The collaboration between Alan Silvestri and director Stephen Sommers has been a treat for fans of the composer's action music. The 80s had definitely been Silvestri's heyday, with his excellent score for Back to the Future, his popular, percussive work on Predator and the choral majesty of The Abyss showing the world just what this man can do for action/adventure films. The 90s, though, were a major disappointment for those action fans, with only a few solid, but unremarkable efforts (Judge Dredd, Volcano, arguably Eraser and Contact) standing out from the huge bulk of lightweight comedies (Father of the Bride, Grumpy Old Men, Mousehunt, The Parent Trap).
Alan Silvestri's 2001 collaboration with Stephen Sommers on The Mummy Returns was the beginning of a glorious but sadly short-lived renaissance for the composer, allowing him to flesh out his bombastic 80s action music in a more fully orchestral and choral style. For The Mummy Returns, he provided a massive, swashbuckling adventure score to rival John Debney's Cutthroat Island. Undeterred by his unfortunate firing off the set of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (for which Jerry Bruckheimer will someday pay!), he provided a strong, partly electronic score for Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and an absolutely stunning orchestral one for Sommers' Van Helsing.
Silvestri's career slowed down considerably after that, providing solid but mostly unremarkable music for Night at the Museum, Beowulf and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Both old and new fans of the composer, therefore, hoped Sommers' film G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra would see Silvestri return to the bravado of The Mummy Returns or Van Helsing. This particular reviewer, though, felt rather anxious - the ultra-modern, technological setting of G.I. Joe seemed more like the stamping ground of Hans Zimmer and associated cohorts than the more adventure-inclined Alan Silvestri.
Sadly, I was right. Silvestri does make a valiant attempt to integrate electronics into his score, but what worked reasonably well in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life fails on several levels here. In Tomb Raider, the electronics were mixed more deeply into the bass, and the few electric guitars that were allowed to surface always complemented, rather than drowned out, the orchestra. In Joe, the guitars, abrasive drum kits and synthetic noise is mixed at the forefront, which is highly headache-inducing. The fact that these electronic effects sound oddly dated doesn't help.
In terms of themes, Joe is pretty sparse - ironic for a comic-book movie score. The main theme is a marginally heroic, Volcano-like theme representing the Joes themselves that, ironically, receives its best statement in the very last cue, 'End Credits.' It's barely even a footnote when compared to the scads of memorable themes offered by Van Helsing. A secondary, downbeat theme for Cobra is even more anonymous, and I can't even hum it off the top of my head right now, a few hours after listening to it in preparation for this review.
Despite this thematic sparsity, about three-fourths of the album is action music. Theoretically, Silvestri puts the orchestra through practically the same movements as he did for Van Helsing, allowing pounding rhythms and a number of chopping string ostinati (reminiscent here, especially with the electronic influences, of Steve Jablonsky's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) to take the stage. But without a variety of excellent themes, or the additional depth of a choir, this action music simply falls flat, and pounds along without really making any impact.
The softer sections of Van Helsing were what made the album, in my opinion (despite the fact that there was very little of it) and Joe does have a few sorely-needed respites. I wasn't expecting anything on the level of 'Reunited', of course, and they are nice enough, but fall right into the same pattern of dull anonymity as the action music.
My final complaint over this album is its length. It is seventy minutes long - if I'm not mistaken, the longest (official) Silvestri release yet, even longer than The Mummy Returns once one removes that Live song. This album could have been half the length and it wouldn't have omitted anything I would have missed. Whereas Van Helsing, just as its relentless pounding was starting to outstay its welcome, wrapped things up nicely at forty-some minutes, Joe drags on and on and on. There are no less than four eight-minute suites of pure action material.
Despite all this bashing, I am grateful that G.I. Joe does avoid the hugest possible pitfall - rarely does it follow the stale path of Hans Zimmer cloning that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen so virtuously sticks to. At heart, this is still very much a Silvestri score, with its share of decent moments that conjure up wistful memories of Van Helsing, The Mummy Returns or even Beowulf. It's just a shame that it takes so much redundant material to get down to the few moments of strong material ('Just About Close Enough' or 'End Credits').