Let me end the suspense right up front: I liked G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I didn't expect it to be a deep, thoughtful war film, nor did I expect it to be a profound visual essay on the challenges of morality in a wartime setting: see Flags of our Fathers and The Hurt Locker (my review). Instead, I expected a loud, action-filled movie that had attractive actors, shiny toys, banal dialog and a barely comprehensible story line. And that's what I got.
When I was a boy, I had G.I. Joe "action figures" (the cool guy name for "dolls") that glorified war and were a manly cultural archetype, just as Barbie was a cultural archetype for girls. Released in the mid-60s, "Government Issue Joe" initially represented the four services with Action Soldier (the Army), Action Sailor (the Navy), Action Pilot (the Air Force) and Action Marine (yep, the Marines). And a bit of film trivia: the name G.I. Joe was actually inspired by the 1945 film The Story of G.I. Joe.
In 1985 Hasbro's G.I. Joe toy line, rebranded as "action heroes" to get away from the unpopular aggressive war themes, spawned an animated TV series that lasted two years, until 1987. The show opened with the explanation that "G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose, to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."
I never watched the animated series and to this day have never seen an episode. With that background and critically useful explanation of Cobra (which I thought was a character in the story, not an organization) you can just imagine what a modern, big-budget CGI-heavy action film is going to look like, and you'd be right.
But here's the surprising thing: it was actually pretty fun and a good mindless action film romp in the spirit of Michael Bay's and Jerry Bruckheimer's daft explosion films.
There's a lot of backstory that's jammed into The Rise of Cobra, told through endless flashbacks that explain why some characters are good guys, part of the "elite G.I. Joe team", while others have chosen the dark side of Cobra.
My use of the phrase "dark side" is deliberate too: there were a remarkable number of Star Wars cultural and visual references throughout G.I. Joe, culminating with a tension-filled sword fight between good-guy Snake Eyes and bad guy Stormshadow on a metal catwalk in a high-tech fortress that was a clear homage to the battle between young Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
The story itself goes something like this: a NATO-funded weapons company called M.A.R.S. has created tremendously dangerous nanomite weapons that can destroy anything in its path, metal, human, animal or otherwise, until a "kill switch" is activated, which instantly kills the nanomites. The U.S. government buys some of these warheads and assigns a military team lead by Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) to protect the weapons in transit.
The team is attacked by the beautiful but deadly Ana (Sienna Miller) and her team, armed with futuristic weapons and on a futuristic plane that flies circles around the standard-issue military choppers. They fail to get the weapons due to the surprise arrival of a team of soldiers led by Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), the mute Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). After a well-staged fight sequence, Duke and Ripcord find out that the newcomers are part of the elite G.I. Joe team, and are taken back to "The PIt", the Joe headquarters.
The film actually starts back in 1641 France, where a weapons maker of clan McClellan is forced into a red-hot iron mask for selling arms to both the French and her enemies. An interesting few minutes of back story, it culminates with McClellan cursing the French and saying basically that "he'll be back".
Turns out that M.A.R.S. is run by a ruthless genius (are there any other types of corporate executives in cinema?) called - surprise - McClellan (Christopher Eccleston), and he's profiting from both selling highly sophisticated arms and defensive technologies. As he explains, "the lesson of my ancestors is never get caught selling weapons to both sides."
The fundamental puzzle of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a conundrum that has plagued films for decades and even affects the Star Wars series: with sufficiently advanced technology, not only are humans left out of the equation, but so is drama. On Star Wars' Millennium Falcon, for example, why did Luke have to shoot at the Tie fighters manually? With all that technology, surely computer targeting would have worked better? Ditto Star Trek and the massive aquatic battle scenes in G.I. Joe.
The reason is obvious, though: someone aiming and shooting at an aggressive enemy is dramatic and gives us the adrenalin rush of overcoming our foes, something that wouldn't happen if they just pushed an "arm and engage automatic defensive systems" and turned the aggress-o-meter to "kill".
There were many other baffling elements to the storyline, including why the Cobra terrorists needed to utilize a particle accelerator to turn the nanomite warheads into weapons (to "weaponize" them, as they say in the film). Wouldn't there just be an "armed" switch on the side of the device?
Let's be clear, though: no-one is going to see a movie named after 1960's boys action figures and based on a 1980's animated TV series and expect a logical, coherent story. For all its flaws, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is an entertaining film with a fast pace, lots of good fight scenes, tons of shiny gizmos and toys brought to life and an overall visual look that is very in-tune with the best tech action films of this decade.