Stephen Sommers´ G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra may be mindless junk but it´s also mostly harmless and occasionally fun; not enough, I know, but maybe my standards have been lowered after Transformers 2. That film was self-conscious, heavy-handed, and 20 other sorts of wrong, but this one is about what you´d expect from a live-action movie based on a line of action figures and a Saturday morning cartoon that peaked in popularity over 20 years ago: wink-wink goofball stuff without a trace of seriousness.
Rise of the Cobra opens in 1600´s France, with Scot James McCullen about to be given the old red-hot iron mask treatment for his sins, which involve selling weapons to both the French and the Scots. He swears that his sons, and his sons´ sons, will avenge him, and lo and behold, some 400 years later (in the “near future”) a certain James McCullen XXIV (Christopher Eccleston, with about the worst Scottish accent you can imagine) has invented a nanotechnology that eats through tanks and buildings, and if you´ve seen the trailer, will bring down the Eiffel Tower. It´s as strained as it could possibly be, but there you have it, our villain´s motivation.
But I´m getting ahead of myself. The U.S. government buys four of these nanobot warheads, and tasks a small army convoy headed Duke (Channing Tatum) and comic relief sidekick Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) with transporting them. McCullen, logically, tries to steal the warheads back with the help of Baroness (Sienna Miller) and the robotic clone-like Cobra army. Twist: Duke once knew Baroness as Ana, his old flame.
But good ol´ General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), he knew that McCullen was up to no good. So he sends in G.I. Joe: a multinational faction of Good Guys consisting of Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Breaker (Saďd Taghmaoui), and the silent, rubber-covered ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park). They prevent Cobra from obtaining the warheads, and bring them and Duke and Ripcord back to G.I. Joe headquarters (in the middle of the Egyptian desert), where the two recruits go through a training montage and become official Joes just in time to see Cobra swoop in and finally nab the MacGuffin.
Cobra also consists of the deformed Cobra Commander (Joseph-Gordon Levitt, hamming it up wonderfully), and Storm Shadow, the ninja arch enemy of Snake Eyes, played by South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee. So they destroy the Eiffel Tower and threaten more destruction, without much in the way of demands, and it´s up to G.I. Joe to stop them. Jonathan Pryce shows up in thankless scenes as the U.S. President, though he does feature in a nice little scene at the end.
Stephen Sommers is the director of Deep Rising, the first two Mummy films, and the dreaded Van Helsing, and yeah, that´ll give you an idea of the kind of cinematic quality on display here. The CGI used is downright wretched throughout the film, and Sommers two big weaknesses are on full display: the overall film lacks focus, a vision or goal that we can actually get involved in, and action scenes are shot without much regard for coherency, so that we might, y´know, be able to tell who is shooting at or chasing who or even where they are in relation to each other.
But in a film like this, you have to take pleasure in the small things, and I found plenty of those here. A 20-minute Paris sequence, which involves Duke and Ripcord in “accelerator suits” chasing a van down busy streets, is genuinely exciting up until the money shot, a mess of CGI representing the destruction of the Eiffel Tower. I also liked the some of the care paid to character during the extended (and unexpected) backstories, one of which features an inventive kitchen fight between a young Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow.
And some of the acting is just perfectly suited to the material; Quaid, with his goofy grin, and Gordon-Levitt, despite his face mostly hidden and his voice altered, are clearly having a lot of fun here, never taking themselves seriously. Lee is also fun to watch. Tatum, as our default lead, is serviceable but little more.
I most appreciated the tone of Rise of the Cobra, which knows what it is and invites us to have fun with it; in essence this is a better version of Street Fighter (Van Damme, not Sonny Chiba) or the exact film that Team America: World Police was parodying (though there is a surprising lack of US jingoism on display).
There are plenty of in-jokes and references to the old cartoon and line of action figures (“knowing is half the battle,” a famous line from the G.I. Joe public service announcements – and be sure to check out Fenslerfilm´s parodies – is repeated with gusto by Quaid), but the character design is so radically different I don´t expect fans to take to the film.
G.I. Joe was partly (mostly?) filmed in Prague, though you wouldn´t know it apart from the Paris sequence, which tosses a CGI Eiffel Tower into the background of scenes filmed in Karlín.
Note: G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra is screening mostly in a Czech-dubbed version on Prague screens, but you can catch it in English (with Czech subtitles) at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům or Village Cinemas Anděl.
Also opening: the Czech thriller Klíček (showtimes), from director Jan Novák. Screening in Czech.