"In Association With Hasbro": a credit that strikes fear in the heart of every film critic. And so it wasn't enormously surprising when Paramount decided not to screen G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra for critics (Hey! I thought knowing was half the battle!). But here's the surprise: perhaps it's the low expectations, but I sort of liked G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It's very nearly everything that's wrong with Hollywood, but darn if it won't give an action-hungry audience its money's worth. It's ridiculous, it's stoopid, and it puts its planes in the air like it just don't care. If delirious excess doesn't do it for you, there are films you can see (I highly recommend The Hurt Locker). If you're dying to escape into a movie, this is the one of the moment.
Based largely on the 1985 animated series G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, its comic-book spinoff, and the now 45-year-old toy line that spawned it all, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra tells the story—"in the not too distant future..."—of an elite government special forces unit called G.I. Joe. When Army men Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) protect a delivery of warheads containing metal-eating Nanomites, General Hawk (Dennis Quaid) decides he likes the cuts of their gibs and brings them into the fold of what Hawk refers to as "the alpha dogs. When all else fails, we don't." Hawk's top operatives include Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Breaker (Saïd Taghmaoui), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of Lost), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace), a ninja fully encased in black rubber. Duke has an inside line on the would-be missile thieves: one is his cold-blooded former fiancée Ana (Sienna Miller). For reasons that became clear and then even clearer, she's thrown in with evil arms manufacturer James McCullen (Chris Eccleston of Doctor Who), who decides to steal back the warheads NATO commissioned from him.
The plot gets more complicated, but it fairly hurtles along (at least until the last half-hour, when the action becomes a bit numbing). Directed by Stephen Sommers (The Mummy), the movie has two aces in the hole. Certainly, this picture is packed with the kind of action and high-tech hard and software that only upwards of $200 million can buy. But it also has enough wacked-out comic-book characters to gleefully overpopulate its little boy's playtime wonderland, and therein lies the real fun. Screenwriters Stuart Beattie (Collateral), David Elliot, and Paul Lovett make time to cut away from the main plot for blistering origin-story flashbacks that motivate, in pulpy ways, their action. In the best of these, we learn how the black rubber ninja and his nemesis in white (Lee Byung-hun's Storm Shadow) met badass. "Hello, brother," says Storm Shadow, and we hurtle back in time to watch an extensive, brutal, martial-arts fight scene in which two kids kick the shit out of each other in the kitchen of a ninja compound. Are we having fun yet?
The cast sure has what looks like a lot of fun, especially Wayans (for once, the black guy gets a full-fledged romance) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing a sort of dual role I won't bother you to explain. Let's just say he has a conversation, with a character named Dr. Mindbender (!), that doesn't end well. Sommers must have been stamping his foot with glee while making this picture: he even throws in a weird big-band fetish and Welshman Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) as the U.S. President. Sommers' enthusiasm proves infectious. Though the big-band fetish and Jonathan Pryce casting are strictly for old farts like Sommers and me, the action will send kids into paroxysms of "That's so sick!" Heck, it even worked on me a few times: most notably, during the huge action-setpiece in Paris, the heroes don phony but cool super-soldier supersuits that actually made my jaw drop. It's the movie that keeps on shiv-ing. And shooting. And punching and kicking and detonating... But what about G.I. Joe fans: will they like/stand for this movie? Um, beats the hell out of me, but a sequel is promised in no uncertain terms.
The Paris sequence is either the film's least or most self-aware irony, ripping off as it does an image from the Cassandra-like action spoof Team America: World Police. Blockbuster cinema has ushered in plenty of bad movies, but also a new kind of camp, B-movies with great production values. I can't defend the laughable action-hero heroics and villainy, the aggressive toy commercialism of it (unfortunate but hardly unique in the annals of blockbuster cinema), the wooden acting of leading man Tatum, or the well-paid waste of Dennis Quaid's time, but I will say that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is unpretentious and winkingly self-aware in a lightfooted way that escapes Michael Bay—a small favor that should count for something in 2009. And for better or worse, there's enough action here to inspire years of re-creation recreation (action figures not included).