GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra: Fun is More Than Half The Battle
This film will inevitably be compared to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen– the explosions are plentiful, the monuments are destroyed, the gadgets are on display, and the characterization is limited. However, while Transformers’ terrific special effects got bogged down by the films’ seriousness, this movie’s cheesy special effects are elevated by the film’s sense of fun. This is the type of film where a shootout is taking place in an empty room, save two barrels… so when the bad guys get shot and their bodies are blown backwards, guess where they land? If a detail like this bothers you because it’s corny and lame, then stay away. However, if this is the type of film where you can imagine yourself grinning shamelessly with a big bag of popcorn, enjoying everything that “serious-minded cinemagoers” will deem corny and lame, then this movie is a breath of fresh air for you in the midst of consecutive summers of serious action films in desperate need of editing. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is non-stop popcorn bliss.
We open with a title card that says, “France, 1641.” (If the fact that the film based on toy soldiers opens this way doesn’t already has you smiling, prepare for 100 minutes of smiles.) We see a ranting Scotsman named McCullen vowing vengeance on the world via his future generations who has a metal mask welded to his face. This helps us in the audience, even those completely unfamiliar with GI Joe, gather two key facts: 1) The next Scottish person we see will be a villain. 2) At some point, he will have a metal mask on. The next scene shows us Scottish weapons designer McCullen (Christopher Eccleston, known to sci-fi heads as Dr. Who), who has enlisted Army soldiers Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) to lead a team protecting the transport of warheads filled with nanomites, robotic bugs that eat everything in its path and don’t stop until deactivated. The Baroness (Sienna Miller), known for her skintight leather outfits, and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), known for his white samurai outfits, attempt to steal these warheads, but a team of special forces stops them.
We are then introduced to the GI Joes in their insanely enormous underground lair, called The Pit. We are also introduced to McCullen and his evil plot, in his insanely enormous underwater lair. Unless you have an insanely enormous hidden lair, you simply can’t keep up in the international wargame biz. The Joes are mostly humorless, so the swagger of Duke and the wisecracks of Ripcord throw a wrench into their works, especially Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), who hates Ripcord so that later she can fall in love with him. The villains use nanomites to control henchmen, make them fearless, and reject injury from hurting their body. This is shown by a crony reaching his hand into a box with a king cobra in it, getting bitten on the arm, and then watching the venom slowly ooze backwards out of the wound. If you’re going to be sticking your arms into cobra boxes, nanomites sure would come in handy.
Is that the cobra of the title? No, it’s a cobra owned by The Doctor, who we can deduce will be the Cobra who Rises. We can also deduce that he’s being played by a heavily made-up Joseph Gordon-Levitt. How do we know this? Because Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a well-known actor playing a very small part earlier in the film, as the Baroness’s brother and the friend of Duke. Duke also has a past romance with the Baroness, which will clearly come into play when she has a conflicted moment where she can stay committed to a life of villainy or save her former love’s life.
I’m not spoiling anything here. The plot isn’t where the fun lies. The fun is in the gadgetry, the earnest performances of actors having fun chewing into their lines, and the action scenes which are skillfully directed. Sommers lets the camera follow the actors (or their CGI replicas), not succumbing to the rapid cutting that is a staple in so many other action films. There wasn’t a single performance that I didn’t like in this film, from Dennis Quaid stoically barking every line as General Hawk, to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr. Eko from TV’s Lost) as the cool British Joe named Heavy Duty, to Saïd Taghmaoui as Breaker, the sincere technology expert. Sienna Miller seems especially suited to this genre (despite expressing a distaste for it in recent interviews)– she plays the Baroness as a high-class villainess, who shoots a machine gun to clear people out of a room, yet still takes the time to tell an exiting lady, “Nice shoes.” Sommers photographs her form-fitting outfits lovingly.
My favorite characters were Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes (Ray Park). Snake Eyes never reveals his face and never speaks, which makes him immediately more intriguing than any of the other characters. When he first encounters his evil counterpart, Storm Shadow greets him, “Hello, brother.” They share a deep understanding of one another– at least, as deep as any kung fu adversaries do. They reveal flashbacks to their childhood. At one point, Snake Eyes stops pursuing the bad guys’ van. The Baroness: “Looks like he gave up.” Storm Shadow’s face turns to immediate panic. “He never gives up.” The van immediately gets hit by an oncoming train, explodes, and does superfluous barrel rolls. My favorite line of dialogue in the whole film is Storm Shadow’s final line to Snake Eyes during their final epic swordfight. I wouldn’t dare spoil it here– plot twists in this film are a dime a dozen, but the fun cheesy lines that the actors have fun with are treasures.
Fans of The Mummy will note three appearances by Stephen Sommers favorites. Brendan Fraser plays a commander in the GI Joe camp, and it’s not a Cannonball Run-esque reveal, “Oh my God, it’s movie star Brendan Fraser!” He actually plays a supporting role, and has a funny line or two. Arnold Vosloo, who played the villainous Imhotep, is Zartan, the master of disguise, who is especially vicious and loves whistling “The Bear Went Over The Mountain” as he commits foul deeds of villainy (shadows of Peter Lorre in M?). Finally, in a short scene, Kevin J. O’Connor, hilarious as Benny in The Mummy and Igor in Van Helsing (and deeply moving as Daniel’s “brother” in There Will Be Blood), is the nefarious Dr. Mindbender, who will hopefully play a larger role in the sequel.
Frankly, I hope there is a sequel. There are few films that I can say give me unrestrained B-movie pleasure, and this delivers. There are some action sequences, especially a chase through Paris using some nifty acceleration suits, that deliver the pulpy goods. The only guilt I feel after seeing a movie like this is that I can only give it two and a half kernels– it’s not *quite* as good as The Mummy (which was funnier and more of a love letter to its genre), and some of the special effects are Sci-Fi Channel quality, so putting it at three kernels would be letting my grin do the reviewing and not my brain. Many of you will likely hate it. The fact that movies like this get openings of 4,000 screens while much of America still hasn’t seen Moon or The Hurt Locker is depressing. This film is short on witty dialogue, character development, and true tension. But as far as mindless summer action films go (and let’s face it, sometimes those too can deliver pleasure), GI Joe rises to near the top of the list.