The best G.I. Joe adventures are in the imaginations of the 10-year-old boys who play with the action figures, and attempting to recreate that magic in movie form is a fool’s errand. But since Hollywood has no shortage of fools in need of errands, we have “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which at its best is kind of fun and at its worst only kind of stupid.
Being only mildly aware of the 1980s cartoon that is the reference point for most of the movie’s potential fans, I’m in no position to comment on whether the film is “faithful” to it. (Whether a cartoon that was created solely to sell toys even deserves fidelity is another matter.) I do know that someone says “Knowing is half the battle” at one point, and that the characters have the same names as the cartoon characters. If those factors, accompanied by abundant fights and explosions, are your criteria for a successful “G.I. Joe” adaptation, then I believe you will not be disappointed.
If your criteria include good acting, a good screenplay, and good direction, however, then we’re in trouble. Stephen Sommers, the mildly competent auteur behind the “Mummy” franchise and “Van Helsing,” directs “G.I. Joe” with the glee of a kid playing with his toys, and his trio of writers are like-minded. Unfortunately, they also have the talent of that kid. The story is incredibly simple: bad guy has deadly weapon; elite military task force known as G.I. Joe must stop him from using it. I heard dialogue that included these lines:
“Deploy the sharks!”
“Kill them! Kill all the Joes! Detonate the ice pack!”
“You and what army??” (This is said to someone who is, in fact, accompanied by an army.)
I can imagine all of these lines being exclaimed by a little boy as he improvises dialogue in a fiery G.I. Joe battle conducted on the living-room couch, with He-Man and Transformers reservists being called up to active duty as required by the severity of the war. Coming from the mouths of grown-ups, however, in a movie that cost $175 million to make, it all seems pretty silly. I’m undecided on how much of that silliness is by design and how much is the result of a director and writers who just couldn’t come up with anything better.
The film is set, just like “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” “in the not too distant future.” Army dudes Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are ambushed while transporting a top-secret weapon, and Duke is astonished to see that one of the ambushers is his ex-girlfriend, Ana (Sienna Miller). He freezes up and fails to kill her, marking the first of approximately one thousand times over the course of the film that his feelings will prevent him from doing his duty.
Observing all of this is a secret military operation called G.I. Joe, which appears to be under the control of the U.S. government but which has members from a variety of countries and has its headquarters underneath the pyramids of Egypt. G.I. Joe’s leader, General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), invites Duke and Ripcord to join his team, apparently very impressed by their failure to keep top-secret weapons out of the hands of evildoers.
The other Joes, as they are called, include Snake Eyes (Ray Park), who never speaks; Breaker (Said Taghmaoui), who is the communications specialist; Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who’s in charge of blowing things up; and Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), who is a girl. Brendan Fraser appears for 30 seconds, has one or two lines of dialogue, and then never appears again for the rest of the movie. Wikipedia tells me he played Sgt. Stone. Good for him!
The bad guy is a weapons dealer named McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), aided by a deformed mad scientist played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. There’s also a doctor named — this can’t be right — Dr. Mindbender? And Dr. Hundtkinder? Come on, movie. I wasn’t born yesterday. What are the characters really called?
After Duke and Ripcord undergo a rigorous training montage, they head out with the other Joes to stop the villains. They get to wear accelerator suits, which increase their strength, stamina, and speed, leading to a genuinely entertaining action sequence in Paris. The rest of the film’s action scenes aren’t thrilling so much as they are incessant.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dennis Quaid sink their teeth into the cheesy dialogue they have to utter. Marlon Wayans is good at saying the types of things that lame-brained screenwriters think the Black Character should say. Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller, meanwhile, display the emotional range of a fish, and not a very charismatic fish, either.
Unlike “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which cynically (and, it turns out, correctly) assumed that it could make money without even trying to tell a coherent story, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” seems earnest in its efforts. In other words, while it’s not very good, at least it’s not aggressively bad. The adventures you conjured up as a youth were probably more exciting, but let’s face it, they didn’t involve Rachel Nichols in a form-fitting rubber combat suit.
C (1 hr., 58 min.; )