A film review by Craig J. Koban August 13, 2009


2009, PG-13, 118 mins.

Duke: Channing Tatum / Ripcord: Marlon Wayans / Gen. Hawk: Dennis Quaid / Heavy Duty: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje / McCullen/Destro: Christopher Eccleston / The Doctor/Rex: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Storm Shadow: Byung-hun Lee / Ana/Baroness: Sienna Miller / Scarlett: Rachel Nichols / Snake Eyes: Ray Park / U.S. President: Jonathan Pryce / Breaker: Said Taghmaoui

Directed by Stephen Sommers / Screenplay by Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett, based on toys by Hasbro

I have always had a fondness for action figures.  

And…no…they are not dolls…dammit. 

My childhood was fixated squarely on two distinct types in the early to mid-1980’s: STAR WARS and G.I. JOE, with a near-zealot like fascination being attributed to the former.  I had a few of the original militant-themed and fully posable Hasbro figures from the JOE line and I will always remember the description on the back of their packaging, which certainly felt alluring to any 8-year-old: G.I. Joe is the code name for America’s daring, highly trained special mission force.  Its purpose is to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”   

Um…okay…global warfare…nefarious and vile villains…and an arsenal of technologically advanced patriotic heroes looking to decimate them…what tyke wouldn't eat that up? 

Alas, the JOE action figures only maintained my minimal interests.  I would take the few that I had out of the toy chest, engage in all-out-battle for world supremacy on my bedroom floor, would get unavoidably tired with them, and would then proceed to retire the figures back to their chest so that I could reward myself more fully with re-enacting my favourite civil war from a galaxy far, far away with my most cherished toy line.  

In many ways, my feelings towards the JOE toys kind of sums up my thoughts regarding Stephen Sommers’ new, $175 million dollar film  adaptation of them:  G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA pretty much replicates what a child’s perception of a movie involving all of their favourite JOE action figures would be like.  It’s crammed to the wall with loud, brazen, colorful, and flashy visual effects spectacle.  Beyond that, it contains a mercilessly inane plot that is secondary to showing off the geeked-out and pumped up heroes spouting out galactically lame, pro-military  one-liners while dishing out justice to the despicable villains.  As far as films based on toy lines, this one has no pretensions about aiming for a pre-teen target audience.  Those in the twelve and under crowd will most definitely find G.I. JOE’s comic book/pulp machismo delightfully infectious.  For all others that have achieved puberty and beyond, you just may be fleeing for the exits from all of the film’s bombastic, ear-piercing sounds and its eye-gouging visual overkill.  Just like the JOE toys in my closet, this film held my easy interest for a little while, but I quickly became annoyed with it, abandoned it, and very quickly forgot it altogether. 

G.I. JOE does take a decided detour away from the immensely pro-American toy line:  The Joes in the film are not Yankees (as was the case with the toys and the cartoon series that accompanied it);  rather, these new heroes are a more PC multi-international elite strike force from nations all over the world (which, no doubt, acts as a defense against people slamming the film as a staunch and aggressive bit of Americanized war-mongering propaganda).  Hell, even G.I. JOE is now an acronym for “Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity,” which sounds deliriously and conveniently made up.  Alas, acronyms make something sound more sophisticated than it is…but I digress. 

Anyways, back to the story.  In the film’s decently thrilling opening action sequence we see the militarily mighty Joes – led by their leader, General Hawk (a gruff and remorselessly stiff and wooden Dennis Quaid) – attempting to come to the aid of a Nato military escort that is transporting “cutting edge” nano-weapons.  By cutting edge I am referring to nanomites, which, if attached to a missile, have the ability to eat their targets by dissolving their matter into a cloud of green goo  (why green...I have no idea).  Even worse is that the nanomites will never stop eating their prey unless tipped off by a fail-safe.  One thing I will never understand about these pesky nanos is how they don’t manage to eat away at the containers they’re housed in.  At least ANGELS AND DEMONS from earlier this summer had a delectably batty explanation to explain how the anti-matter was contained in their warheads:  They were housed in airtight, namo-composite shells.  Yeah…sure…okay…sounds reasonable. 

The nanomite technology is the brainchild of a scientist named McCullen (played by former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, given one of the most exasperatedly bad Scottish accents in many a moon) who steals it back from the people he sold it to so that he can sell it to the bad guys so they can, well, you know, use it to eat prominent world landmarks and hold the world ransom.  The bad guys are, of course, Cobra (they do not have an acronym for their name, but I would suggest Corrupt Oppressive Badasses Ransacking America….and the world in general).    

During the opening skirmish - which nearly leads to the nano technology being stolen by Cobra - many of the regular Joes are killed.  Some of the survivors include the two Nato soldiers that were on duty to protect the bombs, Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayons).  Things are really complicated for Duke in particular, seeing as the evil and sultry Cobra spy, the Baroness (Sienna Miller, barely recognizable, by feisty and ultra-sexy here, thanks to her form fitting leather jump suit) once was engaged to poor old Duke (which is revealed in a series of the film’s many awkwardly assembled flashbacks).  Thankfully, Duke and Ripcord are rescued by the elite Joes, comprised of Scarlet (Rachel Nichols, nicely rounding out the film’s high quotient of laughably gratuitous T&A), the curiously mute, but lethal and stealthy Snake Eyes (Ray “Darth Maul” Park), and Heavy Duty (LOST’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje...I hope I spelled that right). 

The Joes convince Duke and Ripcord to return with them to the secret headquarters, The Pitt, which is inexplicably “hidden” under a large, sand covered desert hill in Northern Africa (Question: how does the sand not sway around and off of the super secret entrance way?  Do the Joes have men that are on the spot 24/7 to sweep the sand back over top of it?).  Needless to say, Hawk likes what he sees in Ripcord and Duke and decides to train them, Joe-style, for the coming battle against Cobra, and the enemy does come fast and furious when Cobra daringly raids the Joe’s stronghold to steal that nasty nano-bomb.  And those nanomites are awfully hungry when released.

On a positive, G.I. JOE is so outlandishly silly that calling it cartoonish almost feels redundant.  No viewer with a reasonable level head will take any moment of this film seriously – it festers with schlock and cheese through and through.  The film draws worthy comparisons to this summer’s borderline unwatchable TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN in the sense that both are based on inordinately cherished Hasbro toy lines.  Outside coming from the same manufacturer, the similarities between the two quickly erode: Michael Bay is a textbook movie nihilist that indefensibly punishes his audiences with his trademark brand of audio-visual diarrhea: he has a smug contempt for the people he claims to be making films for.  When it comes to Sommers et al, there seems to be a conscious effort here of crafting an entertainment that is less aggravating, less self-indulgently bloated, and far more campy good fun than was present in any second of the TRANSFORMERS sequel.  There is a sense of outrageous disregard to logic and reality in G.I. JOE, and the film may be equally preposterous, flashy and noisy as Bay’s, but Sommer’s ultra-modern sheen and impermeable action figure-esque posturing is definitely more satisfying and enjoyable.  The film also does not suffer from the arrogant grandstanding of  TRANSFORMERS: I do sincerely believe that some of the actors in JOE know they are in a bad film, but in TRANSFORMERS’ case…I am not altogether sure. 

Sommers may be a far cry off of his assured action-adventure pedigree that he flaunted with the first MUMMY film, but there is no denying that some of set pieces in JOE pack an exhilarating bang.  The opening scene is feverous and intense, but hands down the film’s center-piece - a show stopping 15 minute sequence highlighting the Joes trying to head off the Baroness from destroying the Eiffel Tower – is undeniably nifty and well orchestrated.  It is at this point where the film’s extreme sense ridiculous fun comes to the forefront:  During it we see Duke and Ripcord suited up with special armored gear called Accelerator Suits, which, obviously enough, accelerates a human being to near Superman extremes. They can make the men run 100 miles an hour, leap tall buildings at a single bound, and allows them to become imperious to all weapons fire (granted, I still am not sure how these suits do not utterly destroy their muscles and joints and cook their internal organs to a soup-like consistency).  Make no mistake about it, the scene that made its way on all of the trailers and in turn made all of the fanboys on the chat rooms deeply anxious emerges as one of the more blustery and nonsensically spirited action sequences this summer. 

Yet, here is where the accolades end: G.I. JOE - despite its giddy intrigue and flashiness - is nonetheless horrendously acted, which is not assisted in the slightest by some of the most banal, witless, and head-shakingly dumb one-liners and exchanges I’ve heard all year.  Even though Marlon Wayons shows a bit more charm and comic feistiness than I was expecting – he is the film’s only bright spot that seems to be having fun – the rest of the cast is uniformly God-awful.  Quaid is in pure, phoned-in, paycheck mode as Hawk, who simultaneously appears like he does not want to be in the film and that he has no idea what he’s doing.  Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols act with their cleavage and tight outfits.  A few MUMMY alumni show up in some unmemorable cameos that feel more distracting than they should.  

Two performances in particular take the proverbial cake: Channing Tatum is clearly aiming for the Keanu Reeves Lifetime Achievement Award for stoic and expressionless acting as Duke: he maintains not one scintilla of range, charisma, or emotion here, and his chemistry with Miller is so half baked that food poisoning of the audience is the terrible side effect of tasting it.  And in WTF was he thinking mode is one actor that I shall not name because of its spoilerish possibilities, but let’s just say that I think he is one of the strongest young actors to have emerged in the last few years.  Regrettably, in JOE he gives a performance as the main Cobra villain that would make Ed Wood blush with envy.  Villains should be menacing and frightening, not funny.

On certain levels, I see where Sommers is aiming with the material: attempts were made at appeasing the young child-action figure chic that was once in all of us while appropriating some clear James Bondian intrigue to conciliate adult viewers (there are some obvious appropriations from classic Bond lore: world spanning locations including the villain’s underwater lair, the unstoppable world destroying weapons, the femme fatales, the super sophisticated and futuristic gadgets, etc).  The film looks good, to be sure, but at $175 million, a lot of the CGI effects look shockingly fake and unfinished when compared to the film’s accelerator suit action piece.  The film is also DOA when it comes to character development, dialogue, and performances (some that seem in on the joke and wink to the camera, and some that don’t).  All in all, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA is far and away the more innocuously entertaining film about toy soldiers come to life this summer and it is pretty much what most of us have come to expect: it’s eclectically satisfying while being a completely forgettable, throwaway summer tent-pole extravaganza.  Like the original 3 and ¾ inch scale action figures of my innocent youth, this is a film that ultimately deserves to be thrown back into a cinematic toy box to collect dust.

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