G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (more about that subtitle in a second) strikes almost the perfect tone for an adaptation of a cartoon based on a toy, and in that sense it has been done a grave disservice by its marketing campaign. The trailers make it look like G.I. Joe is a special forces squad made up of a few members who go around the world killing terrorists. In actuality, G.I. Joe is a huge organization with hundreds of members (although most of them are red shirts) and dozens of jets, submarines, and skimobiles each more advanced than anything currently existing today. It’s totally ludicrous, but it’s also faithful to the cartoon in that way. And it’s the right choice. Taking this stuff seriously would have been made an awful movie.
And that’s basically all you need to know if you’re deciding whether or not to see the movie. It’s a cartoon in “live action” (I put that in quotes because about 70% of the movie is CGI anyway), and as far as such things go, it almost consistently has some kind of action going on to keep your eyeballs entertained. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then this movie may represent money well-spent. If not, then there’s absolutely no reason for you to see this movie.
So on to the specifics. I am on record saying that I’m not bothered by the changes that have been made to the source material, and as it turns out, there haven’t been THAT many changes. A few of the characters have changed ethnicity, and Scarlet no longer has a romantic relationship with Snake Eyes (which is too bad because I really wanted to see him trying to be romantic using only gestures). And yes, the characters generally wear black although it’s not that hard to tell them apart because unlike many directors, Stephen Sommers generally keeps his actors’ faces in full view during the action. The accelerator suits have been controversial, but they are only in the movie for one scene. The trailer makes them look much more important than they really are. There are still a few fanboys who aren’t happy with the changes that have been made to the characters and think the movie is going to be terrible as a result. At this point, my honest feeling is those fanboys can go blow a shark. Even though I’m pretty sure Breaker wasn’t originally Moroccan, I just don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, the only unbreakable rule is that Snake Eyes cannot talk, and he doesn’t in this movie (this leads to a probably unintentional running gag whenever the characters stop to stare in awe or surprise at something. Since Snake Eyes can’t say, “Wow!” or anything, he doesn’t waste time staring and simply kills something while everyone else watches).
Considering the mostly terrible dialogue they have to work with, it’s actually surprising that the actors don’t do any worse in their roles. It should come as no surprise that Ray Park’s Snake Eyes makes the best impression since he doesn’t have to speak any corny lines. As I’ve said before, Stephen Sommers doesn’t employ too much rapid cutting and otherwise allows Park to exercise his considerable physical skills (I’m pretty sure that some scenes were done by Park’s stunt double, but there’s obviously no way to tell). It is impossible to judge the acting skill of the rest of the good guys since they have no real character to develop. Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Marlon Wayans doesn’t get annoying despite being the designated African-American comic relief. It’s also worth noting that everybody gets a chance to shine and do something to save the day. It’s also interesting that Scarlet takes on a de facto leadership role in the last mission and everybody else just follows along. Also, everyone other than Breaker gets to kill lots of bad guys.
Now the villains are a different matter. The actors in those roles (only one of whom is American, interestingly) all appear to be having fun, and they cheese things up appropriately. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as The Doctor is particularly fun. The only character who might receive complaints is the Baroness, played by Sienna Miller. Partly this is again due to the script which gives her a prior romantic relationship with Duke that I don’t think was strictly necessary. I suspect forcing Miller to perform with an American accent instead of her natural British may also be a contributing factor. Oh well. She still looks great in black leather.
The special effects are far from perfect. In fact, a lot of scenes look downright cartoonish, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Stephen Sommers has arguably done a better job shooting his action scenes than Michael Bay has done with Transformers since you can always tell what’s going on. You still don’t really give a damn, but the movie doesn’t pretend that you should either. The only parts when the movie falls flat are during flashbacks showing the shared past of Duke and Baroness which requires us to care about characters who are totally cardboard. Those scenes make up only a small portion of the movie, however, and the rest is pure action eye candy.
Could it be that G.I. Joe, against all odds and despite all impressions from its horrible marketing campaign, is actually one of the best action movies this summer? Well, the thing to keep in mind is that statement is really a very backhanded compliment. It’s competing against Wolverine, Transformers 2 and Terminator: Salvation, after all. Your preferences for these movies is probably going to be shaped by how much you like each particular fandom. Star Trek clearly stands above them all, and after that I would say that G.I. Joe is probably the one least likely to make you regret buying a movie ticket (although I have a soft spot for Terminator: Salvation). Looking back over this review, I find that I’ve said nothing that I really haven’t already said in the first two paragraphs. Sorry to have wasted your time, but if you’re reading this sentence, you really should have decided whether you want to see this movie by now.
So about that subtitle: apparently marketing studies have shown that popular entertainment sells better when there is a colon in the title somewhere and a subtitle following it, even if it’s not a sequel to anything. I guess the idea is that sort of thing makes it look like the latest sequel in a larger property. Thus we have Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Halo: Combat Evolved, Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever, and G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I mention this just in case you get the wrong impression from my review that this movie is anything other than a cynical, focus-group tested, mass-marketed product.