classic Aliens. It’s funny, the way Cameron took an outer-space slasher movie and used it as the springboard for the best adaptation of Starship Troopers that isn’t an adaptation of Starship Troopers. He also provides us with a look at the Mobile Infantry’s power armor — in bits and pieces.

Cameron’s clearest nod to the MI’s power armor comes at movie’s climax, when Ripley climbs into a hydraulic crane suit to battle the alien queen. Here’s the immortal scene. Skip ahead to timestamp 2:53 for Ripley’s entrance:

But the power armor is more than just a suit — it’s also weaponry. Cameron may not have outfitted his Colonial Marines with full suits of power armor, but they all walk onto the battlefield packing five-foot automatic rifles mounted with isometric pivots. To wit:

Absolutely badasses, indeed.

But clearly the problem is that Cameron wasn’t interested in making an adaptation of Starship Troopers, so we didn’t get to see the power armor of the novel. The hydraulic crane-suit that Ripley wears vaguely resembles the description from the novel, but even though it served Ripley well against the alien queen, it wouldn’t do her any good on an open battlefield.

That’s where the script for G.I. Joe comes in.

The Joes are equipped with “accelerator suits,” which let them run at great speeds, jump huge distances, smash through walls and withstand bullets.

Fittingly, work has already begun on such technology, and while the accelerator suits seen in G.I. Joe are leagues ahead of where we are today, here’s a video about a military exoskeleton in development:

The script puts the suits to good use, including a rousing chase through the streets of Paris where Duke and Ripcord chase down Storm Shadow and the Baroness in an effort to stop them from deploying a nanomite bomb aimed at the Eiffel Tower.

What’s that? What are “nanomites,” you ask?

Awesome Element #2: Nanomites

I imagine that most geeks — and certainly most geeks who are geeky enough to read a website like this — will be aware of the general promise of nanotechnology: Microscopic machines that can perform any number of miraculous tasks, including high-end engineering jobs, great medical miracles — all before becoming self-aware and launching a nuclear strike against the Russians in self-defense.

Just kidding. But Beattie wisely taps into the promise of nanotechnology to provide his villains — a ragtag bunch of evil masterminds and henchman who will eventually form the terrorist group Cobra — with a killer new weapon: a nanobomb. The nanobomb seen in G.I. Joe promises to blow up as much shit as conventional nuclear warheads without the inconvenience of mass destruction. When deployed, the nanobomb eats away at virtually anything — from tanks to cars to Eiffel Towers, all without inflicting an innocent casualty. Yipee!

It’s a frightening new weapon for the Joes to face, and if you’re interested in reading about the potential for nanotechnology, it’s hard to do better than Neal Stephenson’s classic novel The Diamond Age. Like any great science fiction novel, The Diamond Age isn’t strictly about nanotechnology, but Stephenson’s extensive speculation about the possibilities for nanotech run throughout the book.

Awesome element #3: Puerile Fanboy Mayhem. Oh, and Invisible Shit, too

What Gen-Xer here didn’t feel a little tingly at the sight of the Baroness or Scarlett in their skin-tight costumes in the original animated series? OK, maybe it was just me, but there’s no denying that the women in G.I. Joe probably sparked many, many future fetishes among the Gen-X crowd, from Scarlett’s flaming red hair to the Baroness’ egghead dominatrix getup.

Suffice it to say that Beattie’s script indulges many a fanboy fetish.

Case in point: Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) develops a crush on Scarlett (Rachel Nichols). While the Joes are training on an obstacle course, Scarlett challenges Ripcord to fire at her with explosive crossbow arrows as she runs the course in record time. Somehow we get the message that if Ripcord hits her, he’ll “win” her in some way.

Whatever. Scarlett assures Ripcord that the arrows are merely training arrows, and he starts firing away at her as she runs the course — missing every time. As he shoots one last arrow, Scarlett catches it as it leaves the chamber and presses herself against Ripcord.

“Guess you didn’t really want me that bad, Rip,” she says.

And guess what? It turns out she had given Ripcord live rounds to use! Holy shit, there’s no way to exaggerate the completely inappropriate batshit insanity of this scene — and I love it. I imagine that airheaded conservative groups will squawk about how kids will imitate the action they see onscreen a la that scene in the football drama The Program where the players lied down in the middle of the street.

But whatever. It’s an awesome scene, and Scarlett’s physical and mental prowess are matched only by her ineptitude with men. Get this — in the script, she’s never kissed a guy. For perspective, here’s a much larger picture of Rachel Nichols in costume as Scarlett:

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By turning this character into, for all intents and purposes, a virgin, the screenwriters have gone beyond the mere realm of boyish military fantasy and into whatever fantasy realm that socially inept geeks inhabit. There’s a larger essay to be written about the geek fascination with socially awkward women (link NSFW), but suffice it to say that male geeks like to pursue women who share their foibles, including a general discomfort with the opposite sex. By turning Scarlett into one of these geek babes, Beattie and his fellow screenwriters pander to this desire. I’m not sure how I feel about it — and indeed, her character may change in future drafts — but it’s sure to drive geek dudes nuts. It certainly sparked conflicting feelings in me.

Oh, and while we’re at it, Scarlett’s gear boasts a gizmo that can turn her invisible. I don’t have much to say about it, but it touches on the Predator mythos, and that’s fine with me.

Awesome element #4: A bodice-ripping romantic storyline with Duke and the Baroness

Here’s where my ignorance of the original comic book series may kick in. Beattie’s script features at its center the ongoing failed romance between the movie’s male and female leads: Duke and the Baroness. It turns out these two have a longstanding and tragic past. They had planned to get married at one point, but it didn’t work out, and their failed romance propelled them down divergent life paths.

I only remembered these two characters as cookie-cutter arch-nemeses from the cartoon, and I applaud Beattie’s impulse to build a storyline around these two — even if the dialogue in this part of the script sounds a little bodice-rippy.

In one scene, Duke and Ripord have the Baroness (whose name is Ana) dead to rights. Storm Shadow is in this scene, too, ready to dole out some ninja harshness. The script’s MacGuffin is in this scene, too — a briefcase filled with codes and crucial tech. This dialogue commences:

BARONESS
Deep down, you’re still the man I fell in love with.

DUKE.
Don’t force this, Ana.

BARONESS
What could have been right, Duke. You beside your best man. (She indicates Ripcord.) Me walking with you down the aisle.

RIPCORD
Don’t listen to her, Duke! (A thought.) Was I really going to be your best man?

[Editor: Hee hee!]

DUKE (cocking his pistol)
Don’t make me do this, goddammit!

ANA
“Don’t make me do this”? A recurring theme in your life, right, Duke?

Storm Shadow flinches. Duke gives him a glance.

DUKE
Move and I’ll blow her away.  (To Ripcord:) Get the briefcase.

ANA
Do it, Duke. You already killed me once.

The inclusion of this melodrama adds some wonderful heft to an already enjoyable script. It gives us a reason to care about these characters’ pasts, and it gives the narrative a failed love story, which is sure to appeal to whatever female demographic gets conned into seeing this.

But here’s my worry: I’m not familiar with the acting skills of Sienna Miller, who’s playing the Baroness, and my only exposure to Channing Tatum (Duke) has been the trailers for Step Up and Stop-Loss. All I can say is that he looks like a jock-ish actor in the Keanu Reeves or Paul Walker mold. That’s not always a bad thing, but the Duke-Baroness storyline reads like Eugene O’Neill and plays like a house on fire. It’ll require actors who can channel intense emotions while still having fun playing these scenes. I hope Miller and Tatum are up to it.

(Side note: OK, I’m exaggerating when I compare the Duke-Baroness scenes to Eugene O-Fucking-Neill. My point is that actors who play O’Neill have to keep their performances at a pretty high burn for most of their time onstage or screen. It’s a goofy balance between self-awareness and total commitment.)

Awesome element #5: The wacky black sidekick!

Oh, Hollywood! You love your wacky black sidekicks! You love them almost as much as movie stars, big box office and the propagation of cultural stereotypes and myths!

The wacky black sidekick has been a staple of big-budget Hollywood action movies since time immemorial, and G.I. Joe is no exception, having cast comedian Marlon Wayans as Duke’s sidekick, Ripcord. The wacky black sidekick has — to say the least — an ignominious track record in action movies. They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, they’re dumb, they’re cowardly, and worst of all, they’re often treacherous. Here are a few of the worst offenses:

Benny (Mel Johnson Jr.) in Total Recall. Remember this guy? He was the mutant cab driver on Mars who had “four kids to feed!” Of course, it turned out that he was on the take from the movie’s bad guy, Cohaagen. His villainy was compounded by his betrayal — not just of Schwarzenegger but also of mutants everywhere.

Theo (Clarence Darnell Gilyard) in Die Hard. Remember this guy? He was the swaggering, arrogant computer technician who yelled “The quarterback is toast!” when the movie’s German bad guys blew up an L.A. SWAT mini-tank. Granted, the Die Hard writers deserve points for including a wacky black sidekick for Bruce Willis — the limo driver Argyle, played by De’voreaux White — who wound up kicking some ass at the end, as well as Reginald VelJohnson’s memorable police sergeant … but still.

Chris Tucker’s entire career. With the exception of his bizarrely pitch-perfect performance in The Fifth Element, Tucker is the quintessential black sidekick archetype, although he’s had the benefit of playing heroic characters in the Rush Hour franchise, which pitches Tucker and cohort Jackie Chan as a duo on equal footing — a step up for this character type, to be sure.

So what do I think of Wayans’ wacky black sidekick role in G.I. Joe?

I love it.

First of all, most of Ripcord’s dialogue is legitimately funny, and unless director Stephen Sommers has something really stupid in mind, Wayans ought to be able to handle the role. (Disclosure: I’ve never seen Wayans in action, so I don’t know how skilled of a comic he is.)

The writers also get points for adding a wacky black sidekick to their script and making him into a capable, fearless soldier who’s also probably the best pilot among the Joes — Ripcord’s aerial derring-do plays a major role in saving the day at movie’s climax.

But more than anything else, I applaud the writers for following through with the Ripcord-Scarlett romance. If this storyline makes it into the shooting script, then we’ll have a high-profile interracial romance in a huge, summer blockbuster. Kudos.

Awesome element #6: The Neo-Vipers

After putting up with the laughably incompetent storm-troopers and imperial droids from the Star Wars movies, I am delighted to report that the villains in G.I. Joe employ a terrifying legion of shock-troops called the Neo-Vipers.

When we meet the character who eventually becomes Destro in G.I. Joe, we know him as a world-class villain named McCullen. I’ll talk more about Destro’s origin in a moment, but during the movie’s first act, McCullen meets with one of his henchmen, a disfigured mad scientist named the Doctor. The Doctor introduces McCullen to his new creation: Super-soldiers powered with nanotechnology who feel no fear, no pain, no remorse.

As a longtime fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune, I couldn’t help but think of the warrior-fanatics of the Padishah Emeror — the fucking Sardaukar.

In Herbert’s Dune novels, the Sardaukar were specially trained soldiers who were essentially maniacs on the battlefield. I’ve never found any of their onscreen portrayals satisfying, but I’m looking forward to seeing the Neo-Vipers in G.I. Joe, as well as the Sardaukar in Peter Berg’s upcoming Dune movie.

Awesome element #7: The origin of Cobra Commander and Destro

Beattie’s script opens in impressively ponderous fashion. From black, a quote attributed to the Joes’ own General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) appears:

“Whenever a new breed of evil emerges, a new breed of soldier must fight it.”

Cut to Paris, 1641, where we meet an ancestor of McCullen’s who gets thrown in the Bastille, where the French guards clap an iron mask on him. Right away we know that this movie isn’t going to flinch from injecting a weighty theme into a goofy property like G.I. Joe, and we also get nice foreshadowing of the mask that the present-day McCullen will eventually wear as Destro.

 

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Ray Park as Snake Eyes.

So, how does Destro get his mask? Well, it’s hard to explain how exactly this goes down, but suffice it to say that somehow McCullen’s face gets blown off (Duke is involved), and the Doctor programs a swarm of nanomites to coat his disfigured face with a metallic sheen of technology. This gives McCullen the familiar silver Destro mask we remember from the series, while also giving the Doctor control of his mind.

 

MCCULLEN
I guess I should thank you, Doctor, for saving my life.

DOCTOR
I want you to call me … Commander.

Dum-dum-DUMMM!

Also keep in mind that during the script, we also find out that this Doctor character is a scientist who once went on a mission with Duke. This mission went tragically wrong, and the Doctor got caught in an explosion that disfigured him — undoubtedly prepping him to wear Cobra Commander’s featureless silver mask (or blue headdress) in a future sequel.

Miscellaneous Awesome Elements

“Make like a tree and get outta here!” Rememeber how Biff kept screwing up old sayings in the Back to the Future movies? Well, there’s no way for this to show up onscreen, but the script for G.I. Joe includes a lot of quaint head-scratchers like “shrunken” throwing stars and the expression “ass over teacups.”

Ninjas! With the masterful Ray Park as Snake Eyes and Korean star Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow, you can rest assured that there will be loads of ninja action in this one, including plenty of flashbacks to Snake Eyes’ and Storm Shadow’s turbulent youth together. You gotta love a movie that flashes back to a scene where two street urchins are fighting over food and a “ninja master” walks in. The script also includes this corker of a stage direction: “Energy lasers pulse on again, almost catching the two ninjas in their fight.”

Energy lazers? And ninjas? In the same scene? Stick a fork in me.

Shipwreck! Yes! Shipwreck made the cut! And the word on the street is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s playing him. Do you remember the insane two-part episode where Cobra kidnapped Shipwreck, dropped him on a demented desert island and started fucking with his mind in a bid to learn secrets about the Joes?

I wonder if Dean Koontz ripped off this episode for his novel The House of Thunder?

That’s all I’ve got for this one. Awesome script. Awesome story. Awesome cast. Here’s hoping that G.I. Joe will be one of the big surprises of 2009. In the meantime, check out these character shots from the movie, including Duke, Ripcord, Gen. Hawk, the Baroness, Storm Shadow and Cover Girl (I think). I like the casting choices for the most part, though I’m not sure about the Matrix-y all-black look for the Joes’ duty uniforms. Also, Sienna Miller doesn’t have the Teutonic jawline I imagined on the Baroness, but she looks damn good in those shades.

IMDb lists G.I. Joe’s release date as Aug. 9, 2009.

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Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.

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