To begin with, if you’re someone who carries a nostalgic childhood love of G.I. Joe—and the Hasbro action figures, cartoons and comic books that promote them—or simply just like watching things blow up on a movie screen, then you’re likely to get more out of Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra than I did. Any number of moviegoers will certainly defend G.I. Joe for being the big, dumb, mindless junk it purports itself to be. And to a certain extent, they’re right. The movie is certainly big, dumb and mindless, which, on occasion, can be fun. Except G.I. Joe forgot all the entertaining stuff. Instead it’s the Baby Huey of action movies, running roughshod over the audience’s senses for two hours before finally exhausting itself.
It’s not quite as bad as this summer’s other example of toy-based excess, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but that’s only because Michael Bay’s film is a perfect storm of obnoxious juvenilia—not to mention half an hour longer than G.I. Joe. Really, from the first time someone got shot and lifelessly toppled over a balcony, I realized G.I. Joe has little in common with the Transformers films and is more like the long lost brother of cheesy ‘80s and ’90s action goofs, like the Dolph Lundgren vehicle Masters of the Universe (1987) or Street Fighter (1994), featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and his blond-dye job.
G.I. Joe might’ve worked as the hokey popcorn flick it really is if Sommers (Van Helsing) didn’t take the film so seriously. A lot of this stems from what seems to be a desire to make a straight-faced actioner to please the Joe faithful. But let’s be honest, what might work as Saturday-morning animation, or with plastic toys and their kung-fu grips, will not necessarily translate to real-life actors on a movie screen. This is, after all, a movie where grown men and women gallivant around in rubber suits, going by names that sound like sex positions—Heavy Duty, Dr. Mindbender and Hard Master—yet the film never acknowledges how downright inane any of this is.
Instead, we get a movie with a lot of corny dialogue, surprisingly shoddy CGI (especially considering the film’s $175 million price tag) and a ton of explosions, all the while borrowing liberally from Star Wars and the Bryan Singer X-Men entries. The plot is nothing more than good-guys-versus-bad-guys stuff, with evil arms dealer McCullen/Destro (Christopher Eccleston, Shallow Grave) and his army of masked, anonymous henchman trying to take over the world for no discernible reason other than they can. They hide out in a giant underwater base hidden beneath the polar ice cap like any reasonable evil organization would.
Destro’s plan hinges on some sort of nanotechnology that can eat buildings or control minds. Out to stop him are “the G.I. Joe,” a covert, international group of soldiers who—not to be outdone—also have a secret base below the Sahara and appear to spend their time blowing things up. Putting the bro in Hasbro is new recruit Duke (Channing Tatum, Fighting), some sort of thick-necked special-forces type who’s after Destro now that his old flame Ana—now the improbably named Baroness (Sienna Miller)—is working for the fiend, doing all sorts of evil deeds and such. We know she’s truly evil because the blond locks she sports in flashbacks have now been dyed black, and she traipses around in a leather cat suit that accentuates her cleavage.
There’s also a subplot involving the mute, rubber-suit wearing (I kept expecting him to come out of a steamer trunk in the basement of a pawnshop) G.I. Joe ninja named Snake Eyes (Ray Park, X-Men) and his old rival Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee, Hero). This is supposed to pass for characterization, but instead the subplot just becomes tedious. We also get a half-baked romance for the ladies in the audience, between Duke’s comic-relief sidekick Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) and Scarlett (Rachel Nichols, Star Trek), G.I. Joe’s resident genius and opposition cleavage. It’s also worth noting that G.I. Joe accomplishes a cinematic first by having a Wayans Brother not be the worst thing in a movie.
But none of this really matters, because there’s a lot of things that can be exploded in two hours. A good bit of Paris—including the Eiffel Tower—gets Joe’d into oblivion, which has led some to peg an anti-France slant to the film. While this is probably a legitimate gripe, the thought that G.I. Joe has any kind of thought behind it—even wrongheaded, simple-minded ideas—is probably giving this numb-skulled fit of a movie too much credit. Cars, buildings, airplanes, submarines and the North Pole (yes, the North Pole) are all at the mercy of saving the day. Sure, the action scenes are all shot with the precision of a Palsy sufferer in a helicopter and edited with the coherency of an ADD-afflicted youngster hopped up on Pixy Stix, but it definitely looks and sounds—very, very loudly—like something exciting is going on.
About the only one who seems to realize this is junk—and has any sort of fun with it—is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as mad scientist Cobra Commander, a pasty amalgamation of Darth Vader, House of 1,000 Corpses’ Dr. Satan, The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Dr. Finkelstein, a dash of Edward Scissorhands and a smattering of leftover plumbing fixtures. But the idea of Gordon-Levitt saving this movie by his lonesome is more a Sisyphean dream than anything else. G.I. Joe is not so much a movie as it is a big, clamoring force of nature—think a gigantic swarm of really idiotic locusts—and it’s here for better or for worse. Rated PG-13 for strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout.