When the film opens, a military convoy is escorting a shipment of nanobot-filled warheads when it is ambushed by a mysterious team that has superior weapons and equipment. The raid is led by the Baroness (Sienna Miller), a black leather-clad femme fatale who works for McCullen (Doctor Who’s Christopher Eccleston), the arms manufacturer whose company made the warheads in the first place. Evidently, McCullen has decided to take over the world, and he wants to use his warheads to do it.
The survivors of the raid, soldiers nicknamed Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are recruited into G.I. Joe, a top-secret multinational military group led by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid). The boys are joined on the team by Heavy Duty (Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), so called because he’s gigantic; Breaker (Saďd Taghmaoui), the technology expert; and Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), a buxom redhead who’s also a physicist and an expert marksman.
As one might expect from this film, the script is the movie’s weakest point. This is the kind of film in which there are a lot of earnest exclamations like, “Eject!” or, “He’s taken the nanomites into the upper atmosphere!”
There are attempts at character development, but it’s all in the kind of Superman-Lex Luthor school of characterization, in which everybody knew each other before the villains became evil. Duke used to date the Baroness, and knew the man who would become Cobra Commander. And each team has a ninja among its ranks — Snake Eyes (Ray Park) for the Joes and Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee) for Cobra — and the two of course knew each other as children.
The movie really isn’t an actor’s showcase, so the cast members who acquit themselves the best are those who can have fun and make their personalities come across. Eccleston has a mighty sneer as McCullen. Akkinuoye-Agbaje seems to be having fun whenever we see him. And Gordon-Levitt, playing a character called The Doctor (who will later become Cobra Commander), is absolutely nuts as he snarls his way through the movie under prosthetic make-up and a mask. The cast’s only real weak spot is Tatum, who certainly looks the part of a soldier, but unfortunately lacks the ability to make me believe anything he says. That’s kind of a liability for an actor.
The movie’s director is Stephen Sommers, who is well-known for making very huge, very silly action movies. Some are quite a bit of fun (The Mummy, the oceanbound creature feature Deep Rising), and some (The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing) make you want to punch the director. Here though, Sommers really knows what he’s doing. Much like the X-Men films, G.I. Joe quashes the characters’ individual costumes and stuffs everybody into identical black leather, but otherwise the movie really seems to understand the property it is adapting. The movie is full of laser guns, huge explosions, gigantic secret bases and elaborate plans to take over the world, everything a G.I. Joe fan could want.
And that includes truly huge and impressive action sequences. The action in the film is massive and thrilling, and with every successive set-piece Sommers keeps raising the bar. Nothing is too big or too stupid to try.
One of the main action set-pieces of the film involves G.I. Joe destroying half of Paris in an effort to prevent Cobra from destroying the Eiffel Tower. Several years ago, the opening sequence of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet opus Team America: World Police did pretty much the exact same thing, pitched as satire of American empiricism. The fact that G.I. Joe can play this scene straight after Team America is kind of amazing, but there is no place for satire here. The movie is far too earnest for that. It just wants to have fun. Bear that in mind when the Joes are blithely mind-raping the corpse of a Cobra soldier in order to obtain information.
It seems a little too on-the-nose to call G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra “cartoonish,” but that’s exactly what it is, and in a good way. My standards may have been lowered by the soul-stomping horror that was Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but this movie is thoroughly entertaining. The movie finds a tone that suits it — that of broad gonzo spectacle — and delivers a huge blast of late-summer fun. Taken as a drama, the movie is definitely flawed, but as pure, delirious, action-movie silliness, it’s very hard to resist.