Yo-o-o-o, ‘Joe’! Let’s Blow Up Toys an’ Stuff!

Once Paramount Pictures and Hasbro joined forces on the live-action TRANSFORMERS (2007), was there ever any doubt that the G.I. Joe toy line would be far behind? The project went through several years of “development hell” following the 9/11 attacks and international backlash against the U.S./Iraq War. A balance needed to be reached that would give Americans their flag-waving moments, without completely alienating the lucrative overseas markets. So, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA is as much of a political compromise as an artistic one.
Good guys wear black, bad guys wear black. Yo, Joe, that's confusing!
Good guys wear black, bad guys wear black. Yo, Joe, that's confusing!

The old ’80s G.I. Joe toy line, and its monthly Marvel Comics book and accompanying half-hour animated series, spawned legions of rabid fans. I wasn’t one of them. I was certainly aware of the figures, having played with the original, twelve-inch ones in the ’60s and ’70s. When Kenner Toys’ 3 3/4-inch STAR WARS toys became hugely successful, Hasbro down-scaled the Joes,  creating an entire team of men and women, as well as the evil Cobra organization, hell-bent on world domination. The film takes the Marvel comics as their primary inspiration, and Marvel’s G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama was hired as a consultant. Much online anxiety over the treatment of the beloved characters and their globalization resulted in untold hours of message board chest-thumping and hair-pulling. All over little plastic army men that fit in your shirt pocket, and were often tied to firecrackers and blown to plastic bits!

After a prologue featuring the backstory of 17th century Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen’s (David Murray) branding as a traitor and imprisonment in an iron mask, we shoot forward to the “Not too distant future,” where descendant James McCullen XXIV (Christopher Eccleston) runs the weapons company MARS Industries. MARS is set to deliver new nano-mite technology warheads to NATO, featuring microscopic robots that can decay any metal and use it to self-replicate. The delivery is being overseen by soldiers Conrad “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum) and Wallace “Ripcord” Weems (Marlon Wayans), when they are attacked by mysterious warriors using sonic-based weapons. Leading the ambush is The Baroness (Sienna Miller), whom Duke recognizes as his ex-fiancee, Ana Lewis. Baroness gets away without the warheads, but Duke and Ripcord are rescued by a sophisticated assault team: Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Snake Eyes (Ray Parks), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Breaker (Said Taghmaoui). They transport the two to The Pit, headquarters of G.I. JOE (Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity) in Egypt, where the best military and tactical operatives from around the world operate in secret to combat global threats. Leader General Clayton “Hawk” Abernathy (Dennis Quaid) recruits Duke and Ripcord into G.I. Joe after learning that Duke knows The Baroness’ true identity.

Like his ancestor, McCullen is playing both sides, using his nano-mites to create an army of super-soldiers with the aid of the scarred genius, The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He plans to use the nano-mite warheads to create a global panic, resulting in a worldwide arms build-up. He uses a code to activate a tracking device in the warhead case, and sends The Baroness, ninja Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee), and disguise expert Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), to infiltrate The Pit. After a fierce battle, Baroness and her army of Neo-Vipers escape with the warheads. She returns to Paris where her scientist husband, Baron DeCobray, is forced to active the warheads before Storm Shadow executes him. As the Joes track the warhead case, thanks to Breaker, they race through the streets of Paris, trying to stop her from firing the warhead at the Eiffel Tower. Using advanced, armored Accelerator Suits, Duke and Ripcord are still too late to stop Storm Shadow from firing the missile and destroying the landmark. Duke is able to hit the kill switch on Baroness’ control unit, keeping the devastation to a minimum, but he’s captured by her in the process and taken to McCullen Arctic Headquarters.

The Joes locate McCullen base and fly to rescue Duke and retrieve the remaining warheads. McCullen fires the three remaining missiles, although Snake Eyes is able to disable one. Ripcord steals a prototype Night Raven jet and pursues the other two missiles, while The Doctor attempts to convert Duke into one of his Neo-Vipers. During the process, The Doctor is revealed to be Ana’s brother, Rex Lewis, a computer genius thought killed in a mission four years earlier. He survived, but was burned and rescued by MARS scientist Dr. Mindbender (Kevin J. O’Connor), joining McCullen’s organization as its chief scientist. Although he’s kept his identity a secret from his sister, he’s been controlling her mind with nano-mites injected into her brain. During the missile crisis, as one hurtles towards Washington, D.C., Zartan breaks into the White House and assumes the identity of a Secret Service agent. Meanwhile, Breaker, Scarlett, Heavy Duty, and Snake Eyes infiltrate the base. Snake Eyes duels his former rival, Storm Shadow, while Ana overcomes the nano-mites and sets Duke free. As the battle outside in the Arctic Ocean intensifies, McCullen attempts to kill Duke, but is burned instead. Rex drags McCullen into an escape sub, injecting him with nano-mites to heal his burns and control his mind, his face encased in living metal; Rex then declares himself the Cobra Commander. But the Joes close in and capture the two. The world is saved, and Ana is put into protective custody aboard the supercarrier U.S.S. Flagg while Joe scientists try to figure out how to remove the nano-mites. Crisis over, the President (Jonathan Pryce) returns to the Oval Office, whistling the same tune as Zartan from his previous scenes!

So, a fast-paced, big-budgeted blockbuster based on a toy line can’t be all bad, right? Well, no, not all bad. Just pretty damned cornball, with giant plot inconsistencies, way too many characters vying for our attention, and lots of scenery-chewing by some fairly talented players. The special effects are hit-and-miss, with the Accelerator Suits looking decent but the nano-mites basically a cross between Herbert West’s re-animation juice and toy store-grade slime. Most of the actors play it straight, although Gordon-Levitt is channeling both Darth Vader and The Emperor from RETURN OF THE JEDI as The Doctor/Cobra Commander. Tatum is a bit too bland as Duke, but Wayans achieves a good balance between action and comedy as Ripcord. Miller slithers across the screen convincingly as The Baroness, but her flashbacks as Ana Lewis are pretty pedestrian. The rest of the cast is competent, and Ray Parks has all the moves for Snake Eyes, but this mute character is too close to his Darth Maul from THE PHANTOM MENACE for comfort.

Director Stephen Sommers took on the project for its James Bondish qualities, and there are more than enough nods to that franchise for casual fans to note. It’s not the total misfire that was VAN HELSING, but it’s not nearly as fun as his 1999 remake of THE MUMMY. It’s closest to his THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001), which also ramped up the action by sacrificing what little characterization THE MUMMY had to offer. (THE MUMMY’s Brendan Fraser even has a cameo as Sgt. Stone.) Movie-based action figures and other toys glutted the shelves for months, and more than a year later still can be found alongside Hasbro’s new “Pursuit of Cobra” toys. With a worldwide box-office take of $302.5 million, Sommers is already on tap to direct a sequel, to be scripted by ZOMBIELAND’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. I’m sure it already has G.I. Joe purists frothing at their keyboards, but at this point all they can really hope for is a better film, not the action figure equivalent of THE SANDS OF IWO JIMO.

G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA (U.S. premiere: Aug. 7, 2009). Directed by: Stephen Sommers. Screenplay by: Stuart Beattie and David Elliot & Paul Lovett. Starring: Dennis Quaid – General Clayton “Hawk” Abernathy, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje – Hershell “Heavy Duty” Dalton, Channing Tatum – Conrad “Duke” Hauser, Marlon Wayans – Wallace “Ripcord” Weams, Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Rex “The Doctor” Lewis/Cobra Commander.

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