Good Comic, Bad (But Sort-of Entertaining Anyway) Movie: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

I really agonized for a long time over whether or not I would bother to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I’d been wanting a big-budget, live-action Joe film since I was like about eight years old, and here it finally was…only it was directed by the guy who made Van Helsing and all the characters were either dressed in leathery black armour instead of a multicoloured cornucopia of instantly recognizable, skill-specific (and completely ridiculous) costumes. It certainly seemed like the mini-genre of Paramount Pictures summer blockbusters based on Hasbro toy lines was not for the likes of me, given how Transformers turned out. However, in spite of myself, these last few weeks of relentless TV promotion worked their magic on me, and I found that I was kind of excited about G.I. Joe by the time it opened. I did temper my enthusiasm with several beers before seeing it, which was probably a smart move.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is not a good movie. It is most decidedly a bad one, but I don’t know that a motion picture based on cobbled-together elements of a toy line, a cartoon, and a Marvel comic series really has much of a chance of being legitimately good anyway. While it is definitely a bad movie, that doesn’t mean it’s not an occasionally entertaining one. I would never make the mistake of recommending it to anyone who didn’t grow up loving the toys and comics and cartoons, but as someone who did, I found a lot a stuff to enjoy. I also passed out for a stretch of ten minutes or so (due to a combination of those aforementioned beers and a particularly dull stretch of plot), and didn’t really miss anything significant. The further I get from having actually watched it, I find I’m having a really hard time remembering it, which is not good. But what I do remember, I remember more or less fondly, which is not bad.

The Rise of Cobra is, as the title indicates, a sort-of origin story. The script follows Joe noobs Duke and Ripcord as they are hastily recruited into the super-duper-top-secret organization called G.I. Joe, a covert group of military badasses who save the world on a regular basis. The Joes are guarding some sort of secret nanotechnology from sexy villainess the Baroness, shady weapons manufacturer James McCullen (AKA Destro), and ninja assassin Storm Shadow. The bad guys have a disfigured mad scientist working for them who is secretly manipulating everybody and, over the course of the story, sort of becomes Cobra Commander. Sadly, he does not once yell “COBRAAAA!”, but I guess they have to save something for the sequel. The Eiffel Tower gets wrecked, lots of shit blows up, and all sorts of crazy gadgets and weaponry are deployed—many of which are already available at a toy store near you.

It is a kick to see some of these guys come to life on the big screen. All the stuff involving Storm Shadow and his good-guy ninja nemesis, Snake-Eyes, is great fun. Evil master of disguise Zartan and science-villain Dr. Mindbender show up briefly, and Brendan Fraser has a cameo as Sgt. Slaughter during a training montage. Sienna Miller and Christopher Eccleston have fun chewing the scenery as the Baroness and Destro, respectively, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets to do a lot of crazy eyebrow acting over his breathing apparatus as The Doctor/Cobra Commander. I also found that I really enjoyed Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, the hard-ass leader of the Joes. Quaid seems to have comfortably settled into his role as a sort of discount-bin Harrison Ford these days, and he always seems to be one of the best things about the mediocre movies he appears in (Vantage Point, anyone?). One of the biggest drawbacks about the picture, unfortunately, is the two guys who we spend the most time with—Channing Tatum as Duke and Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Wayans does what he can with the sidekick/comic relief role, but there’s just not anything to it. Tatum, on the other hand, has all the charisma of a tree stump. He’s got one note and he plays it for all it’s worth—every line is delivered in a sullen, sulky mumble that is supposed to be tough but is just plain annoying. There’s a super-dull subplot about his romance with the Baroness before she turned evil; I would recommend one of the tedious flashbacks dealing with this storyline as a perfect opportunity to take a bathroom break.

This movie is a bit of a mess. There is talk that is was rushed into production in anticipation of last year’s writing strike, which would explain quite a bit. A lot of the special effects are really terrible, and the script does feel like it was written over a weekend. However, if I was a screenwriter and some producer dumped a bunch of comics and toys on my desk and told me to somehow make a coherent storyline out of it as quickly as possible, I probably wouldn’t do much better. I would say that Stephen Sommers channeled his inner ten-year old to direct this movie, but his movies all sort of feel as though they were made by a child (somehow, this is simultaneously the best and worst thing about them). This is the kind of movie where a guy is named Dr. Mindbender for no good reason other than to reference an action figure. How you feel about that will probably tell you if you should bother seeing this film. For better or worse, Sommers has made G.I. Joe into a two-hour, $175 million toy commercial, one that is only insulting if you expect much more than that and only as engaging as your childhood nostalgia will allow it to be. “Knowing is half the battle”, General Hawk tells us (in one of many nods to the old cartoon); knowing how to skew your movie to a pretty specific and limited demographic, apparently, is the other half.