G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (United States, 2009)

August 07, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra Poster

Not that long ago, toys were developed from movies. Now, it's the other way around. This wouldn't be a bad thing if the filmmakers took the time and effort to do something interesting with the premise. Even considering how well-established is the basic premise of the G.I. Joe/Cobra Command opposition, there's still room for latitude. No rule exists to demand that every game- or toy-based movie pander to the least common denominator and never attempt anything exciting or interesting, yet that's what always seems to happen. Take G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, for instance. Opportunities exist for this movie to emerge from the crowded pack of brain-dead action films, but it doesn't even try. I assume it achieves (if only barely) what most prospective viewers expect from it. A 13-year old version of myself might be entertained, if not impressed. It's better than Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - not because the screenplay is shows more creativity (it doesn't) but because the direction is more sure-handed. You may not care about what's happening, but at least you'll be able to understand it. There's no sense that the cameraman is having a seizure when filming an action scene.

There's an unwarranted arrogance associated with G.I. Joe. Most first would-be-franchise movies have the good sense to at least provide a feeling of closure at the end of the initial installment, but not this one. By the end of this movie, little has been wrapped up. There are loose ends dangling everywhere. G.I. Joe exists not as a stand-alone entity but as a tease for future installments, which makes it a profoundly unsatisfying experience in the here-and-now, before those sequels have been made. And if they are never made, this will be like The Golden Compass - a frustratingly incomplete example of Hollywood misjudgment. There's a rule of thumb that nearly all movies adhere to: make a solid first effort then expand the canvas and offer the cliffhanger with movie #2.

For those who may be unaware, G.I. Joe is not a person, it's an organization. It's like the X-Men, except the members gain their superpowers through technology and training rather than innate ability. There are some neat gadgets here - the kinds of things that would give James Bond wet dreams. General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) is the tough guy who presides over this unit of elite warriors. They come to the rescue with the escort transporting a cutting edge NATO weapon comes under attack by the bad guys, an organization called Cobra. Most of the "regulars" are killed, with two exceptions: square-jawed Duke (Channing Tatum) and wisecracking Ripcord (Marlon Wayans). Their knowledge about the female nemesis, the beautiful and deadly Ana (Sienna Miller), results in their temporary attachment to G.I. Joe. And know her they do - four years ago, Duke was engaged to be married to her. Hell hath no fury, as they say... The bad guys, led by megalomaniac McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), have their own motto: "Try, try again." So, after failing to capture the weapon on their first attempt, they mount an attack on G.I. Joe headquarters. This one is more successful. With the tables turned, the elite warriors now must seek Ana and her cohorts before the doomsday clock strikes twelve.

G.I. Joe is pretty much wall-to-wall action, delivered at such pace that when there are brief breaks for expository flashbacks (nearly every character gets about two minutes' worth of backstory), the lull is noticeable. Director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) operates in only one gear. This could be an asset if we cared about any of the characters, but they remain as plastic as the toys that inspired them. One common argument leveled against criticisms of films like this is that there should not be an expectation of things like "character development" in a G.I. Joe. While I might agree that any real depth of personality could be undesirable in an atmosphere of pure adrenaline, it's a long-standing rule of action films that tension and excitement are tied to the viewer's ability to root for the protagonist, and it's hard to root for someone who is underdeveloped or undeveloped.

G.I. Joe is chock full of high-tech action, with a lot of chasing and shooting and explosions. There are some old-fashioned fist-fights and a little samurai dueling, but most of the production is geared toward the "boys with toys" crowd - and the bigger the toys, the better. Sommers' style is slick and glossy and, although the movie still runs long, it's nowhere near as unending as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The film also includes the requisite scenes of global catastrophe. In this case, we are presented with the destruction of a famous Parisian icon. Somehow, however, after 9/11, it's no longer as fun to watch big, high-profile structures come tumbling down. The real-life collapse of the Twin Towers made it difficult to sit though a movie disaster scene of this sort and not feel a little unsettled.

Some of the actors enjoy themselves. Christopher Eccleston, who has a penchant for playing odd and mysterious characters, has fun interpreting a James Bond-type villain. Sienna Miller, with dark hair and darker glasses, is almost unrecognizable as Ana. Sommers' Mummy actors, Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo, have small parts. Marlon Wayans adds an element of humor in the "sidekick" role. Unfortunately, lead actor Channing Tatum is wooden. Duke is more animated in sequences when he is rendered by special effects than when being portrayed by Tatum. There's an expectation that the audience will be invested in the relationship between Duke and Ana, but the poor writing and lack of chemistry between the principals fails to sell the romance as anything more substantial than a weak plot element.

To the extent that G.I. Joe is intended to replicate what a child's imagination might conjure up for a bunch of action figures purchased at Toys R Us, the movie succeeds. It's action porn with one money shot after another and little in the way of intelligent connective tissue. It's pleasing to the eye but not to any other organ. Paramount's decision to withhold the film from critics was well-founded; there's little here anyone who regards movies cerebrally will appreciate. It's loud, slick, and vacuous, but Hollywood's balance sheets have proven there's a market for this sort of motion picture. The question is whether G.I. Joe will prove popular enough to siphon off enough of that market to make it profitable. Because, with a movie like this, it's about the dollars and nothing else - certainly not storytelling.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (United States, 2009)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2009-08-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" ( Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1