The G.I. JOE team travels the world from the Egyptian desert to the polar ice caps and the streets of Paris in a high stakes pursuit of COBRA, an evil international organization threatening to use a technology that could bring the world to its knees. Armed with the coolest hi-tech gadgets and weapons, including jaw-dropping accelerator and camouflage suits, G.I. JOE is the last line of defense against those intent on world domination.
Film critics are frequently accused of being elitist snobs who don't know how to have fun at the movies and don't understand what real people want to see. That's a load of bunk. We like purely entertaining movies as much as anyone else. We just ask that they actually be entertaining, and not insult our intelligence. Sadly, far too many mega-budget blockbusters fail that standard. That doesn't mean that they all do, of course. 'Die Hard' is a great action movie. So are 'The Terminator' and 'Terminator 2'. Just recently, 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight' did a phenomenal job blending plenty of action, explosions, and expensive visual effects with smart plots and interesting characters. With as much money as is spent making these things, that doesn't seem like it should be too much to ask. Unfortunately, more often than not, we wind up with junk like 'Van Helsing', '10,000 B.C.', or 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' (which managed to stink up a storm even though its predecessors 'X-Men' and 'X2: X-Men United' were quite good). There's a distinction in how well these films are written and executed. A lot of action and VFX cannot, in and of themselves, make up for a bad screenplay or direction. No matter how many billions of dollars it may have made at the box office, 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' is just not a good movie. Being a summer popcorn flick does not automatically excuse a movie from being a bad summer popcorn flick.
Which brings us to 2009's latest travesty, 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra', based on Hasbro's massively popular toy line from the 1980s. Lest I be accused of having a prejudice against movies based on toys, allow me to point out that I was a child of the 1980s and a huge fan of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. I was 8 years-old when I got the VAMP Jeep with Clutch figure for Christmas, and it rocked my world. Not only was this one of the coolest toys I owned, a whole universe of compatible accessories followed on its heels: tanks, cannons, snowmobiles, fighter jets, and soon even a gigantic aircraft carrier. Every figure was highly detailed, extremely poseable, and came with a small arsenal of personalized weaponry. Most importantly, each character had a distinctly scripted personality to act out. I was obsessed, and started collecting them en-masse.
G.I. Joe was the defining toy of the 1980s. Almost without exception, every boy I knew owned a selection of the figures. The toy line spawned a cartoon series, a long-running comic book, and huge assortment of tie-in merchandise such as lunchboxes, coloring books, sticker albums, Halloween costumes, and more. G.I. Joe was everywhere, and it was irresistibly appealing to boys of any age. Characters like Duke, Scarlett, Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, and Cobra Commander were essential components of my childhood. Although I've dropped in and out of collecting over the years, I continued to buy the toys long after it was acceptable to tell my friends that I was doing so. I was a nerd long before nerds were cool. To this day, I still own a nearly-complete collection of the original 1982-1994 run of action figures, and all 155 issues of the Marvel comic series written by Larry Hama.
So when I say that I absolutely hated the 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' movie, I do so not as a snooty film critic who will only deign to watch pretentious subtitled art films. This movie has deeply offended something fundamental to my love of the G.I. Joe franchise. I will never forgive it for that.
How did this happen? There'd been talk about making a live-action G.I. Joe movie for years. The project made the rounds in Hollywood for so long that it seemed like it would never actually come to pass. Budget was always a major obstacle. The Real American Hero toy line eventually fizzled out in the mid-'90s when the Hasbro company lost its focus and began incorporating too many goofy sci-fi elements like aliens and "Eco-Warriors." The franchise has had several revivals in the years since, and is actually doing fairly well in collectors' circles at the moment. But it hasn't reached nearly the same levels of success or cultural impact. As far as a potential film was concerned, G.I. Joe appeared to have missed its window. All things considered, that might have been for the best.
Then Michael Bay's first 'Transformers' movie blew the lid off the worldwide box office. Opportunist producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura recognized his chance to ride the wave of '80s nostalgia. 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' was fast-tracked into production (simultaneously with the 'Transformers' sequel) with a bloated $175 million budget. Never mind that nobody had a script and the 2007 Writer's Guild strike was fast approaching. As soon as Stephen Sommers, director of the execrable 'Van Helsing', was signed to helm, the nails started being pounded into the coffin.
The finished product feels like it was written over a weekend by a committee of people who had no knowledge whatsoever of the source material. Sure, they may have flipped through an issue or two of the old comic and scanned a few episodes of the cartoon one afternoon. But it's perfectly obvious that this story started life as an unrelated military/sci-fi screenplay and has simply had some G.I. Joe character names foisted on it.
Now, I'm not the type of fan who dogmatically insists that a movie must follow every word of franchise canon from both the comic and cartoon (which contradicted each other anyway). I recognize the need to update a property like this for a new generation. However, the characters in 'Rise of Cobra' bear no resemblance to their iconic originals. What we have here is akin to making a 'Batman' movie in which Bruce Wayne is a homeless vampire. That just wouldn't be 'Batman' anymore. I don't mind tweaking the characters' storylines a little, so long as you retain their essence. 'Rise of Cobra' strips all that away, and leaves only a hollow shell of mindless boom-boom spectacle.
Characters in the movie and their respective backstories have been mixed-and-matched for no apparent reason. The screenwriters have clearly just plucked names off a list without having any idea who they were. Almost every single actor in the film is totally miscast for his or her role. Almost all of them are terrible actors (or decent actors lazily delivering terrible performances) to boot. When Marlon Wayans gives one of the best performances in your movie, you have a serious problem.
Wayans plays Ripcord, comic relief sidekick to Duke (Channing Tatum, who we'll get to in a minute). Ripcord is in the infantry, but wants to be a fighter pilot. Issues of race (which are not a real concern) aside, the original Ripcord was a paratrooper and an insignificant character in any previous version of G.I. Joe. If the writers needed a pilot, why not pick Ace or Slipstream? In addition to bumbling through the plot and delivering smart-aleck wisecracks, Ripcord has also been made the movie's romantic lead via a flirtatious will-they-or-won't-they? relationship with Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), who's here been envisioned as an emotionless book nerd with a bad dye job. In the cartoon, Scarlett was in love with Duke. In the comic, she was in love with Snake Eyes. Either of those would have been an acceptable relationship for the movie. Why Ripcord?
The movie's ostensible lead is Duke, played by Channing Tatum, who is without question the absolute worst actor to have ever lived in the history of mankind's existence on this planet we call Earth. I'm talking all the way back to the birth of drama in ancient Greece, never has there been another actor as awful as Tatum. Even Ed Wood would have laughed at this guy's screen test. The filmmakers should have called his character "Cue Card," because he's obviously reading his lines off of them.
Nearly as bad is Sienna Miller as The Baroness. Yes, she's sexy, but my lord, the woman needs to take some acting lessons. Not only is Miller's delivery stilted, the movie's version of the character is an American bimbo (a blonde, we learn in flashbacks) with no accent, is Duke's ex-girlfriend, and isn't even really evil. What the hell? What does any of that have to do with The Baroness, who was previously one of the juiciest characters in all of G.I. Joe lore? I'm going to assume that Miller had to be cast in the movie due to some studio contractual obligation. If she has to be in the movie, why not give her a more appropriate character that she could handle, like Cover Girl? Shouldn't The Baroness actually be The Baroness, and played by someone who can pull off the role?
Supporting characters make just as little sense. Saïd Taghmaoui is Breaker. Except that he's not actually playing Breaker, the team's radio operator. He's playing Mainframe, their computer tech geek. So why isn't the character just called Mainframe? Obviously, the writers didn't know who Mainframe was because they'd never gotten past Issue 3 of the comic book.
Perhaps the most controversial bit of casting in the movie is scrawny nerd-boy Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander. Truth be told, the actor does about as well as he can with the material he's been given. He has some interesting physical mannerisms and his twist on the Commander's voice works pretty well. But, again, what he's playing isn't really Cobra Commander. He's more of an amalgam of Dr. Mindbender and a lame villain from any random SyFy Channel movie. His character's backstory is a complete mess of out-of-nowhere revelations about being Duke's best friend and The Baroness's brother, crossed with the tragic accident that should belong to Snake Eyes.
As for Snake Eyes, Ray Park is just about the only actor perfectly cast in his role as the silent ninja. Of course, the filmmakers find a way to screw even that up by molding giant puffy lips on his famous mask. They look ridiculous. You'd think that Dennis Quaid would make a good General Hawk, but he's clearly phoning in his performance. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is acceptable as Heavy Duty (despite his British accent), but nobody has ever given a crap about Heavy Duty. Why isn't he Roadblock or Stalker?
Brendan Fraser also pops in for a cameo as "Sgt. Stone," the team's drill instructor, a character made up for the movie. Wouldn't it have been a nice concession to fans if the real Sgt. Slaughter had been brought in to reprise his role from the cartoon? Did no one think of this? It's not like he's busy these days. I can guarantee you that he'd be willing to do it.
Christopher Eccleston would be fine as Destro if not for his lousy attempt at a Scottish accent. Finally, Arnold Vosloo as master-of-disguise Zartan spends most of the movie standing around and whistling. Yes, whistling!
All of these changes might be forgivable if only the movie were good or entertaining in its own right. For a little while, it seems like it might be. The lame prologue sequence is clearly tacked-on and has nothing at all to do with the main plot, but it's over quickly enough. Who makes a G.I. Joe movie and starts it in 17th Century Europe? Thankfully, the next scene that introduces Destro's M.A.R.S. Corporation is fairly appropriate and handled well. The metal-eating nanomites are far-fetched sci-fi technology, but perfectly fitting for a G.I. Joe story. So far, not too bad.
The first battle is easily the movie's highlight. It's well-staged, has plenty of action, and is surprisingly violent for a PG-13 film. Cobra arrives on the scene with some impressive far-out tech. The Baroness makes her first appearance and is looking hot. The Vipers are total badasses and make mincemeat of the U.S. Army forces. When the Joes finally show up to help, Snake Eyes and Scarlett are given awesome heroic introductions. All in all, things are looking promising. This is exactly what I want from a G.I. Joe movie.
And then it all falls apart. Everything from that point forward spirals into incompetence and idiocy. The movie turns into just another overblown and tedious CGI-fest filled with quick-cut, shaky-cam action scenes and frankly embarrassing visual effects. Yes, I understand that the movie is based on a cartoon; perhaps you can rationalize that the effects are supposed to be "cartoony." But when you insert live actors into the scene, you need to establish a certain level of visual plausibility in order for the audience to suspend disbelief. 'Rise of Cobra' almost never accomplishes that. Throughout, it's apparent that the actors are just standing around in front of green screens while everything around them is animated in by computer. And yet, it never demonstrates any sense of artistic purposefulness the way that other "digital backlot" movies like 'Sin City' do. This just looks like a movie with crappy VFX. Which it is.
I don't have a problem with the concept of the Accelerator Suits in the Paris chase scene. Again, the technology may strain credibility, but it's not outside the bounds of any typical G.I. Joe story. However, the suits just seem impractical and ineffective. And the way the actors bounce around on screen blatantly violates any sense of real physical interaction with the world around them. Not just the actors in the suits, either. Snake Eyes jumps 20 feet up to leap over exploding cars as they flip through the air, and Scarlett's motorcycle can practically fly and turn in mid-air. This is a problem in every major set-piece, especially the end, in which thousands of mini submarines maneuver through the water faster than fighter jets.
The movie's script features terrible dialogue and inane, nonsensical plotting. Destro's plan to conquer the world seems pretty fruitless since he clearly already has trillions upon trillions of dollars at his disposal. He could probably just buy the United States and the E.U. if he wanted to. His evil scheme requires him to make the nanomites, give them to N.A.T.O., and then steal them back for some reason. Why bother? And, having done so, why isn't he able to weaponize the nanomites he built himself? The Baroness and Storm Shadow have to bring them to a particle accelerator research lab and say, "Here, weaponize this." Because that's exactly what the lab would be set up to do, apparently.
This all culminates in the big action climax, which hinges on the fact that the filmmakers had no idea that ice floats in water. The movie had six screenwriters and probably 150 VFX artists working on that scene. Yet not one of them ever said, "Umm, hey, you know, an iceberg wouldn't sink if you blew it up. 'Cause, you know, ice floats." Meanwhile, Ripcord has to pilot a fighter plane that only responds to voice commands in Celtic and can fly at Mach 1,000 from Moscow to Washington, D.C. in 5 seconds. It also seems to have escaped everyone's attention that the President of the United States shouldn't be so obviously British.
The film is agonizingly, insultingly stupid. It has been written by people who have no respect at all for their audience's intelligence. Movies like this are often called "turn off your brain" entertainment. I've never understood the appeal of that. There's nothing stopping any movie from having major excitement and thrills along with a decent story and interesting characters, except the will to do it. How far must we lower our standards to find something like this entertaining?
'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' spends 118 grueling minutes thoroughly ruining an iconic franchise. Nonetheless, the movie grossed about $300 million worldwide and will probably do well on home video, which means that a sequel is practically a foregone conclusion. Would it be unreasonable to ask that someone competent be placed in charge of the next one? Fortunately, the G.I. Joe mythos is so extensive that another movie could easily focus on an entirely different group of characters and completely ignore anything that happened in this one. I beg the studio to make that happen.
'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' has been released on Blu-ray by Paramount Home Entertainment as a 2-Disc Digital Copy Edition. The second disc is a DVD. The movie is packaged in a standard keepcase with slipcover. The artwork on the cardboard slipcover features Snake Eyes and a few Joes, while the case underneath has Storm Shadow and some Cobras.
The Blu-ray disc has no less than five forced trailers before the main menu. The Top Menu command has been disabled, so each trailer must be skipped individually every time the disc is loaded.
'G.I. Joe' has sleek and glossy photography befitting its $175 million budget. Colors are vibrant and cartoony in the hopes of blending the CG effects a little better. (It doesn't help.) The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer will certainly look great on most average-sized HDTVs. However, when blown up to a large projection screen, the 2.40:1 image suffers a frustrating lack of textural detail. Close-ups generally look nice and sharp, but medium and wide shots are less impressive.
For the most part, the movie has a very smooth and digital appearance. Dark scenes are usually grainier. The image sometimes appears noisy during fast motion.
The picture is also surprisingly dark and has weak shadow detail. This makes a lot of the action in night scenes (like the first battle) difficult to follow. Even during daylight scenes, like the Paris chase, black surfaces such as Snake Eyes' costume or the Cobra SUV are poorly defined. Even so, the transfer has more strengths than weaknesses.
In the words of the Black Eyed Peas song that plays over the end credits, "BOOM BOOM POW!!" Allow me to add to that a CRASH, SMASH, KA-BLAM, KER-THUNK, and a SHUDDA SHUDDA SHUDDA BA-DOOOOMM!! The movie also has plenty of BEEP BOOP BEEPs any time characters so much as look at a computer or prop that could remotely be considered to have electronics associated with it.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack does a fine job reproducing all the rumble in the audio mix, and there's a lot of it from start to finish. I wouldn't say that the bass ever hits the bottom-end as concussively as 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen', but that's hardly a complaint. Bass junkies will have no trouble getting their rocks off here.
The surround channels are used aggressively throughout. Bullets zing all around the room, and smooth directional effects zoom from speaker to speaker.
Like many action movies (including 'Transformers'), the mix is focused primarily on loudness at the expense of general audio quality. Dialogue and non-explosive sound effects are clear but unremarkable. Alan Silvestri's forgettable score is hardly present at all. Musical fidelity is bland and disappointing.
All in all, the soundtrack does what it needs to do about as well as it's supposed to. Consider that a compliment.
For a 2-disc set of a major day-and-date release, the selection of bonus features on 'G.I. Joe' is extremely skimpy.
The commentary is obviously on Disc 1 with the movie. The rest of the supplements are found on the accompanying DVD.
I'll be honest, after seeing 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' in theaters, I was ready to rate it with a zero star score. Hell, I was so angry with it that I would've gone into the negative range if I could. My fanboy rage has cooled off a little since then, so I've tried to look at it a bit more objectively this time. As such, I've granted it a whopping star and half. It may be a terrible adaptation of G.I. Joe, but it's not the absolute worst movie I've ever seen. It is, however, a giant piece of crap by any rational measure, whether you're a fan of the franchise or not. Even by mindless action movie standards, this one is more insultingly stupid than most. The director of 'Van Helsing' has struck again.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds pretty good, but has some completely worthless bonus features. If you're absolutely determined to watch 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra' no matter what anyone says about it, do yourself a favor and rent first before wasting your money on a purchase. You may just thank me later.
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.