G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for strong scenes of violence and language
Running time: 118 min.
Cast: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid, Christopher Eccleston, Byung-hun Lee, Rachel Nichols, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ray Park, Arnold Vosloo, Jonathan Pryce, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Cameo: Brendan Fraser
Director: Stephen Sommers
Screenplay: Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, Paul Lovett
Unscreened for critics, possibly as a favor. Critic-proof, though, much in the same way that the Transformers films' lack of critical raves didn't dissuade the legion of fans of the toys or loud explosions from flocking to the local theaterplex in droves. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra lacks a good story, interesting characters, and engaging acting performances, but I can't say that it doesn't do what's intended. Fetishists of wanton destruction will get plenty to drool over, while Hasbro will be able to push plenty of newfangled toys out of the department store doors to kids who like the many weapons and vehicles that are worked into the story, mainly advertisements posing as as plot devices.
In the film, an army of high-tech terrorists attempt to steal several warheads containing the power to unleash nanomites, ravenous microscopic bugs, on their targets that will eat through anything until it is destroyed, including whole cities. James McCullen (Ecceston, 28 Days Later) plays both sides of the fence by selling these WMDs to NATO, then organizing with a world criminal army called Cobra to steal them away to engage in terrorist activities that will bring the world to its knees. Warhead protector Duke (Tatum, Step Up), an American super-soldier who, along with best bud soldier dubbed Ripcord (Wayans, Norbit), gets recruited into a multinational special ops force called Team Alpha, a collection of highly trained specialist soldiers to combat the worst threats to humankind by ruthless megalomaniacs. Duke is matched by a foil named Baroness (Miller, Stardust), a Cobra mercenary who just so happens to be Duke's ex-girlfriend, who seems to have it out for him due to something gone amiss in their past.
G.I. Joe only has one strength in its favor, and that is in the quality of the special effects-laden action sequences. Although each frame is obviously saturated with CGI elements, there is still a great deal of effort and skill on display, particularly during extended scenes such as a breakneck chase through the Paris streets. Cars crash, buildings are smashed, and even the Eiffel Tower is destroyed in credible fashion. These scenes have the potential to even be exciting, if only we weren't completely detached by the lack of involving story or rounded characterizations. We merely view displays of light and sound just to watch them, and perhaps admire them, but outside of using them later to show off the power of your home theater, they lack the strength, depth or purpose to claim as truly exciting.
One of the problems with the film, which held true in the 1980s, when the G.I. Joe franchise entertained kids through TV cartoon shows and comic books, is that there are too many characters vying for too little screen time. Every character merely exists to provide one facet to the story only, and outside of appearing for their intended use, there is little for them to do or say. In the case of Snake Eyes (Park, X-Men), for example, when you need a scene of bad-ass-ery ninja displays, you find a way to get him and his foil on the Cobra side, Storm Shadow (Lee, JSA), to battle it out with slick steel weaponry.
Another liability is hunky Channing Tatum in the lead role. One might unkindly call him the poor man's Mark Wahlberg, except that he clearly lacks the intensity and ability to emote effectively that would be required to fill Marky Mark's shoes in anything other than an action flick. Out of all of the characters in the film, Duke is given the most nuance, which doesn't say much at all. However, Tatum still manages to underperform in the role, partially due to his dead-eyed delivery, reciting his lines without feeling or passion. If the script calls for running, jumping or fisticuffs, he's up to the task. When it gives us a peek into his soul, we don't see much in there at all. A kiss between Duke and Baroness late in the film ranks as one of the most lifeless kisses I can recall in recent memory. Somehow, Sienna Miller and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout, Brick) manage to bring extra life to roles that are, on paper, as cookie-cutter as the rest.
Popcorn movie enthusiasts might not mind the film as much, as they find enjoyment in the cheesiest of action flicks, especially if they are intentionally campy. In fact, it might make a decent companion piece to the action spoof Team America, complete with wooden acting. (By the way, whatever happened to the notion of G.I. Joe being a "Real American Hero," as the marketing campaign of the 1980s clearly defined them? Does making them multinational really increase the world marketability that much?) Director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing, The Mummy Returns) has built a career directing tongue-in-cheek juvenile action/adventure films, though his intent with this one isn't nearly as obvious, and not close to boyish exuberance in getting to play with a ceaseless array of toys at his disposal.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, not surprisingly, plays as if it is the first in an intended franchise, though it's not likely to garner the fervor that Transformers generated, primarily due to the lessened nostalgia for G.I. Joe figures as well as Sommers not being as adept as Michael Bay in tapping into the requisite visual appeal and dumb wisecracks (is that an oxymoron?) that hit home with barely pubescent boys. You get what you expect with G.I. Joe, so it's hard to come away disappointed, but at the same time, no one is going to come away surprised if they even have an inkling of expectation above mediocrity. The best compliment I can muster is that it ranks better than the Transformers movies, which sets the bar for summer blockbusters at its nadir, and that's hardly praise at all. The battles in my mind when playing with my Hasbro figures as a kid were far better than what is served up in this $170 million production.
©2009 Vince Leo