Stephen Sommers, 2009
Starring: Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rachel Nichols, Marlon Wayans, Ray Park, Lee Byung-hun, Dennis Quaid
I can't believe I'm going to admit this, but I actually enjoyed G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra. Based on the G.I. Joe action figures created by Hasbro, the film takes most of its characters and plot from the cartoon series, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, and later comics of the same name. Though far from perfect, this sci-fi tinged action film feels like a living comic book and is plenty fun to keep its two-hour running time chugging along at a pleasant pace.
The plot is unfortunately long and complicated. James McCullen (Eccleston), owner of the M.A.R.S. weapons company, announces to the world that he has created advanced nanotechnology capable of destroying or repairing on a grand scale. The highly dangerous nanotech war-heads he has just sold to NATO are being transported by an elite unite headed by Duke (Tatum) and Ripcord (Wayans). They are ambushed by a mysterious woman, the Baroness (Miller), though they manage to hold on to the warheads. These are soon claimed by an even more elite, secret unit, the Joes, who take the warheads, plus an insistent Duke and Ripcord back to their base, hidden under the Egyptian desert. Duke reveals that the Baroness was his former fiancee, who hasn't spoken to him since the unfortunate death of her scientist brother several years earlier during a military accident. After strenuous testing and training, Duke and Ripcord are begrudgingly invited to join the team, which includes Snake Eyes (Park), a mute ninja, Breaker (Taghmaoui), a computer expert, the super-smart Scarlett (Nichols) and team leader Heavy Duty (Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Their commanding officer is General Hawk (Quaid).
Meanwhile it is revealed that the Baroness was trying to steal the warheads for McCullen. When they discover where the Joes are located, she begins a second mission with the help of the ninja Storm Shadow (Lee) and Zartan (Vosloo), another of McCullen's agents. They successfully acquire the warheads and flee to Paris, in order to force the Baroness's scientist husband to weaponize them. McCullen plans to combine the ultimate destruction caused by the warheads with the efficiency of his nano-controlled soldiers to take over the world. Helping him is the badly deformed Doctor (Gordon-Levitt), who has created a mind-control serum with the help of nanomites, which renders the soldiers obedient and immune to pain. Will the Joes be able to stop them?
Though this is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination, it is a hell of a lot of fun. In some ways, it is in line with films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter, in the sense that it feels a lot like a live-action cartoon. There are many plot holes and technological elements that make no sense, but Rise of Cobra ignores these things with gleeful abandon. The film is framed around action sequences and there should be enough of these to please long time fans and action film-lovers. Though the action can be a little cartoonish, in part due to some lousy CGI, we still get to see things like invisibility fatigues, jet-packs, the Accelerator suit and other high tech gadgets. The film also takes a lot of elements from the comic, giving it a slightly more grown up feel than the cartoon and mini-series. It is also family friendly, because the violence is completely bloodless and the humor stays safe and playful.
There are also a lot of bad things about Rise of Cobra, first and foremost the CGI. In parts, it is seamless, but most of the time it feels childish and unfinished, namely during the latter half of that film that takes place on the Arctic M.A.R.S. base. There are many things in the physical world of the film that are unnecessary and ostentatious that the budget simply can't support. Though the plot is relatively quick, there are some painful sequences when Sommers attempts to give us back story or personality development. The plot in general is full of holes and things that make absolutely no sense, like Scarlett displaying her knowledge of Scottish Gaelic military jargon. Another potential problem is that unless you already have a general familiarity with G.I. Joe, in particular the villains, things won't make a whole lot of sense.
It is fair to say that the acting is the worst part of the film with the Joes as the major offenders. I simply don't like Channing Tatum, though he looks the part. It's a shame he's devoid of any character or personality. Marlon Wayans delivers some predictably stupid comic lines and the rest of the Joes are forgettable, mostly because of the poor writing and lousy dialogue. Denis Quaid seems to enjoy his time as General Hawk and there's a cameo from an obviously excited Brendan Fraser. Ray Park's Snake Eyes is always worth watching, though notably, he has no dialogue. But that doesn't matter, because he kicks the living shit out of Storm Shadow.
As a kid, the Cobra villains were always my favorite part of the cartoon and they remain to be so in the film version. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fantastic as the Doctor (no spoilers here, buddy) and totally disappears into his role. Christopher Eccleston, whom I will watch in anything, is also great as the future Destro. Arnold Vosloo (the titular villain in Sommers's The Mummy) has a wonderful bit part as Zartan, Cobra Commander's later partner in crime and master of disguise. Lee Byung-hun is the perfect Storm Shadow. There's even a cameo from Kevin J. O'Connor as Doctor Mindbender and I couldn't help but wonder where he wandered off to over the course of the film. Though Eccleston and Gordon-Levitt will not appear in the sequel, I am still excited to see where the writers are going to take their characters. Fortunately Sienna Miller's Baroness will not return either. Though she's generally an enjoyable character in the comics, the stupid romantic connection between she and Duke ruined any of her bad-ass villain credibility. As did her acting.
If you're in the mood for something fun and silly, go with Rise of Cobra. Despite the horrible reviews, it's an entertaining film meant to be accompanied by lots of popcorn and candy. It's available on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount, though I would avoid the latter because it will only draw attention to the occasionally painful, unfinished CGI scenes. There's already a trailer for the sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which is due out later this year. Mystifyingly, almost the entire original cast is absent. Channing Tatum is slated to return, but more importantly we will get to see Ray Park as Snake Eyes and Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow. I don't know what the hell they're going to do with Cobra Commander, but at least it stars the Rock and has a cameo from Bruce Willis.