Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Politics Of: GI Joe Retaliation

When They Talk About Candidates "Measuring Drapes" For The White House I Don't Think They Mean This
By request, the third in the trifecta of White House Take-Over movies (if only barely) GI Joe: Retaliation. As always the first part is just a movie review. The second part will have spoilers and discuss the plot / politics.

GI Joe: Retaliation
Originally to be called GI Joe: Cobra Strikes, we have the second in the Hasbro GI Joe line of films turning toys into movies in an attempt to mine your childhood's subconscious for the gold buried therein. We return to Team Joe, a team of near-super-hero level American soldiers, who are taking on missions no one else can do (except the A-Team--but they're on the run for a crime they didn't commit).

The film gives us Dwayne Johnson whose super-sized build takes up most of the spot-light as Roadblock. We get Ray Park, who seems to have made a career of only appearing in films where he'll be unrecognizable, as Snake Eyes, and Adrianne Palicki as Lady Jaye. On the bad guys team Byung-hun Lee plays the evil white ninja Storm Shadow, Luke Bracey takes on the Cobra Commander helm, and Johnathan Price plays both the president and master-of-disguise Zartan--but mainly Zartan.

The first part of the movie gives us some goofy if relatively straightforward mission-scenes. There's a border incursion (where Team Joe leaves a GI Joe flag behind--something that would spark a major war in real life). When civil war breaks out in Pakistan (and a General describes the country as now being "a riot with a ZIP code"--never mind that Pakistan doesn't use Zone Improvement Plan coding) Team Joe is sent in to grab some nuclear weapons before they fall into the wrong hands.

Of course the evil Cobra (which rose in the first movie, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) has other plans--and they need to get rid of Team Joe to implement them (because that strategy worked so well against the A-Team). When these plans unfurl we get the rest of the movie which is Cobra tightening its coils on the United States and Team Joe, on the run (for a crime they didn't commit), going to help from the last True American left: Bruce Willis.

Let's be clear about something: movies based on actual toys, with the exception of Toy Story, deserve to be horrible. The bar they have to clear is pretty low. Transformers sometimes clears it (the third movie stumbled over it) and sometimes does not (the second movie ran straight into the bar and fell on its back, flailing, unable to get up, like an ED-209). Battleship was by no means a good movie--but it managed to get one leg over the low-bar of 'barely-watchable,' tottered, and then fell forward into the "guilty-pleasure" landing zone.

Both Rise and Retaliation were box-office successes and, although the critical acclaim for Retaliation was, shall we say, extremely critical (28% Rotten Tomatoes), I can tell you that with the exception of a serious misstep for people who loved the cartoon or comics, the combination of The Rock and Bruce Willis makes for a watchable action flick. It doesn't hurt that Ray Parks and Byung-hung Lee have excellent combat-chemistry as well.

As to the critical mistake? Well, it's a spoiler--so that's in the next section--and, let's be clear, the movie is incredibly predictable, leaves almost no drama to the outcome for its characters, and has a slightly unsavory opinion of its viewers ("We can blow up Europe and no one will care! Hey, it worked for the first movie!")--but don't let that stop you.

It did not make the mistake that would have killed it entirely: having Team Joe attack an installation and kill no one. In fact, to a degree, given its source material, it is comparatively smarter than Olympus Has Fallen--it knows it's fantasy. Fallen is trying to convince us it's Tom Clancy.

So let's do the politics ...

The Politics of GI Joe: Retaliation
Let's get the spoiler out of the way first: they kill off Duke (Channing Tatum) at the end of the first act. I'm not sure if this was because Tatum just refused to do more Joe movies and wanted out or because they, wrongly, thought they needed to give the Cobra attack some dramatic teeth. Whichever the case, a genius Amazon reviewer made a killer point:
If you idiots in Hollywood can't do math, come see me; I can. 80% viewer are GI Joe fan from 1980's, other 20% are viewers being dragged by other 80%; are you really that stupid?
Indeed: who thought any Joe-Fan wanted to see Duke killed off? Also, the reviewer guy used  semi-colons. You should listen to him.

As to the politics? Well, while it simply isn't very political, there are a few things I want to point out--some are good. Some are mistakes.

North Korea
The film opens with a defector-extraction from North Korea. Team Joe infiltrates and then exfiltrates (leaving one guy dead, I think)--and leaves behind a flag to show they were there. It's a bit of 'antics' and 'hi-jinks' on the part of Team Joe. So, okay: under those conditions what country wouldn't retaliate? And if there's any one country with a huge, easily punctured ego? It's the Norks. This choice of boarder shows, one might think, little understanding of geo-politics and is simply using North Korea as a stand-in for Cold War era East Germany.

Indeed, we see the same thing in Olympus Has Fallen where the North Koreans are the bad-guys because the filmmakers assume we know enough about them to know they are bad--but not enough to understand their politics in any way shape or form. As they are in the news a fair amount, we can assume that means they think we don't watch the news.This take on the American public was laid out explicitly in Wag The Dog where the government fakes a war in Albania on the (probably correct) theory that the public can't find Albania on a map.

What the movie is actually doing is setting the Joes against China. Why? China has defectors. They have a militarized border that is much closer to what we see in the movie than the actual DMZ, and would not, in fact, go to all-out war for a small-scale incursion (oh, they'd do something of course--but they wouldn't obliterate Seoul). They are Asian.

Of course GI Joe: Retaliation can't actually use China for the same reason Red Dawn couldn't: China is a big American film-market. If you use the North Koreans, however silly that is, you won't lose millions in Chinese sales.

Amazingly (to a degree) GI Joe: Retaliation gets Pakistan right--or, well, right-ish. They keep their nuclear weapons in the hands of separate factions which hate each other so that the won't mix the detonators with the uranium cores. If those two get together it's like hyper-destructive chocolate and peanut butter.

In the event of an all out Pakistan civil war we would be concerned about the two great tastes that taste great together mixing (with a dash of added Al Queada) and, if we had a team of super-heroes, we'd probably deploy them if we could locate a facility where this was going down.

Of course we couldn't--and the facility, if we did find it, would not look like a giant industrial munitions dump anyway--but the motivation is on the money.

The President
The president, other than being captive (and secretly replaced by Zartan , doesn't get much to do. He's old--he's the generic casting-call president--and we'll get to see if this kind of character still sells in 2016 when Joe Biden makes a sacrificial run against Hillary Clinton. I think Joe (Biden) will be disappointed--that stereotype will look more tired than presidential.

However, as to whether he is Democrat or Republican, we do have some clues. The first is that he gets smacked by a super villain for a "tax increase." While we don't know if this is the kind of tax-increase that comes from letting the Bush Tax Cuts expire, from producing a budget that includes 1 dollar of revenue for every 3 dollars of spending cuts, or an actual, for-real tax increase, we know this: no Republican would ever sign such a thing of any sort.

More interestingly, though, fake-president Zartan says something to captive-president "President" (we don't get his name). Namely, he gloats that under the Zartan dministration the presidential improvement ratings have never been higher. "The people," he says, "want someone who looks like you--but talks like me!" While it is possible that the evil Zartan s producing social programs, universal health care, and, I don't know, feeding the poor or something, it is far, far more likely that he is using the American military to kick some ass.

And it doesn't stretch credibility that people like that.

This means that president 'President' is, essentially, Jimmy Carter. Why? The reason is that following President Bush I something weird happened to the national dialog: Democrats caught up to Republicans on the National Security front--at least kinda. Clinton, whatever he did during Vietnam, was no peace-nick in office and Bush II may have pushed the war-machine a bit too far.

Today Democrats, on top of Bin Laden's cold, fish-eaten body, score about even with the national security question against Republicans--or, at least. Romney. Now, to be sure, Romney was in no way a National Security candidate (and, in fact, that's one of the theories as to why he failed)--but McCain was--and he lost to Obama too.

Obama, of course, famously has been drawing down troops quite slowly--and droning the hell out of anyone he thinks might be next to a viable targets. Clinton ran several limited engagements, fired cruise missiles (ineffectively) at Bin Laden, and ruthlessly murdered Vince Foster. These are not the 70's Democrats.

Does GI Joe have any political stake in the ground by making President President a Democrat? Not explicitly--but I think this is interesting. The cultural stereotype for presidents still finds Democrats to be 'weak.' It's the crusty, retired general (Willis) who is necessary to restore America's honor. President President doesn't even have as much fight in him as Jamie Foxx in White House Down. When we have an old white-guy in the White House (who isn't, maybe, an ex-general or something--as we saw in David Frum's alternate reality) that signifies 'weak'--it signifies Carter and not Clinton.

This is because "Liberal" is still a bad word (there are some conservatives who lament the rise of 'progressive' as savvy re-branding which lets lefties escape their proper label). Retaliation probably doesn't consciously acknowledge this (if President President was as kick-ass as Harrison Ford in Air Force One--and note: he doesn't have any white hair in that 1997 movie--we wouldn't need Team Joe to save the day)--but the point is that they don't need to.

Culturally old white guy presidents are still stuck in the 70's (see how this plays out in 2016 both in Biden's quick demise and the GOP's choice of candidates).

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