Say this for Stephen Sommers, director of Van Helsing and the first two Mummy movies: he was probably the right guy to mount a film version of the G.I. Joe toy-and-cartoon franchise. (This especially because Michael Bay’s been so busy spreading misinformation about Transformers sequels.) Sommers has the Saturday morning aesthetic down to a stupid science. What is Van Helsing if not an imaginary The Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolf-Man Adventure Hour from the late ‘70s?
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra brings Sommers firmly into the ‘80s. After a hilariously superfluous prologue (set in 1642 France!), a title card announces the action is set in the “not-too-distant future.” Between a month and 15 years from now, dedicated soldier Duke (Channing Tatum) and his buddy Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) stumble onto an elite military unit code-named G.I. Joe, and join their race to protect weaponized nano-tech warheads from falling into the wrong hands.
Said hands belong to Ana (Sienna Miller), known in some circles as the Baroness, who turns out to have a romantic history with Duke. This and other backstories arise in a series of quick flashbacks, structured sort of like a poor man’s episode of Lost. The Baroness is the film’s most compelling character; the newly brunette Miller takes to her black leather, sexy librarian glasses, and ridiculous dialogue with haughty fabulousness. In the midst of so much visual and aural noise, she’s an easy focus point, one of the only actors to embrace the film’s pure cartooniness.
Unfortunately, the plot requires her to strike sparks off of Channing Tatum, which is somewhat like smashing granite against wood. At first, their mismatched pairing is something like hilarious but, without giving too much away, let’s just say that G.I. Joe soon removes the Baroness’s initial agency as a (female) badass. You might see this as weirdly chivalrous, as in, no woman can be purely evil. But neither is any woman—like the generally fit good-gal Scarlett (Rachel Nichols)—exempt from occasionally falling into the arms of a gallant man.
True super-villainy is reserved for the rising Cobra Commander, played in several forms by the wonderful actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, often shrewdly disguised in Vaderesque garb. His work here, alongside Tatum, might suggest that someone thought up the irony of casting the supporting players of the mournful military drama Stop-Loss to act out a 10-year-old’s fantasy of the military. But the G.I. Joe unit has been reconfigured as less of a military operation and more of a cross between James Bond and a superhero team. The film’s allegiance is to spectacle, not nationality and certainly not morality.
Still, Sommers spreads his visual effects thin, so the film takes place under a near-constant fog of pixels. It joins this summer’s Wolverine in the ever-growing club of movies that contain hundreds of visual effects shots without a single good one. Actually, maybe G.I. Joe has one or two, in the scene where robo-armored Joes pursue an SUV: here you can more or less tell what’s going on, which is, stuff gets smashed with panache.
Alas, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra doesn’t have the giddy (or soul-sucking) awfulness of a hall-of-fame bad movie. Like other Sommers pictures, it sustains a kind of dopey innocence, ingratiating in fits and starts. And like Van Helsing in particular, it quickly kicks into overkill overdrive, growing more tedious with each additional gesture towards a future franchise. Two hours turns out to be an awfully long time to watch a single Saturday morning cartoon.