G.I. Joe: an inferior feature-length toy commercial

by Glen Baity

In my cousin Alan’s old backyard are dozens of unmarked graves, each containing the mangled corpse of a brave warrior. I know, because I helped dig. Duke. Lady Jaye. Shipwreck. Sgt. Slaughter. Destro. Zartan. One by one, we tortured them, snapped the rubber bands that connected their torsos to their legs and buried the evidence. This is my confession. We loved GI Joe, and we were young boys, which means our love was maybe just a little sadistic. In my defense, I never kicked a puppy. But I did steer many a Joe into the heart of darkness. I tell you this only so you’ll know that I approach the series’ live action debut from a place full of fond memories festooned with GI Joe decals. If you didn’t come of age in the ’80s, never saw the cartoon and its attendant toys through the eyes of an adolescent male, you can’t really understand just how awesome GI Joe was. The characters were vivid, ridiculous and fun, with code names like “Airborne” and “Deep Six” that indicated their roles in the Joe organization. They fought a war in which nobody ever died — if there were three people in the plane and the plane exploded, you could expect to see three parachutes just clear of the blast radius. And the lasers! Oh, the blue and red lasers. But I digress. Suffice it say that everything about it — the plot, the dialogue, the daffy central conflict between the Joes and worlddomination-seeking terrorist outfit Cobra — stretched the boundaries of the outlandish. Though it’s nowhere near as fun, nearly all of the above (minus the “no dying” part) could also be said about GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, an origin story for a universe that couldn’t need it less. This CGI-charged Joe is weird, shallow and frenetic, as was the series that spawned it. But it’s a whole different animal, and not nearly as cuddly. The film chronicles the genesis of Cobra, a shadow organization run by the Baroness (Sienna Miller), her creepy brother Max (Joseph Gordon Levitt, whose character doesn’t rise to the level of Cobra Commander until the end) and arms dealer McCullen (Christopher Eccleston). The trio conspires to steal a warhead loaded with metal-devouring nanobots, which can take down a city if unleashed. It’s up to General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), Duke (Channing Tatum) and a cast of far too many to take them down. Director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing) obviously watched a few Joe episodes to prepare, and he does his best to make his action movie cartoonish and wild. Unfortunately, there’s no escaping the fact that live action is not animation, and there are many things you can pull off in a cartoon that you cannot pull off with real people. Consequently, what is quaint and charming in an ’80s cartoon seems, when carried out by fleshand-blood actors, like a compendium of every action movie cliché ever. Not that it should matter much if you’re a part of this film’s 10-year-old target demographic. That’s right: If you’re looking to The Rise of Cobra for nostalgia, you have wandered down the wrong dark alley. These Joes use real bullets, bleed and swear (though not as much as the soldier in your typical war movie). Go buy a DVD player and spend some quality time with GI Joe: Season 1 if you want to relive your childhood, because there is one element this film shares with its predecessor: Both exist for the sole purpose of selling toys to kids. Only now it’s your kids. The Rise of Cobra doesn’t care about you or your nostalgia. Not really. It wants its action figures in your 10-year-old’s bedroom, and eventually, in a potter’s field behind his house. And if you take your kids with you to the movie, you will be buying them the goods.

Bet on it. That’s because this film, like the series, is a vehicle for vehicles, and playsets, and action figures. The Rise of Cobra is full of cool gadgets that make it feel like James Bond for pre-teens (really, hats off to the production design team). I could prattle on about its endless flaws — like the bad acting, the unbelievably corny script, the stable of unnecessary and poorly developed characters — but what’s the point? The film is exactly what you think it is: a ludicrous exercise in ham-fisted storytelling underwritten by a toy company. If you’re willing to throw your hands up and go with it, it’s completely possible to have a good time, but locate your brain’s off switch before the theater lights go down. Now you know. And knowing is half the battle. The other half? Watching the movie.

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