Dismissed by many early in the year for its shamelessly cheesy publicity materials, the surprise of ‘Joe’ is its consistency. In spite of all the silliness of the inherent premise and unfolding narrative, the film always treats itself and situations with the gravity of a Tolstoy novel – the characters never blatantly wink at the camera in a way they did so well in director Stephen Sommers’ first two films (“Deep Rising,” “The Mummy”) and so terribly in his next two (“The Mummy Returns,” “Van Helsing”). Even the often annoying Marlon Wayans tones it down to deliver the film’s one attempt at light-heartedness, in this case banal flirting banter with fellow soldier Rachel Nichols.
That sheer perseverance on the part of those involved manages to turn what could have been dismissed as an obvious train wreck into a merely tedious sensory assault. Even though it’s a toy line and comic book property, ‘Joe’ oddly suffers from many of the problems that plague video game adaptations such as “Street Fighter” and “Mortal Kombat”. The film struggles to introduce a cumbersome roster of one-note characters and their often dubiously conceived and interlinked backstories, all the time playing out a world domination scheme that wouldn’t pass muster in the most self-indulgent efforts of the James Bond franchise.
To give him credit, Stuart Beattie’s over-written script does manage to give each of the seven major Joe operatives and FIVE (count ’em) villains of the piece their fair share of screen time. Unfortunately much of that is saddled with utterly awful dialogue (think “Batman and Robin” without the puns), often pointless flashbacks which grind the pacing to a halt, and a love for the material that’s routinely overwhelmed by Sommers’ inability to hold back his excesses. The film’s most expansive set piece, a race through the streets of Paris to stop a missile, looked terrible in the film’s advertising but actually becomes the one sequence where a tinge of outrageous fun creeps back into a story otherwise disturbingly stoic about its blatant militarism.
Of course this is a film designed primarily for the pre-teen crowd who will lap this up, and from an eight-year-old boy’s perspective this film is hard to find fault with. Unlike the often insulting “Transformers” sequel the other month, there’s nothing subversive or really objectionable here and visually its often interesting, even if the special effects often seem rough and incomplete. What kid wouldn’t love the idea of a sub-Saharan secret military base complete with artificial ocean and multi-billion dollar hangar deck? A place where every nation on Earth gets along and all can afford to employ cool hi-tech laser guns. The enemy meanwhile is decked out with a mega-facility under the Arctic ice and a lot of video game quality graphics to represent a fleet of battle submersibles.
It’s so cartoonish that one can’t take the scenario even the least bit seriously, yet the characters very much demand that you do. While the kid audience may be able to make that leap, adults are going to find it tougher to tolerate and so their level of enjoyment will vary greatly depending upon their taste, affection for the original, and ability to swallow what’s being shoveled out on screen. Unlike most family films these days, this adamantly refuses to throw in any extra layer of material to keep adults engaged which, for me anyway, resulted in long swaths of boredom between the few varied and often inventive action set pieces.
Performances are adequate considering the material. Thanks mostly to more screen time than everyone else, it’s British actress Sienna Miller who leaves the strongest impression while “Step Up” star Channing Tatum and former “Doctor Who” Christopher Eccleston will survive this mess unscathed. Dennis Quaid is barely in it, while most of the others on the Joe team are simply there to look hot, shoot henchman, or yell out readings from behind a console. Arnold Vosloo’s Zartan is extraneous, his short role entirely there to setup the film’s sequel. Byung-Hung Lee gets the odd line but his subplot with Ray Park is useless padding designed to justify some sword-fighting amidst the laser blasts. Don’t get me started on one usually reliable actor’s mad scientist routine that makes Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil seem menacing.
The main issue here is simply appeal. Much like watching a friend playing a shoot ’em up video game, what should be a lot of fun quickly becomes insufferably tedious. Sommers in his usual style throws everything at the screen without regard for reason or restraint, robbing the action of any sense of reality let alone suspense. Like his other films, you can’t take this over indulgent and often deeply stupid material seriously – but if that’s the case, why insist on such a self-serious tone to everything. One could almost call it an attempt at satire but it wears its misguided convictions on its sleeve so unflinchingly that there’s no capacity for such interesting subtext here. In any case “Team America” did such a good job of spoofing this genre several years ago that this whole endeavor feels like an anachronistic flashback.
For all its nescient jingoistic patriotism, one gets the idea that original doll range was probably much more fun than this third-rate comic pulp sci-fi nonsense. It’s a step up from Sommers’ “Van Helsing” but a long way off from “The Mummy” in terms of quality and entertainment value. In a Summer of disappointments however, the reviews will likely be kind as this is one of the few that doesn’t disappoint (admittedly rock bottom) expectations. As a cheesy, mindless kid blockbuster it’s perfectly mediocre, those already labeling it a highlight of the Summer though need to seriously get their heads examined.