Though G.I. Joe started out as a Ken-sized action doll in the '60s and '70s—"with kung fu grip!"—the name became increasingly and enduringly popular in the '80s after its reinvention through toys, comics, and cartoons. Since then, millions of boys (self included) spent their childhood geeking out over the super-team of military specialists and their extensive array of space-age hardware devoted to fight against the world terrorist organization known as Cobra.

There are bound to be some 10-year-olds (and adults who still think they're 10) who will praise this movie adaptation with an enthusiastic "Yo Joe!" (the G.I. Joe battle cry). The rest of us, fans or not, will more likely be crying something like "Say it ain't so, Joe!" While it's not the worst summer movie of 2009, that's faint praise in a season that has brought us Land of the Lost and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. And as implied in the title, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is an origin movie that leaves several doors open at the end for a potential franchise—at least Paramount hopes so, but heaven help us if it comes to pass.

Channing Tatum as Duke

Channing Tatum as Duke

The film follows the story of two NATO soldiers code-named Duke (Channing Tatum of the awful Step Up movies) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans of the awful Little Man and the Scary Movie series), assigned to protect a new top-secret warhead from falling into the wrong hands. An ambush on their transport by mysterious terrorists with advanced weaponry is foiled by agents of G.I. Joe, an organization utilizing the best military operatives from around the world, also armed with the latest in combat technology.

Duke and Ripcord quickly join the team headed by General Hawk (a gruff and grouchy Dennis Quaid), featuring long-time favorite characters like Scarlett, Heavy Duty, and the silent-but-deadly Snake Eyes. In simplest terms, their mission is to stop a crazed arms terrorist from attacking the world with nano-mites—little bio-mechanical bugs designed to kill cancer cells, now repurposed to destroy everything in their path (including the Eiffel Tower in a key scene). But is the arms terrorist the real target, or is there someone else pulling the strings in this plan for world conquest?

Rachel Nichols as Shana 'Scarlett' O'Hara

Rachel Nichols as Shana 'Scarlett' O'Hara

Yes, like most summer blockbusters, it's as far-fetched and silly as it sounds, though in all fairness, the original cartoons and comic books were too. You can't really accuse director Stephen Sommers (responsible for the first two Mummy remakes and the atrocious Van Helsing) and his writers of straying too far from the source material. In many ways they do it justice—perhaps too much so, by which I mean that this G.I. Joe tries too hard to cram in a ridiculously nebulous plot. It's like a soap opera or comic book series trying to fit a season's worth of plot twists and relationships into two hours.

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Case in point: The over-emphasis on a character named The Baroness (Sienna Miller), who in the original toys/comics was an excuse for a slinky villainess in Cobra's ranks with romantic ties to Destro (the aforementioned arms dealer). In this movie, she's still a slinky villainess and remains Destro's lover, but is also married to a rich scientist (in effort to get close to his work), and a student of the evil ninja Storm Shadow (to develop her own combat skills), and previously engaged to Duke (pure as white snow at that time), and the sister of a friend from Duke's past who also happens to be … well, to say more would give away a key plot point for fans of the franchise, but you get the idea.

Similarly, the movie opens with a pointless prologue that sets up Destro's family history as arms dealers, I guess to show that Destro is destined to hate the French and wear an iron mask? We even see flashbacks to the shared history of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow as children studying under a ninja master, but it only amounts to even more scenes of the two fighting as children. Isn't this the sort of stuff best revealed throughout future movies rather than all at once?

Dennis Quaid as General Hawk

Dennis Quaid as General Hawk

The point is that G.I. Joe doesn't earn its character development. It simply throws a lot of facts about its two-dimensional characters and expects the audience to care—you won't. At best, the performances are wooden clichés and stereotypes; at worst, some parts are so badly overacted, they rank with the year's most embarrassing performances. (I would nominate Joseph Gordon-Levitt for sure.)

Much like the X-men movies, G.I. Joe is too concerned with catering to fans and marketing a franchise by showcasing character cameos and cool gadgets. Honestly, if the filmmakers had stuck to a basic James Bond-meets-Thunderbirds storyline about a secret military operation combating a super-terrorism unit, I think they might have come up with a simpler, yet more fun summer blockbuster for kids. Instead, it's a mind-numbing sloppy mess.

Say this much for G.I. Joe, however: it's never boring to look at. The movie is so overloaded with action sequences, special effects, advanced weaponry, and futuristic vehicles, Paramount should have included a dosage of Ritalin with every movie ticket. If only these action scenes and effects weren't so relentless and inconsistent. One scene may look stylish and almost realistic, only to be compromised by the next which looks as tacky and unconvincing as an episode of Power Rangers or a Spy Kids movie. And the explosions are so plentiful, it's a wonder they're not used in every scene.

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Christopher Eccleston as Destro

Christopher Eccleston as Destro

Sommers is not as bombastic and crude a director as the infamous Michael Bay (the Transformers movies), but all of his films have relied too heavily on cheap-looking CGI action that looks fake. Ugh, those stupid accelerator suits that Duke and Ripcord use! Yes, the real military is working on enhanced body armor, but nothing like this, which turns the two characters into part Iron Man, part Superman—able to outrun cars, dodge missiles, and leap over speeding trains. They never look believable, and as with his previous films, Sommers shows a complete disregard to the laws of physics. There's no feat his characters can't do when necessary for his movie, and though ice may float in the real world, Sommers uses it to crush an underwater fortress—don't even get me started.

Yes, G.I. Joe is a bad film, but don't just take my word for it. The movie studio responsible for it refused to screen their tent-pole summer blockbuster to critics, rationalizing that audiences still made Transformers 2 a hit after it was savaged by critics. The real reason is they don't have enough confidence in the quality of their product to subject it to honest criticism, attempting to get as much money in its opening weekend before word of mouth tears it down. Sure enough, it was number one this past weekend, but by no means does that make it good. Now you know … "and knowing is half the battle!"

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Why is Scarlett so shaken after the bad guys infiltrate G.I. Joe headquarters and steal the warhead? What does Ripcord say to help her self-esteem? How should we respond to feelings of perfectionism?

  2. Explain what drives Snake Eyes and his vow of silence: honor or vengeance? Is he honoring everything taught to him by his mentor or avenging his death?

  3. How do you feel about the idea of world police force that uses the best military operatives from countries around the world? How is that better than the American military coordinating with NATO? Who should be held responsible and accountable for the actions of G.I. Joe? Can such a team really exist to combat terrorism?

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The Family Corner

For parents to consider

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is rated PG-13 for strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout, though it also has its share of profanity too. The violence is pretty cartoonish most of the time, consisting primarily of sonic/laser guns and one explosion after another—to the point where it gets numbing and tiresome. There are a number of stabbings and impalements involved, however, so the movie becomes somewhat bloody at times. A couple of characters are burned and scarred by flames/explosions, and there's a creepy-looking scene when a Joe tries to retrieve memories from the corpse of a bad guy before he "self-destructs." This film doesn't push toward an R rating, but its violence is firmly PG-13, and not for kids who can't handle anything beyond PG.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(9 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout)
Directed By
Stephen Sommers
Run Time
1 hour 58 minutes
Dennis Quaid, Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans
Theatre Release
August 07, 2009 by Paramount Pictures
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