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G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra Review

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by Casimir Harlow Nov 14, 2009

    G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra Review
    I seem to remember G.I. Joe: The Movie being quite a serious little kids' cartoon. Admittedly I must have been extremely young (i.e. single digits) at the time when it was released but, from what I can remember, it involved main characters fighting to the death, the loss of some of the good guys and the mutation of one of the bad guys into some infected snake hybrid. Or something. Clearly I don't remember the cartoons as accurately as their Transformers counterparts, but I certainly do remember those cool action figures - each with their own little gadget or distinctive weapon, crazy outfit (normally all having very distinguishable colours) and even maybe a mask or helmet. You knew the good guys from the bad, and everybody loved that damn Snake Eyes ninja dude, complete with Katana. It was the disappointing response to the theatrical release of Transformers - The Movie, back in the Eighties, that prompted G.I. Joe: The Movie to be shelved and deemed fit for straight-to-video release only, which is ironic when you consider that it can only possibly be thanks to the immense popularity of Bay's visually opulent Transformers flicks that a live-action G.I. Joe film ever got green-lit. After all, it isn't exactly a great time to be making a Blockbuster movie about G.I. Joe: All-American Hero.

    Bay's Transformers movies failed in many respects - the Decepticons were all almost impossible to distinguish from one another, the human silliness storylines were excessive to say the least, and the films were overlong, but they looked damn good, and the action within was pretty spectacular. There was simply no better way to see robots beating the hell out of each other. Whether or not it truly did justice to the childhood cartoon that many 80s kids grew up on was a different question, but it was undeniably entertaining - even if on a very shallow level. G.I. Joe had the same potential to polarise audiences - hardened fans might be disappointed by the representation of their favourite characters but the general movie-going public would probably be absorbed by the wow-factor of amazing effects sequences and action set-pieces. So, with its cinema release under its belt and now debuting on Blu-ray, how did the 'All-American Hero' G.I. Joe survive its transition from popular toy and cartoon show to live-action blockbuster?

    Duke and Ripcord are the sole survivors after their military convoy gets ambushed by hi-tech terrorists led by a mysterious woman called The Baroness, who are trying to get their hands on the weapon that the troops were transporting. Rescued by an elite and covert unit called G.I. Joe, who include ninja Snake Eyes, crossbow-wielding Scarlett, communications officer Breaker and heavy weapons expert Heavy Duty, they are soon recruited by the leader General Hawk, and subsequently trained to join the team, partly because of Duke's past relationship with The Baroness, and partly because they really, really want to be G.I. Joes. The Baroness is, of course, working for a psychotic megalomaniac who intends to sell the deadly weapon - which can destroy entire cities - on the black market to the highest bidder, although his first task is to prove the damage that it can do. Will the 'Joes be able to stop the terrorists' plans and save the world?

    G.I. Joe is like some bastard mish-mash of Power Rangers, Team America (played straight) and the James Bond film Die Another Day, borrowing ideas from endless movies - but mostly movies of a similarly brainless ilk. I honestly don't know how Stephen Sommers got his hands on Directorial duty here either. He made a successful Mummy movie, an over-the-top sequel and a pointless second sequel, as well as Van Helsing, which threw every single monster into the mix and had a stupid amount of effects in it, but simply no soul. The characters, story, action and effects were all superficial, shallow and unsatisfying. And everybody slated it. So what did they do? Hand him $175,000,000 to do a live-action G.I. Joe movie. I shouldn't have been that surprised, considering they handed the keys to the Terminator franchise to the man who brought us Charlie's Angels and, erm, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Ironically, for all my criticism of McG, G.I. Joe makes Terminator: Salvation practically look like a masterpiece - or at least the best of the Summer blockbusters (T4, TF2 and this).

    It is difficult levelling criticism at a movie about a popular toy line. This was obviously designed for younger audiences, catering for those with short attention spans and an endless ability to suspend disbelief, but for a movie with quite so much money thrown at it I expected better. Considering I reviewed Waterworld just a few weeks ago, again it isn't that much of a surprise, but you would think that Hollywood would eventually learn its lesson? After all, ignoring the atrocious acting, the terrible characters, the painful script and the wafer-thin story, the action isn't actually all that good. It's flash, and almost entirely effects-driven, but has no style or refinement, and relies too heavily on CG imagery. This is not a seamlessly integrated piece (that's not to say that Transformers is, but Bay's visual panache at least makes it more easy to 'switch off and pretend') and the action scenes can be quite jarring in their seeming inability to adhere to any of the laws of physics.

    In attempting to blend together (in typical Stephen Sommers style) elements of Iron Man, Stealth (or its predecessor Firefox), Arnie's Eraser, and all of the aforementioned movies like the over-the-top Die Another Day, all the while rushing to get the damn thing finished so it can compete with Transformers 2, G.I. Joe feels like an exercise in just throwing as much as you possibly can at the screen and hoping something sticks. Unfortunately none of it really does, and it certainly does not hold together coherently. The strange prototype 'accelerator suits' (Iron Man) make the characters' insane movements so silly that they would only really be appropriate in a Spiderman movie, the Firefox-like prototype plane sequence is made laugh-out-loud funny by the fact that the plane only responds to verbal commands in an odd blend of English and - get this - Celtic (must think in Russia... I mean, Celtic), and the massive underwater battle is made uncomfortably ludicrous by the fact that the vehicles move as if they were Tie-fighters, and the fact that ice sinks (did nobody notice this problem, when the lead villain was threatening to 'blow up the ice pack' above his underwater lair?).

    You can try and suspend disbelief all you like, but this movie will just keep on throwing crazy stuff at you until you eventually get so drunk you don't care, or finish it off with a desperate crave to watch something decent, like one of the Bourne movies. The whole thing starts badly when they set the prologue in the 17th Century for no justifiable reason, then the opening ambush is quite well done - giving you some hope - but things just go downhill from there. Everything starts to resemble Team America (only, as I've stated, here they are deadly serious - this is just about as far from a satirical comment on America and War as you can get) in terms of plot. In fact, were Team America to have been made after G.I. Joe, they could have just called it G.I. Joke because the correlations are so similar. We get the new recruit, the training montage, the first assignment where they level a city trying to stop some terrorists, the attack on their base, the loss of face in the public eye, etc. etc. How can audience members watch a movie where an elite squad go rampaging across Paris in pursuit of hi-tech terrorists, and where they kill a stupid amount of innocent people in the process, and not think about the scene in Team America which mocked that very thing? Sigh.

    Taking us back to the casting, there are some real issues here too. The acting is truly appalling, and whether this is due to choice of actor or just lazy performance, it really is unforgiveable. Almost nobody survives the movie intact. Channing (Fighting) Tatum headlines as Duke. Channing Tatum is a genuinely bad actor. We're not even talking Orlando Bloom here, or frakking Steven Seagal, Channing is worse than the two combined and lobotomised. He has neither the acting skills nor the sheer charisma to pull off a performance. In anything. Let alone play the lead in a Hollywood blockbuster. At least not one where he is required to speak. Maybe they should have made him the mute ninja instead. Sienna Miller is bland as hell as the supposed femme fatale of the piece, The Baroness, putting in the kind of performance you would expect from one of the cast members of Hollyoaks, which is a shame because for some crazy reason I thought she could actually act - as well as look good. And here, she doesn't do either very well. No, wet look leggings will never win me over.

    Christopher (28 Days Later) Eccleston could have probably made for a decent enough villain, but puts on an over-the-top Scottish accent that just makes him sound silly (Sean Connery, he is not), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who turned in a superior performance in the vastly underrated teen noir Brick, is utterly out of place as the strange Doctor-turned-Darth Vader, Arnold (The Mummy) Vosloo wanders around whistling as the 'master of disguise' Zartan, although as far as I can tell all this means is that whilst everybody else is engaging in battle, he is busy dressing up as a shepherd leading camels in the desert, and The Good, The Bad and the Wierd's Byung-hun Lee plays Storm Shadow, arch-nemesis of Snake Eyes (more on that later).

    The good guys have slightly more luck, with Marlon Wayans' Ripcord proving to be a poor man's Jamie Foxx from Stealth, but managing to get a couple of laughs out of the audience thanks to comic timing that has been honed on numerous spoof 'Scary' movies, and Rachel (Star Trek) Nichols outshining Sienna Miller in the looks, character and acting department as the hot redhead Scarlett. The rest do not fare as well. Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje may have been born in England but he will always be remembered for Mr Echo from Lost, and his cockney drawl here is jarring at best, Dennis Quaid gets to (practically literally) phone in his performance as General Hawk, Said (La Haine) Taghmaoui is utterly wasted as Breaker and Jonathan Pryce sounds a little too British to be the US President.

    One thing they appear to have gotten right is Ray (Darth Maul) Park as Snake Eyes, who is the coolest of the bunch (well, he is a ninja after all). His swordfights with Storm Shadow mark a high point in the movie, even if his odd face-shaped mask (why would it have moulded lips?) doesn't look right and his vow of silence would have likely prevented him from being considered as a member of G.I. Joe in the first place (Snake Eyes, respond! Snake Eyes, where are you? Say something dammit!). The only trouble with this little story arc is the flashback set-up, which showcases two eleven-year-old kid versions of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow kicking the hell out of each other when they first meet. It's crazy because not only do they appear to already be ninjas, but they are also fighting - for no damn reason - to the death! My biggest gripe with this back-story is that it is pretty dangerous in a movie that is clearly designed to entertain kids. Sure, I know this is labelled PG-13, but that does mean that kids under 13 can see it with an adult, and parents around the globe are probably not going to think twice about showing a movie like this to kids - it has all the hallmark qualities of a kid-friendly action-adventure a la Transformers. But surely it cannot be a good idea to show two 11 year olds head-butting (!!!) each other, beating each other up with nunchuks (!!!) and acting like they were part of a youtube campaign to imitate a scene from the Matrix? There was a time when headbutting scenes were cut in the UK, nunchuks similarly, both because encouraged easily imitable violent behaviour. Here we get kids doing this stuff, which is surely the opposite extreme to banning it all in the first place.

    I'm going to try and finish things off on a more positive note if I can. G.I. Joe, for all its faults, is still vapid fun. People may have generally regarded Van Helsing as being shallow nonsense, but it was far from unwatchable, and this movie is the same - watch it once, switch off and try not to baulk too much at the inane antics, and you will come out of the two hours relatively unharmed and probably not in the least bit bored. It may be the same kind of poor quality scripting, story and acting as Street Fighter (which is saying something, considering that that was Van Damme's worst movie) but with $175,000 thrown at it, at least it looks quite glossy and extravagant. The effects may not be perfect, but the filmmakers have shown a massive breadth of imagination when it comes to the good guys' and bad guys' underground/underwater bases, the vehicles and weaponry on offer and the action set-pieces portrayed. Throwing logic and physics out of the window, suspending more disbelief than you should have to for a 'futuristic army movie' and - for those of you of legal age - getting a little inebriated, could result in enjoyment of this film on some shallow level. It may be a bad summer blockbuster (despite Box Office returns) but it is almost so bad that its good (in a Showgirls kind of way), which leads to no end of future possibilities when it comes to drinking games and mockery. For fans of G.I. Joe, this film is a bit of an insult, for fans of Team America, this movie could never be watched seriously, but for all those who went to see it twice at the cinema, rest assured, you guaranteed a sequel. Sigh.