by Scott Mendelson
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a movie that remembers the very basics that so many big-budget action films have forgotten. The action scenes are creative and cleanly edited with a clear sense of time, space, and geography. While there is plenty of CGI vehicle destruction, there are also plenty of real stunts and real rough-and-tumble fight scenes. The heroes are engaging and distinguishable amidst the carnage, and the villains are appropriately colorful and entertaining. At its best, the film resembles what adventures you might create if you took your action figure playsets and gave them a $175 million budget to work with. And yes, I mean that as a compliment.
A token amount of plot - Following a prologue set in France in 1641 (no kidding...), the film opens in that oh-so-convenient 'not-so distant future'. Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are entrusted with delivering a new 'nanobot' weapon created by arms merchant McCullen (a terrifically scenery-chewing Christopher Eccleston). Little do they know that the Scottish Tony Stark is playing both sides, and they are soon ambushed by a terrorist organization bent on stealing the weapon for their own nefarious purposes. At the last minute, rescue comes in the form on an elite group of international fighting men and women. Known only as GI Joe, the group prevents the theft and whisks our heroes to safety. Duke and Ripcord use Duke's prior knowledge of The Baroness (Siena Miller) to gain admittance into this top-secret organization. Can the Joes stop this mysterious terrorist network from using the nanobot technology to settle a four-hundred year-old vendetta, or will McCullen and his venomous plans lead the world to destruction?
Look, none of this is intended to be high art, but the film mostly works in ways that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen could only dream about. The difference is that this adaptation from a popular 80s toy line actually gives moviegoers what they came to see. Rather than pad a few action beats with overly contrived exposition, crude ethnic stereotypes, and vulgar sexual slapstick, director Stephen Summers stays strictly business for most of the film's brisk 118-minute running time. You want a film about bad ass GI Joes facing off against the organization that will eventually become Cobra? That's exactly what you get. You want memorable villains and square-jawed heroes? You've got at least half a dozen notable heroes and at least five representatives of evil (which is key to having an exciting action scene, so you always have someone familiar to cut to). You want high adventure and action scenes that give you stunts that you've never seen before? There's a 10-15 minute chase scene through Paris, the only one involving those infamous 'accelerator suits', that is absolutely breathtaking both in its logistics and its narrative logic. Yes the collateral damage in this scene is astonishing, but I never cared about innocent bystanders when I played with my action figures either. Frankly, the picture is every bit as violent, gruesome, and as corpse-ridden as the action dramas I mapped out when I was ten-years old, which makes me shocked that it got a PG-13.
Considering the source material, the plot makes a surprising amount of sense, give or take a few minor plot holes (it helps that the storyline is as simple as possible). While the film is mainly bereft of clever dialogue, it also wins points for not trying to be particularly witty or self-satisfyingly clever. These are adults who deal in the business of death, and they only crack wise when they need a distraction from the bullets or explosions. While the film doesn't particularly take itself seriously, it also refuses to wink a the audience. While no one in the cast will put this at the top of their highlight reel, only Sienna Miller and Channing Tatum offer what might be called mediocre performances. Most refreshing is the treatment of the female characters. While both Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) and the Baroness are acknowledged as very attractive women, they neither give or receive special treatment in the action scenes. Both inflict and take severe punishment and Summers never does the whole 'wow, it's girls kicking ass... how progressive!' bit that so many others stoop to.
There are four major action set-pieces, and each one both moves the plot along and gives each major character a specific purpose and role. Unlike other ensemble films where the big star got most if not all of the major action beats (think Mission: Impossible 3 or The Kingdom), every Joe and every 'not-yet-Cobra' villain gets various highlight moments. You get ninja duels (Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow go at it several times), crossbow shoot-outs, fights to the death above high precipices, vehicle chases, and everything else you want to see in a movie like this. Unfortunately, the kinetic blast that carries the film right up to the climax is undone by a screenwriting trap that cannot be plausibly be written out of. First of all, there is a lack of suspense in the climax, as we are given several heroes and villains who more or less cannot be killed for the sake of the eventual sequel. Furthermore, the token attempt at back story creates a quagmire that causes several increasingly stupid climactic revelations. This climaxes in the neutering of a major fan-favorite character that will likely infuriate hardcore fans.
But for at least that initial ninety-minutes or so, the movie is an effective action-adventure spectacle. This is absolutely a GI Joe movie in the sense that the kid in us only dreamed about seeing onscreen. It works despite its flaws and inherent silliness. It's fun, exciting, occasionally eye-popping, and completely entertaining. It has great actors (Christopher Eccleston, Jonathan Pryce, Dennis Quaid) hamming it up and inventive action scenes that are worth seeing on a big screen. How can you not love a movie that casts famous Brit Jonathan Pryce as the President of the United States and lets him keep his accent? But in a movie like this, getting the action adventure basics just right is half the battle right there. I think you can guess what the other 50% is.
To see how this tent-pole compares to the other summer action spectacles, such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator Salvation, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, check out Mendelson's Memos.