“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” is a fun, late summer movie. It is not high art, but who would ever ask such a thing of “G.I. Joe?” It is not an entirely brain dead movie either. What the film does possess is an uncanny sense of balance about itself.
The movie begins with James McCullen — heir to his clan’s Destro legacy — lecturing about the abilities of his new weapon advancement, the Nanomites, to a group of NATO command officers. McCullen’s company, MARS, has made arrangements for a US army convoy to deliver the first four Nanomite warheads to NATO. Leading the convoy are Duke and Ripcord. The convoy is soon attacked by a group of unknown assailants led by Duke’s former fiancee, Ana.
During the firefight, several members of the covert NATO team, G.I. Joe, arrive on the scene repelling Ana and her troops. The Joe “Team Alpha” is comprised of Scarlet, Breaker, Heavy Duty, and silent ninja Snake Eyes. They have a brief standoff with Duke and Ripcord after retrieving the war heads.
Duke and Ripcord arrive at Joe HQ, where commanding officer General Hawk puts them through the paces of G.I. Joe training. Ripcord takes a fancy to Scarlet and Duke reveals his relationship with Ana, now known as “The Baroness.”
Meanwhile, Ana lets McCullen know she has failed on her mission. He needed the warheads to appear stolen for his master plan to assume control of the world. Escalating his advance, McCullen sends ninja Storm Shadow and elite mercenary Mr. Zartan to help Ana reclaim the warheads from the Joe’s secret base.
As the warheads change hands, secrets are learned about the various MARS and Joe characters. Friendships are forged. Crazy science is employed. A lot of property gets blown up good. By the film’s conclusion, you will understand why Destro wears a mask and how he came to be at the boot-heel of Cobra Commander.
Also, keep a steely eye out for a couple of fun actor/character cameos. They are well chosen.
The film is, basically, how you want a live action “G.I. Joe” cartoon to look and sound. While not slavishly devoted to established histories, character designs, or continuities, the film captures the serious-but-not tone of the concept. While the film manages to make you feel for Ana’s plight (once it is revealed), it never shies away from impossibly huge underground basis, laser weapons, or outlandish nicknames.
The key to the film is balance. It gives you a bit of serious, a dose of wacky humor, a splash of action, and a salt-shake of cheese. One example is Ripcord, played by Marlon Wayans. Known for his over-the-top foolishness in other films (“Dungeons & Dragons”), the actor dials his performance way down. Instead of the wacky side-kick, Ripcord is a fairly capable solider and an ace pilot. Wayans plays him as a human instead of a caricature. Ripcord’s interest in Scarlet actually feels human and his friendship with Duke genuine. Playing straight actually allows Wayans to quip or carry a one-liner. He is genuinely funny in scenes that ask it of him.
The centerpiece action sequence in Paris is another example of balance. While the power-suits dominated the marketing campaign, they appear only in this sequence. After all the quick world-building in the preceding scenes, the suits actually feel like reasonable Joe technology. Given a clear objective — stop Ana and Storm Shadow — Duke, Ripcord, and Snake Eyes chase a Hummer around Paris for some fairly well realized action. Only a couple of moments have wonky CGI. The chase is paced surprisingly well with rising and falling action beats with explosions to punctuate. Even comedy is used in the right spots to break the tension and allow it to rebuild. The sequence works so well, it earns the right to destroy the Eiffel Tower at its conclusion.
Another surprising element is the quality of the writing. “The Rise of Cobra” is actually internally consistent. Through flashback and occasional monologuing, the motives and backstories of the various characters are revealed. The also make sense and further the over all plot of the film. Nothing happens arbitrarily or by accident, a rare occurrence in action film writing these days. The stacking revelations of Duke, Ana, Snake Eyes, the Baroness, and Ana’s brother Rex all lead to surprisingly satisfying answers.
To that end, the Nanomites turn out to be a fairly clever plot device. It allows for many of the more outlandish aspects of MARS and their Viper soldiers. You never lose sight of the case carrying the Nanomite warheads, either. Who has them, their uses, and their ultimate purpose are clearly presented.
Director Stephen Sommers brings much of the same pop flavor to this as he brought to “The Mummy.” While that film played fast and loose with the realistic to play up the 1930s pulp adventure and corniness, in “G.I. Joe” he allows the realistic to slide up against over the top cartoon action. It is a blend that works better than most of the gritty, would-be realistic action pieces that aspire to be “The Dark Knight.” Sommers never shies away from the silliness of “G.I. Joe,” but he never allows himself to believe he is smarter than the material. The filmmaker never appears to be condescending to the film or its audience.
Also, Sommers delivers an incredible scene with two kids beating the snot out of each other. It is the Snake Eyes/ Storm Shadow flashback and it turns out to be the best of the flashback material. Both characters are well utilized as an enhancement to the main storyline.
While not the pinnacle of action films, “G.I. Joe” is a fast-paced, but well-crafted take on the concept. Featuring plenty of fan-service, but plenty of freedom to move the pieces into a solid story in the “Joe” mold, the film never makes you aware of its two hour and ten minute running time. It also reminds you why you liked the toy-line as a kid.
Oh, and rest easy. Snake Eyes never speaks.