GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
If you had shown me GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra when I was 12 years old, it would have usurped The Empire Strikes Back as my favorite movie of all time. In the intervening 22 years movies such as The Dark Knight, Iron Man and X-Men 2 have taken beloved franchises and translated them to the screen successfully, raising the bar, along with expectations. What still hold in my mind as the most successful of these interpretations are the first two Spider-Man movies; they were true to the source material in spirit, while changing it in subtle and inconsequential ways to modernize it for the mass-market audience not steeped in the historical lore. It can be debated what the least-successful attempts were (Superman Returns anyone? Batman Forever maybe?), but what they held in common was a disregard for canon, throwing scraps to the fanboys while rewriting the characters entirely for reasons unknown, in all probability, even to them.
While GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra doesn’t quite measure up to the heights of Sam Raimi’s masterpieces, it stays far enough from the lows of Rattner-era X-Men to make it an overall success in my mind. While I am more likely to concentrate on what I see as flaws, since I’ve written and rewritten, cast and re-cast, directed and redirected this movie almost continuously in my head since 1987, this movie doesn’t have a shortage of successes.
One of those successes is in the casting. Too often in summer blockbusters you have people cast because they’re pretty, or they’re famous, but not generally because they fit the character or can act. Here, with a few exceptions, the actors chosen both embody the characters they play and turn in performances above the station of movies like this. I think that can at least partly be attributed to the method they chose for shooting the movie. While the CGI is layered on in glistening and gleaming clumps, the majority is shot on sets or in “real” locations, and with the exception of the “Accelerator Suit” scenes, there are no all-CGI characters to interact with. Two attributes that without fail bring out the worst in actors are green screens and CGI character (see: Episodes 1 through 3), and for the most part that’s not found here.
The main performances are especially strong, which helps the movie immeasurably. On the bad guys’ side, Sienna Miller as The Baroness is particularly good–she comes off as smart, and the equal of any of the other characters on screen. When it comes time for her to be a conflicted character, that is handled subtly, which says something when you’re dealing with a movie like this. Plus, of all the characters, she is by far the best likeness of what was suggested by the comics, cartoons, and toys. Another performance that I liked was that of Christopher Eccleston as Destro. Though it didn’t really fit with the character that had been established in the comics, I liked that they made him out to be a guy that was smart enough and had enough gravitas, to get into a place of power, but still was insecure and putting off a vibe that he was in over his head. I thought it was handled really well. Finally, Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a really nice job as the doctor, playing up the absurd “Vincent Price” angle without ever descending into camp. And, of course, Arnold Vosloo as Zartan is awesome.
There aren’t quite as many memorable performances on the Joes’ side, but I don’t think it’s so much the acting as it is the script. A lot of the characters aren’t given as much to work with as the folks on the MARS/Cobra side. I thought Duke was fine, but I agree that he should have been Falcon or even Flint instead of the Duke character. The best actor for the role of how I see Duke would have to be someone along the lines of George Clooney–a little older, and more in control. Tatum O’Neil (or whoever) did a fine job of playing the hothead young gun with a lot of potential, it just didn’t fit with the established character. If the movie existed in a vacuum, this would be a non-issue. Marlon Wayans worked well as a character that was comic relief through what he said and not so much with what he did. He came across as competent, just more of a smartass. I’m kind of on the fence about Rachel Nichols. On one hand, she’s hot. On the other, she’s incredibly hot. I didn’t like the writing for her character, though. I thought she was fine for the most part, but I agree that the “I don’t believe in emotions” part was kind of hokey and not handled particularly well.
Dennis Quaid really phoned it in. I usually like Quaid quite a bit, but here he’s just terrible. I think this goes back to the CGI aspect–I’m pretty sure just about every scene of his was in front of a green screen. I don’t care how good an actor you are, a green screen removes at minimum 50% of your acting ability.
What really adds to this movie are some of the small touches. I loved the moment with Breaker taking Duke’s last stick of gum. I loved that Scarlett called Ripcord “Ace” in the last few scenes. I loved the “he never gives up” line from the trailer. You can tell Sommers took real care to be as true as possible to the spirit of the franchise. Whatever shortcomings there were can be mostly attributed to the fact that Sommers just isn’t Sam Raimi–he’s a solid, workmanlike director who consistently puts out solid, workmanlike movies. He’s basically the Mark Grace of directors. Grace didn’t have the strict dedication to get the most out of his potential like Sandberg, and he he couldn’t get by on pure talent and lack of dedication like Sosa. He did everything 85%. By the same token, Sommers doesn’t have the toolkit or the obsession to detail that Raimi does, and doesn’t have the sudden flashes of brilliance that Michael Bay does. Taken on the whole, this movie is far, far better than Transformers 2, but it’s also more consistent than TF2. There are no spikes on the cool-meter–it’s just a flat line above average. That left me wanting more. I wanted a 5-minute swordfight between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, and I wanted it from a high 3/4 shot with no cuts, and no camera movement. I wanted a scene between Duke and Baroness that brought real emotion. I wanted Hawk to give an “ID4” speech. I wanted to be emotionally involved in the movie.
And that pretty much sums up my main complaint. The stakes weren’t high enough. I always go back to the Terminator movies when movies give me this feeling. Terminator 2 can be broken down as “people run away from a T1000.” That’s it. There is no plot. But the way it’s handled gives you a real feeling of what is at stake–if John Connor doesn’t survive, the human race goes away. Terminator 3, on the other hand, has basically the same plot, and better acting across the board, but it doesn’t convey any of the stakes so it feels like it’s made of balsa wood. In this movie, you never get that feeling that anything might go wrong. You always know, from start to finish, that the Joes will prevail, and as such you never get as emotionally invested as you do with the Sam character in TF2.
That’s not to say that there aren’t scenes that I loved. The Paris chase was a lot better than I thought it would be. I laughed out loud when the Humvee was bulldozing cars out of its way, and one little touch that I really loved was how after Snake Eyes shoots out the brakes on the car he just lets go and does a really cool sliding move to wind up on his feet in the middle of the street. The ending scene is spectacular, and just how I’d have wanted it to end. Of all the Snake Eyes fight scenes, I actually thought the one in the middle between him and Stormy was the best, but still not close to what I was hoping for.
This is a movie that I was waiting close to 25 years for. Regardless of how much I tried to temper expectations, I was looking forward to this more than any movie since Star Wars: Episode 1. Obviously, it could never live up to that level of expectation, but I’m impressed with how close it came. It was just a couple more Snake Eyes moments away from making me the happiest 12-year-old in the theater.
Tags: 3-star, Arnold Vosloo, Brett Rattner, CGI, Channing Tatum, Christopher Eccleston, Dennis Quaid, Episode I, George Clooney, GI Joe, ID4, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Grace, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols, Ryne Sandberg, Sam Raimi, Sammy Sosa, Sienna Miller, Spider-Man, Steven Sommers, Terminator, The Dark Knight, Transformers, Vincent Price, X-Men