Over the course of the past several months, there has been a lot of talk about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — everything from director changes to problems in the editing room to abysmal test screening results. And such is the case with any movie made from a line of toys or a comic book, these types of rumors and reports have set the internet ablaze. It is to the point where even now, as I come to you to attest to the fun ride that I have witnessed with my own two eyes, you will still remain skeptical. It is a sad situation, especially for a movie that is a lot more fun than it should’ve been. It’s a movie that is a lot tighter and well-paced than some of the other action tentpoles we’ve seen this summer. And, on its most basic level, it’s a movie worth seeing.
The story of G.I. Joe begins when Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), a pair of long-time military buddies, are tasked with transporting an extremely dangerous set of nanotechnology-based warheads. The caravan is ambushed by a group of mercenaries, led by the leather-clad Baroness (Sienna Miller), who possesses weaponry far superior to that of the NATO transport unit. It’s in the film’s opening action sequence that G.I. Joe shows you its cards. It is meant to be a silly, somewhat cartoony action movie that lives in a universe where fantastical weapons and far-fetched futuristic tech are the norm.
To echo the thoughts of a friend who saw the film with me, it is the cinematic equivalent of those epic battles you would wage in the sandbox with the Joes you pulled from the toy box of your youth. The key is that, despite its own silliness, G.I. Joe doesn’t try to step outside the sand box it’s built for itself. This first scene sets a tone by telling the audience, “Hey, I’m here. I’m going to be preposterous. Deal with it.” And knowing that is half the battle.
Of course, this obviously fantastic rendering of reality doesn’t always work out. Just because it’s based on a toy line, that doesn’t mean that the movie can be completely ridiculous. Where director Stephen Sommers wins this battle is in the way that his movie always stays within itself. It is silly, but never too silly. It has ridiculous elements, but everything seems to fit within the world. It’s unapologetically a work of futuristic fantasy, and absolutely not the gritty, real-world actioner that some of you are hoping for. If you can come to terms with that, you’re in for a ride.
We follow Duke and Ripcord as they are reluctantly recruited by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) to join the ranks of the Alpha Team, the G.I. Joes — an international strike force that uses the most advanced technology known to man in order to thwart international terrorist plots. We see The Pit, the home of the Joes, which offers a comical “military training is happening” moment complete with a cameo by Brendan Fraser, but one that only amps up the incredibly large scale absurdity that is at the core of this film.
From the opening convoy to a badass accelerator suit-fueled cat-and-mouse through the streets of Paris (culminating in the destruction of the Eiffel Tower) — from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the skies — you are placed in the thick of the battle. The plot is fueled by the action; definitely not vice versa. You emerge form this non-stop fightfest, but only in the final moments before the credits, with just enough time to wrap it up tightly and weave the story into something requiring a sequel. The story and its thin-yet-surprisingly-adequate dialogue exists for three reasons: 1) to “movie-ize” the playthings of youth with some backstory, 2) to give you a somewhat palpable reason to be watching massive destruction and explosions, gun battles, girl fights, and even child ninjas kicking the everloving shit out of each other, and 3) to make you chuckle. This is a big win for a simple, suspension-of-disbelief-heavy action film — which succeeds in keeping the engagement high, so that you don’t stop to question the science behind the fiction. (Spoiler alert: Don’t.) The action set pieces are well-shot with keen use of frame, and even though the CGI looks unfinished a bit cartoony in spots, it all coalesces pretty well to propel the story forward. And G.I. Joe, much to its own advantage, moves at a blistering pace.
For me, it is the pacing that really makes it. Clocking in at 118 minutes of runtime is one thing, but doing it in a way that makes the movie fly by is another. Pacing was a problem for Michael Bay’s early summer flick, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Bay’s movie felt bigger than it needed to be. Thanks to an efficient story and restrained character development, Sommers’s movie takes us many places — on, off, and under the surface of the earth — but plays out more like a roller coaster ride to Transformers 2‘s cross-country explosion sight-seeing tour. There are as many small problems in this movie as there are big victories — unnecessarily, overcomplicated and gaudy architecture in MARS Technologies underwater facility, a few badly rendered vehicles, and cheesy CGI landscape pans — but tight pacing of the good stuff just makes this critic not care.
The acting, for what little it is used, is surprisingly solid. Despite the week-old cheese performance that Channing Tatum can’t seem to avoid, his acting is on par with the film’s story — it’s good enough. Marlon Wayans is the surprise stand-out, bantering back and forth with anyone within earshot and delivering the film’s funniest moments. Rachel Nichols, whose character is only interesting because of her converging storyline with Wayans’s Ripcord, is also quite fun. And for those wondering about Snake Eyes, the film’s silent but deadly ninja badass, just know that he is done right. Ray Park rules, and one of these days a director is going to make him talk.
The villains are also fun. Arnold Vosloo (The Mummy) shows up as the uber-creepy Zartan, a sidebar character whose constant whistling will have you looking forward to a Joe sequel. Joseph Gordon-Levitt completely disappears into his role as The Doctor, who is a devious little bastard if I’ve ever seen one. He’s reminiscent of the human experimenting doctors of the Third Reich. As the big bad Destro, Christopher Eccleston is a classically-natured, rather slimy villain. In the film’s climactic final battle scene — one that puts the anti-climax of Terminator Salvation out to pasture — he presents the Joes with a situation of peril, in which there could actually be quite a few casualties and some global consequences. It isn’t the peril of the beach of Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan, but it is enough to keep us engaged and rooting for the good guys to triumph over the bad, a line that is clearly drawn in the sand from moment one.
If you go in expecting an Iron Man, you’re in for a big disappointment. Seeing G.I. Joe hearkens back the experience I had seeing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a young boy. If I were to look back at TMNT with fresh eyes now, I wouldn’t like it as much. Having seen it as a child, that movie has a special place in my heart. The same can be said for G.I. Joe, and for this generation of young boys. And those young boys and their families? That is who will love this film. This is not an adult movie; this is a family-friendly, youthful movie. Go see it; but don’t expect it to be a movie made specifically for you. Unless, of course, you’re a ten year-old boy.
In the end, G.I. Joe is simple spectacle. A movie that, while silly and in many ways over-the-top, can deliver an experience that is deliriously fun. And it is fun. Quick. Exciting. And fun. It sets you in a world that is cartoony and larger then life, propels you through one big chase and ultimately delivers the goods and the explosions. It is this kind of efficient, fun-natured storytelling that could make G.I. Joe one of the best action movies of the summer. That is, if you can look past all of that bad buzz and actually give it a chance.
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