In a summer full of bloated, exploding disappointments, the best compliment we can offer most of the films is “it wasn’t that bad.” Beloved franchises were retooled, repackaged, and regurgitated with big flashy action sequences and the occasional witty quips meant to get the overweight hoi polloi to snort Mountain Dew: Code Red before slapping their pals on the shoulder and shouting “Woooo!” That’s pretty much what G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is — the last crazy $400 million firework sendoff to a totally generic and mostly forgettable summer. Since all the monstrosities of giant metal constructs and shiny-bladed warriors have bowed out, it’s time for G.I. Joe to get its turn to suckle the brain-dead teat of the popcorn clap-your-hands-cause-it-went-boom crowd. It’s familiar packaging: a bunch of sleek glossy special effects and explosions wrapped loosely together around a familiar brand name. And honestly, as generically stupid a film as it was, it did a much better job staying relatively true to the mythos than anything else that’s come out this summer — especially Wolverine: Origins and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. G.I. Joe is harmless, brainless, and guaranteed to make those precious last few hundred million summer dollars before it goes directly into the $5 bin at Wal-Mart next to Minority Report and I, Robot. Right in time for the studio to make another sequel where they add on four or five more characters, even more explosions, and another cool $100 million off the simple simian joy of watching things go kapowey!
Earlier this summer, I was leading the howling mob screaming for the blood of Lorenzo di Bonaventura for raping our childhood memories. How dare they sully the good name of G.I. Joe and all that it stands for? And its stirring rendition of the armed forces and their intense, heated laser battles with herpetological terrorist organizations? Goddammit, do you even remember the actual plot of the 1987 cartoon G.I. Joe: The Movie? Cobra Commander and Serpentor — a clone construct of all the world’s most evil/greatest/successful dictators’ (and apparently one really whiny guy’s) DNA wearing a giant snake man costume — are battling over the control of COBRA, a terrorist organization bent on world domination. Their goal is to steal the BET (freeing future generations from Tyler Perry), or the “Broadcast Energy Transmitter,” a device that would allow G.I. Joe to pump free energy to the world’s poorer areas. Instead, COBRA plans on using it to cook spores in space that will then infect humanity and turn them into brainless zombie slaves. COBRA fails and gets taken over by agents from Cobra-La, a 40,000-year-old secret society under the polar ice caps that’s led by Globulus, a half-man half-snake voiced by Burgess Meredith. Meanwhile, Duke’s brother Falcon, voiced by Don Johnson, a ne’er do well with a rebel streak gets himself court martialled and sent to Sgt. Slaughter’s Slaughterhouse for an attitude adjustment. As you may or may not realize, Sgt. Slaughter was a crossover from the WWF…er WWE…whatever something with wrestling pandas. So basically, Crockett and the forces of good have to stop Rocky’s trainer the Penguin from taking the spores to Tunatown and turning everyone into retarded zombies. Which actually happened to you if you watched the movie.
How the fuck do you rape that memory? That’s already fucked 14 ways from Sunday. How can we possibly claim desecration of a cherished cartoon that featured an episode where GI Joe loots COBRA’s bunkers, forcing them into bankruptcy? There are COBRA Vipers standing in a fucking unemployment line. On the advice of their evil accountant twins Tomax and Xamot, COBRA borrows a million dollars from a bookie so they can shoot a subliminal message laced music video featuring the KISS reject Zartan and the Dreadnoughts as his band called “Cold Slither.” (Enter that now at YouTubo for a prize.) You tell me where that’s sacred text, and I’ll show you a fucking Scientology bible.
What defies the mind is that Stephen Sommers and his writing team of Beattie, Elliot and Lovett actually harvest that assinine original movie plot to craft this film. While the new movie is clunkier than the Tin Man off-roading in a Hyundai, they juice it just enough to be mildly ridiculous instead of full on shitballs retarded. In The Rise of COBRA, McCullen — the ancestor of the original Destro — has developed nanomites. Mini-robots originally designed to eat cancer but instead can be used to devour whole cities, landmarks, and tourist destinations. He sells them to NATO to use as a weapon, but lo and behold, he’s a double crosser. The rest of the movie splits its time between origin-story flashbacks, big dizzying battle scenes where control zips back and forth between COBRA and G.I. Joe, and puppet pearl necklaces. Oops, wrong movie! But it’s not really much different. America, FUCK YEAH!
Actually, G.I. Joe, rather than being Real American Heroes, is now a world police culled from all over the planet and used to fight terrorists. COBRA doesn’t even exist yet. Instead, it’s McCullen’s corporation M.A.R.S., which features nano-juiced neoviper soldiers who can feel no pain and melt at the touch of a button. The rest of the characters are Street Fighter-ed into their roles, resembling their cartoon characters mostly in name only and retaining one or two of their original cartoony traits. Except Snake Eyes, because he makes the best toy.
The G.I. Joe’s get the shitty end of the stick, character-wise, as the writers decided unwisely to make this an origins film, so we have to watch Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) earn their way onto the Joe team through a dreadfully boring and unnecessary training montage. Tatum plays Duke like he’s channeling Peyton Manning’s imitation of Josh Hartnett, and it works in this incarnation. Duke is not so much a gung-ho leader as a boring corn-fed Nebraskan quarterback. Wayans turns in a decent performance as the comic black guy, because he is both funny and black. Rachel Nichols’ Scarlett has the requisite firecrotchengine red locks and fancy-schmancy crossbow, but since action writers don’t know how to work a vagina, she’s basically a girl who says sciencey stuff before they make her fall in love with Ripcord, because the hero has to get a girl. Nobody does aw-shucks gruff like Dennis Quaid, so he works as General Hawk if only because all he’s required to do is scowl, shout jargon, and throw an arm up in victory. Snake Eyes is required by law to look like the coolest ninja and do karate with a sword. Ray Park manages to pull that off well enough to decide what most kids will be dressing up as for Halloween this year. The rest of the team apparently was assembled from racial profiling and a hat shake, culling from the 5,000 other G.I. Joe characters named after random nouns like Shipwreck, Quick Kick, Fingercuffs, Rimjob, and Souptureen. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Mr. Eko from “Lost,” plays Heavy Duty, because they needed someone to drive things and shoot guns, and he’s really big and scary-looking. However, they saddled him with an incredibly awful cockney accent when his normal African grumble would have sufficed. And then they round things off with Said Taghmaoui as Breaker, which was nice because the poor Frenchman finally gets to fight terrorists instead of playing them.
Not to be outdone, they really managed to shit the bed for the most part on the villains. Christopher Ecceleston plays McCullen like half-Bond villain, half Scottish-pimp. He’s smooth and villainous, so it works relatively well in the pantheon of baddies who have undersea lairs. Sienna Miller actually puts in the strongest performance of the movie as The Baroness because she had the most to prove. The Baroness is a pretty weak character in the script, spending all her time kissing everyone and looking wistfully sinister, but Miller manages to make the most of her Silk Spectre II-like relegated role. Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow has to look like a cool ninja, only in an all white trenchcoat, and again, that’s all we pretty much ask. Sommers decided to throw a bone to Arnold Vosloo, his original Mummy, as Zartan, who spends most of the movie whistling “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” and looking like a douchebag. Zartan sucked in the cartoon, and he sucks in the movie. Only he looks like an Eastern European thug instead of a rejected member of Dethklok.
Then there’s poor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. If they told me I could play Cobra Commander, I’d probably jump at the chance, too. (Fuck, if they told me I could play Order the dog alongside Law the K-9 specialist, I’d do it. I need the fucking work.) Then when they showed me the script where I’m suddenly “The Doctor” and they make me dress up like The Chairman from Iron Chef, I’d be scared. When they ask me to talk through a respirator, not in the famous shrill screech of all the 1980’s cartoon villains but instead in some sort of faux Darth Vader as Dorian Grey, I’d be more concerned. I could feel the glory of all my indie cred bleeding through my blue-shaded monocle — it’s what the Monopoly Man wears to the beach during those twee Days of Summer. And when the subplot involves me being The Baroness’s scarred brother and Duke’s old best war buddy, who everyone thought dead, I’d probably raid the craft services table for all the danishes I could carry and skedaddle for a better franchise. Especially if they made the Cobra Commander mask look like The Crystal Skull. Two franchises, one cup.
From Sommers’ curriculum vitae, I had expected a little more campy fun. Sure there’s some zingers and Easter eggs peppered here and there, and he manages a few fun cameos from his old The Mummy buddies Brendan Fraser and Kevin J. O’Connor — and a deliciously ironic turn from Jonathan Pryce as the unnamed and inexplicably British-accented American President — but mostly he just lets the picture ride as generic gunfights. The action sequences get pretty stale and repetitive. Now that the technology has managed to catch up with the imagination, it’s high time the fucking imaginations started surpassing the technology again. There’s only so many ways you can film explosions that make cars and trucks flip over. Sommers does his best with a couple clever finishing moves clocked here or there, but mostly it’s faceless soldiers getting blown up and plate glass shattering everywhere. Even the much anticipated showdowns between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes register an occasional “muh.” The best fight sequence in the movie comes from a flashback between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes as children growing up in a monastery. Sure, it looks like they piped in footage from The Next Next Karate Kid, but it’s the only fight that shows imagination and creativity and cleverness. It combines humor, violence, and acrobatics — everything I had hoped from the guy who brought us the eminently watchable The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Sure, they’re campy, but they’re fun. G.I. Joe isn’t either, and that’s the ultimate failing. It can’t decide whether to be serious or silly, and so it just kind of awkwardly tries to throw in a few jokes between stuff exploding and kissin’. Nowhere is this more evident than the fucking ridiculous usage of the “super suits” which are completely useless and make the Joe team look like a cross between Robocop and Brian Dawkins. It’s a corndog special effects gimmick meant to draw heat from the Transformers crowd. Surely, they came sidling in on a cloud of Axe Body Spray eager to see more shiny things go bouncedy-bounce.
Sommers made a classic summer popcorn film. It’s hardly a masterpiece, destined to end up on TBS in heavy rotation in the next few years, a flick you have on in the background as you illegally torrent its sequel. But I didn’t leave the theatre aghast or horrified. I laughed at stuff I assuredly wasn’t supposed to — like the Baroness’s seizure-like flashbacks to the bad soap opera days of her engagement to Duke — and I like things that go boom. It makes me sad this will net a sequel and top the box office while better war movies like The Hurt Locker and Stop-Loss, which starred both Tatum and JGL, have to scrape and scrimp to get recognition. The nicest thing I can say for G.I. Joe is that it did the best it could do with its source material and target audience of ‘splosion-junkies, and it didn’t nearly blacken memories like everything else that came out this summer. It’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, and as much as I’d love to eviscerate the holy hell out of it, it’s not even worth my bladework. There’s something for everyone: the women and a few “don’t ask, don’t tell’s” will appreciate the shirtless workouts and swooning kisses, the adrenaline jocks will high five over the Marines commercial quality of the asskickery, and the hipsters will be able to nitpick the inconsistencies with the original series over cappuccinos. But the little kid in you will run out to purchase all the old-school DVDs and plastic figurines. And then your ass belongs to Hasbro.
Brian Prisco is a bitter little man stomping sour grapes into fine whine in the valleys of North Hollywood. He’s a screenwriter who’s never been professionally produced, an actor who’s never joined a guild, and a director who made one bad film. He’s one waiter apron away from a cliche, and he’s available for children’s parties. You can tell him how much you hate him at priscogospel at hotmail dot com.