Director: Stephen Sommers
Starring: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols, Ray Park, Christopher Eccleston, Sienna Miller, Lee Byung-hun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dennis Quaid
Running Time: 118 min.
★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
It isn't often I approach a movie in the mindset of a whiny fanboy but in the case of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I feel entitled. As a childhood fan who watched the cartoon, collected all the figures and knew every character, I both eagerly anticipated and dreaded this big screen interpretation. Ever since the project was announced I had my suspicions of it and based just on the trailers and early promotional materials, severely questioned the direction the project was going in. In fact, I was so certain a cinematic disaster was on the horizon that I even promised a letter of apology to director Stephen Sommers if he could somehow pull this off. He doesn't, but this "re-imagining" of my beloved franchise is far from a bastardization and comes dangerously close to working, getting a few key elements right (the pitch-perfect rendering of some major characters), but unfortunately others dreadfully wrong (an embarrassing performance from a veteran actor).
While I can't get on board with the decision to aim the film at 10-year-olds and the script is nearly a sham, the movie does strangely capture at least some part of what made G.I. Joe special. What that part is I'm almost afraid to admit, but the movie is fully aware of its goofy charms and mostly succeeds in what it's trying to do. If something like this raked in the money that Transformers: ROTF did this past summer I'd at least understand. I wouldn't necessarily agree, but I'd understand. It almost accomplishes everything that the other Hasbro adaptation failed at doing, and perhaps partially due to low expectations, is much better than I expected.
On one hand my familiarity with the source material helps, but on another it doesn't because I'd helplessly hold the film to a standard it could probably never meet, even under the best of circumstances. I took the small victories where I could get them with this one and wondered whether my opinion would have been any different if this didn't carry the "G.I. Joe" name tag and all the childhood memories accompanying it. In a way, the movie never really had a fighting chance, which is a shame because there are some good things here and it'll likely be more fun for uninitiated, less demanding audience members.
After a centuries old flashback sequence, the movie opens in the not-so-distant future where weapons expert and head of the M.A.R.S. program, James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has created nano-technology warheads he's selling to NATO. In charge of transporting the weapons are U.S. Army soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), who find themselves under attack from Cobra forces hell-bent on intercepting them. They're led by Anastasia DeCobray a.k.a. The Baroness (Sienna Miller) who shares a personal history with Duke that's never quite as interesting as the movie wants it to be. Duke and Ripcord are rescued by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid, beyond awful) and acclimated into his G.I. Joe secret ops team. They'll team with the black-masked ninja Snakes Eyes (Ray Park), leather-clad Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), and the authoritative Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to do battle with McCullen, The Baroness and their Cobras, consisting of Snake Eyes' childhood nemesis Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), the diabolical Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) and the deformed "Doctor" (Joseph-Gordon Levitt) who will go on to become Cobra Commander.
Surprisingly, many of the performances are adequate...with one HUGE exception. From the first moment he appears onscreen as General Hawk (laughably in the form of a Princess Leia type hologram) Dennis Quaid has this expression on his face asking, "WHERE'S MY PAYCHECK?" He looks embarrassed and physically uncomfortable even though there really isn't anything he should feel humiliated about, aside from maybe his costume. The movie isn't THAT bad (at least when he's not onscreen) and there shouldn't be THAT much shame involved for appearing in it. In a film full of clunky dialogue it always seems to sound clunkiest when it's delivered by the befuddled Quaid who flatly recites his line readings without the slightest bit of confidence or conviction, and a permanently blank expression etched on his face. He's done great work in the past which is why it scares me so much that he's capable of giving a performance worthy of a Razzie Award. Things don't improve much for him in the second half either when he's called upon to do virtually the same thing, except in a wheelchair. When the leader of your dangerous secret special ops unit can't be taken the slightest bit seriously it creates a major problem for the story.
On the flips side of that is Sienna Miller as The Baroness, who captures everything fans could have imagined that character to be on the big screen and then some. She's treated as a huge deal by the screenplay not only because she's a pivotal character in the franchise's mythology, but Miller's take on her warrants that attention. Unfortunately, a decision is made in the final act that's a complete betrayal of the character's methodology and it's no fault of Miller's that she can't do anything for the forced and sometimes ill-placed flashback scenes to her pre-Cobra days as Ana. Besides taking great liberties with the G.I. Joe folklore (which I actually didn't mind) many of the film's backstories, as entertaining and informative as they sometimes are, don't do a whole lot to flesh out the characters and play almost like a cheap soap opera. The one that plays best involves the origin of the Doctor but the studio kind of shot itself in the foot before the film was released by revealing the identity of Cobra Commander.
Despite Joseph-Gordon-Levitt being hidden under layers of makeup and a mask and impressively doing a deeper, more serious variation on Chris Latta's voice from the '80's cartoon, the revelation of who he is and his relationship to Ana is telegraphed very early on. A smarter script would have worked harder to conceal the information and paid it off as a big twist. At least it would have been a better twist than the lukewarm cliffhanger we're given in the film's final minutes, even if the intended audience for this likely couldn't care less. His transformation, as well as McCullen's into the infamous Destro, strangely felt very sudden instead of something that was brewing the entire film. And I don't even know what to say about Eccleston's bizarre, high-pitched attempt at a sinister Scottish accent.
Of all the performers, Miller and Levitt have the strongest grasp on the material they were given and the material benefits because of it. They showed up to play, not phone it in like Quaid who keeps finding ways to make the screenplay seem stupider than it is, which is no small chore. Luckily, the same can't be said for Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow, whose longstanding feud with the Snake Eyes (fitted in a really silly looking mask) is one of the more successful backstories conjured up for the film. The decision to have all the characters in essentially the same uniforms wasn't a great call in terms of distinguishing them but it isn't the horror I expected when I first saw the promotional posters. Tatum, Wayans and Nichols do a fair enough job giving each of their characters distinctive personalities that it doesn't become an issue. So while their casting looked suspect on paper, all three carry their load just fine with a fun, if predictable interplay developing between Ripcord and Scarlett.
My worries about the CGI sequences were mostly unfounded. That's not to say they're necessarily that well done or believable looking but they accomplish what's necessary for this kind of popcorn movie. I have to admit my eyes were glued to the screen and many of the fight scenes and chase sequences (especially one with the Joes speeding through Paris in their "accelerator suits") are compulsively watchable despite of their cheesiness. Given the tone of the movie, I can't think of another way they could have done this and it be as effective. Even though the final act goes on slightly too long and devolves into an air assault on the senses, the movie, at its best, contain elements reminiscent of Star Wars. There's holograms, a weird sibling dynamic, a face-off that recalls the lightsaber battle in The Phantom Menace, a Vader-like transformation and the Cobra vipers are basically interchangeable with storm troopers. It's a credit to Sommers that it feels more like an homage than a rip-off.
That this is even a close close call for me is miraculous considering all the ingredients were in place for this to be a complete disaster and completely tarnish the brand. I wasn't necessarily left looking forward to another installment but the franchise does have some potential moving forward if they continue to develop already existing characters and add intriguing new ones. There's at least a framework to build on, even if I have doubts the filmmakers are actually interested in exploring it. We all knew the juvenile direction they'd go in and to an extent it worked well as that, but anyone who thinks it didn't have the potential to be more is kidding themselves. This is a mixed bag that will please younger fans while reminding older ones of the fun they had playing with the toys and the movie they imagined could eventually come of it. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra only suffers from not being that movie.