REVIEW: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra [2009]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 118 minutes | Release Date: August 7th, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Stephen Sommers
Writer(s): Stuart Beattie, David Elliot & Paul Lovett /
Michael Gordon, Stuart Beattie & Stephen Sommers (story)

“Duke wasn’t born, he was government issued”

Growing up during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles heyday meant some of the classic toys were neglected in my youth. I had Transformers—although I never watched the cartoon to think of them as anything more than cars turning into robots—and loved Voltron if only for the fact each of the five components fit together for more power. Minus hand-me-down Hot Wheels, their diminutive spawn Micro Machines, and the odd He-Man character, however, TMNT was my main outlet for plastic figurine faux violence. G.I. Joe simply never existed in my toy box and frankly I feel no regret. This is why it took a sequel hitting theatres to finally watch G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra when so many friends couldn’t wait to catch what they knew would be bad on opening night three years ago.

Perhaps bad isn’t quite the correct adjective. I’m not sure any film created from Hasbro’s patriotic line of heroes could ever be considered great—but then no one thought DC Comics’ Batman would inspire Oscar buzz either. The issue here is that the realistic, Barbie doll-like origins from 1964 of the four military branches was usurped by the over-the-top 80s when the line was relaunched as 3 and 3/4 inch action figures with a built-in mythology. No longer depictions of real soldiers like the parents of kids who fought in WWI and WWII, the toys became a fictional representation of the G.I. Joe team and the terrorists known as Cobra Command. Garish monikers dripping in cliché were given to the men and women involved, overwrought character histories were created, and a Saturday morning cartoon series was born.

Let’s just say names like Dr. Mindbender (mad scientist), Hard Master (ninja guru), and Cover Girl (US General’s secretary) don’t instill dramatic gravitas in film. No, The Rise of Cobra works when the jokey atmosphere cultivated by Marlon Wayans’ Ripcord’s overabundance of mojo and Saïd Taghmaoui’s Breaker’s foreign disconnect is allowed to prevail above a desire to be realistic. I mean we’re dealing with indestructible, multi-million dollar suits packed to the gills with high artillery and super speed/strength ability as well as nanobot-tech weaponry of mass destruction in a “not so distant future”. This is a live action cartoon and I just wish director Stephen Sommers, his screenwriters, and the producers realized a little more humor and less real world application would have gone a long way.

I say this because the film toes the line well when utilizing flashback in short and to the point snippets relevant to present activity; allowing heavy Parisian destruction in a bid to thwart the bad guys; and creating elaborate evil syndicate headquarters like an underwater icecap bunker at the North Pole. You have ego-driven entrepreneurs like MARS Industries’ CEO McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) playing both sides to reap financial gain, the crazed eccentric mastermind supposedly in his pocket but transparently calling the shots in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s aptly named The Doctor, and the black hat versus white clash of ninja warriors fighting on opposite sides with only good and evil providing an extra push towards victory (Byung-hun Lee’s Storm Shadow and Ray Park’s Snake Eyes). It’s pulpy action at its finest.

Does this mean the US governments’ secret military shingle known as the Joes is the weak link? Dennis Quaid’s terribly wooden General Hawk’s only highlight is his brief screen time and they do try to push us into an authenticity in direct opposition to the broad villainy faced. I do get that Channing Tatum’s Duke is our heroic entry point and must be as untainted by the technological excess introduced to him as possible because he’s the “regular Joe” being swept into the action. The fact he’s personally acquainted with the enemy’s Baroness (Sienna Miller) only adds to his utility and desire to prove worthy of the stars and stripes he serves. Hopefully now that all thinly veiled revelations have been made, however, he can be in on the joke in subsequent installments.

The Rise of Cobra suffers by being very much an exposition for what Paramount would like to build into a franchise with box office success. So preoccupied with hiding connections and identities to provide a climax worthy of calling it a standalone film, those behind the scenes unfortunately had their hands tied from giving a good story. The whole endeavor works towards revealing Destro and Cobra Commander is such a clumsy way that a farewell of “I’ll be waiting” upon their imprisonment is laughable. If the heroes of this tale are going to simply wait for their antagonists to break-free from their prison like some inevitability, how can stakes worth investing in exist? This is why it should be like the cartoon where good always prevails. Stop pretending they might not.

I can’t even say I’m being too hard on a popcorn flick because the filmmakers appear to want it to be more. This desire to be believable arrives during the opening frames of France and a long-since dead McCullen receiving an iron mask for treason. Audiences don’t care about believability. If they did a film like Zero Dark Thirty would be making sixty million on opening weekend. We want the humor of Tatum and Wayans smashing into cars on Paris roads, the maniacal indifference of Gordon-Levitt and Arnold Vosloo’s (Zartan) pitch-black killers, and heavy action from Lee and Park (as well as their younger counterparts Brandan Soo Hoo and Leo Howard) that excels despite too many edits. Here’s hoping G.I. Joe: Retaliation understands it’s the implausible that we came to see.

[1] Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Said Taghmaoui, Channing Tatum, Dennis Quaid, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols and Ray Park in Paramount Pictures’ G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009)
[2] Sienna Miller stars as The Baroness and Christopher Eccleston stars as Destro in Paramount Pictures’ G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009)
[3] Lee Byung-hun stars as Storm Shadow in Paramount Pictures’ G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra (2009)

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