Arriving amid an avalanche of bad buzz and diminished expectations the much hyped, long developed G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra surprises by being a lot of fun. It’s not a typical action movie for these cynical postmodern cinematic times. Nothing about it is deep or groundbreaking; it doesn’t re-imagine the Joes in any sort of gritty contemporary context and a lightness of being permeates every scene. It is, put simply, an unabashed work of pure entertainment made without the slightest agenda beyond replicating the look and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon.
As the picture begins Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) talk their way onto the super elite G.I. Joe squad run by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), which features an international roster of highly trained soldiers. Grand hubbub happens when the Baroness (Sienna Miller), working for an evil crime syndicate headed by maniacal businessman McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) snatches briefcases full of weapons containing a powerful corrosive substance called nanomite. The Joes hunt down the terrorists, Duke frequently flashes back to his failed romance with the Baroness, real name Ana, and a cavalcade of action scenes move things along briskly.
The movie, directed by Stephen Sommers (The Mummy trilogy), practically luxuriates in its stupidity. The stars gleefully overact, with Quaid appearing to relish each syllable of his excited jingoistic declarations, Miller having a great time vamping it up in leather and heels and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as the villainous The Doctor, adopting the husky evil voice characteristic of seriously deranged movie villains. The pulpy background details – Duke and Ana’s failed romance, the rivalry between Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) – lend the narrative an appropriate touch of low-rent melodrama that works because it so willingly indulges in its base, simplistic emotions. The film asks the audience to strip away its cynicism, forgo any desire to see the complexities of reality reflected onscreen and fully indulge in the earnest yearning and broadly drawn motivations driving the characters.
It may seem like damning with faint praise to credit Sommers and his crew for choreographing the action scenes coherently, but in the age of Michael Bay and never ending shock cuts such traits can no longer be taken lightly. In G.I. Joe the set pieces span a wealth of locations and a multitude of characters spliced together with urgency and a strong sense of spatial relations. The extended jaunt through Paris, in which the Joes hurdle through speeding traffic and swarm a high-rise stands out for the premium it places on location and for its evocation of the dynamics of a coherent chase scene, the production of which has in many respects become a lost art.
Lest one be confused by the rather enthused tone of this review, I should be clear: G.I. Joe is by no means high art. It’s not as satisfying an experience as the best summer entertainment of recent years, and at times its steadfast unwillingness to see beyond itself does more harm than good. The commercial ambitions of a big summer action epic designed around a tie-in with an iconic toy franchise are apparent in every carefully calculated frame and it’d be hard to stomach too many more movies commoditized to within an inch of their life. But one would be hard pressed to find a more infectiously made cinematic venture that’s also designed for the lowest common denominator. There’s a certain genius to this kind of stupidity, to producing a product that so openly embraces being a product, and G.I. Joe displays it in spades.