No, Joe! Don't Go!
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
I've been trying to figure out the appeal of G.I. Joe. The toys have been around forever and started off life as Barbie-sized solider figures, but the popularity of them certainly rose when they shrunk down to their tiny, four-inch (give or take) figures that coincided with the cartoon that aired in the 1980s. That series, mind you, was ridiculous but it did allow Hasbro to sell a lot of cheap little figures from the 30-minute weekly toy commercial. A lot of kids grew up with mounds of the Joes taking up space in their toy room (and I was no exception even though I never watched the actual cartoon).
G.I. Joe, as it currently stands, is inherently ridiculous and a translation of that series (and its toys) to the live-action venue of the big screen has to battle two different approaches. One side says to embrace the ridiculous and go for kitsch while the other side would say to downplay the ridiculous and try to make something serious and sensible out of the material (this, by the way, is the struggle with just about any toys-to-cartoon-to-live action series we could discuss). I think there's probably a middle ground between the two ideals that would actually make for a very watchable film with just a flare of the fun.
2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra does not go for sensible at all. This is an over-the-top, kitschy fever dream that embraces all the silliness and stupidity of the original cartoon (and all the toys to come out along with). Characters aren't really treated like people but as action figures, and all the toys are sent smashing and crashing into each other, again and again, as ever more ridiculous concepts are heaped on the viewer. It certainly does feel like it embraced the aesthetic of the cartoon while translating that to the big screen. However, while director Stephen Sommers (of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and Van Helsing) failed to make an actual compelling movie out of the mess of toys he presented on screen. It's a very loud, very true film for the G.I. Joe franchise, but it's not really any good.
The film opens with M.A.R.S. CEO James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) selling his newest weapon (funded in part by the U.N.) to the world council. This device sends out thousands of nano-bots that scavenge and obliterate all matter in their path, reducing all of civilization to dust. They can be deactivated with just a switch, though, making them an ideal alternative to nuclear weapons -- the same destructive power, none of the after-effects. Quickly snatched up, the U.N. military team, led by Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), are set to transport the four prototype warheads to a safe place. They're attacked, en route, but a mysterious military team, including Duke's old flame, Ana (now going by "The Baroness", played by Sienna Miller), who attempt to steal the bombs for nefarious reasons.
Duke and Ripcord are the only members of the team still alive with the Joes -- Scarlett (Rachel Nicols), Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbje), and Breaker (Said Taghmaoui) -- arrive, and they secure the package, taking Duke and Ripcord with them back to Joe's HQ (based out of the deserts of Egypt). The bad guys, though, really want those bombs and their leader, M.A.R.S. CEO McCullen (also going by the name Destro), will stop at nothing to get them back. The goal is anarchy, and power, and money, and not even the Joes can stand in their way as they rise up to their rightful place as a terrorist world power.
So the first thing we need to talk about, before we can even get to the characters, or the film making, or the special effects (all of which are worth discussing because of how bad they are) is the fact that the script makes no logical sense whatsoever. McCullen is a rich dude -- he has the means and money to build an entire military base under the Arctic ice without anyone noticing what he's doing, and it's the size of a small city. He has no reason to go to the U.N. to get funding for special nano-bot bombs, let alone announce that he has the kind of technology that would allow him to build that kind of thing. Beyond that, his whole plan is to give the U.N. the bombs "on the up and up", steal them back with his (soon to be called Cobra) squad, and then sell them on the black market. Again, the dude is "don't give a fuck about anything" Jeff Bezos levels of rich. Why does he need to do any of this?
His goal is anarchy so he can become a superpower, which is fine on paper, but back in 2009 (and especially now when rich assholes are launching themselves into space in 2021) the idea that a rich dude would need to be a covert terrorist so he could become a superpower is absolutely stupid. He has the power and the means already to do whatever he wants. He could have built an Arctic base in public and no one would have stopped him. He could do whatever he wanted, create his own country, and because he had all the power and the money no one would ever say boo. The whole film hinges on the idea that Cullen somehow needs to do all his stuff covertly when no one that motivation ever makes sense. And then the script twists itself in knots trying to justify it as if even the screenwriters know this whole plot line was nonsensical.
The movie does slightly better with some of the characters, but not all of them. You could tell that a couple of the actors that showed up -- Tatum, Miller... that's about it -- thought they were going to make a slightly more serious film and tried to find some real depth and pathos for their characters. The rest of the team, though, likely saw what director Sommers was cooking up and just said, "eff it." Most of the performances are either phoned in, because people couldn't take anything they were doing seriously, or so over the top that they fight for dominance over everything else the director was doing. Dennis Quaid is a stand-out in the latter camp (and not in a good way) as his performance as the leader of the team, General Clayton "Hawk" Abernathy, is so ridiculously hammy that it almost (but doesn't quite) swing back around from terrible to good again. It's a tragic sight to behold.
As an action film we could hope that the film would at least manage to provide some decent thrills, but even here the movie falls apart. Part of the issue is that, frankly, Sommers just isn't a very good director. He doesn't really know how to film action well and he never got the knack for letting shots linger long enough that you can feel their weight and impact, especially during action. He has a jump, silly style that might befit some films but doesn't work when it comes to action at all. And that's before he then layers on oodles of CGI that looks like trash at the time and has aged even worse since. The man deserves some credit for trying to pioneer how CGI could be used in films but Rise of Cobra is a clear example that the technology was still not quite ready for this kind of setting.
Frankly it's shocking to me not only how much this film made -- $302.5 Mil during its run -- but also how much it cost to make: $175 Mil. Yes, a lot of that probably went to the huge cast of B- and C-list actors, but frankly outside of names and faces I can't really see where the money went. This is a trashy film that also looks like garbage, with most of it clearly filmed against green screens before someone went in with iMovie and pasted in bad CGI. This is not a film that looks like it cost more than a comparable Marvel movie for the era.
Somehow this film did well enough (presumably in toy sales) to inspire the creation of another film in this set, G.I. Joe: Retaliation. That film is equally bad (although for different reasons) and was another hit for Hasbro. I guess that explains why, after two bad films, the company decided to try again just this year with Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins so they could continue to sell their toys. And maybe these films work on that front, just like the cartoons used to do back in the day. But as actual, watchable entertainment, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra fails on all fronts.