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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2009)

8. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

For years, blockbuster films have sold toys. With the success of Michael Bay's “Transformers,” studio execs suddenly had the realization that they could cut out the middle man and just make blockbusters about toys. “Transformers'” success led to a flurry of toy-based movies getting greenlit. A few of these – like “The LEGO Movie” or “Battleship” – made it to theater screens. Most of them – “M.A.S.K.,” a new “Clue,” a new "He-Man," “Frisbee,” a “Monopoly” movie directed by Ridley Scott for some reason – failed to materialize. As Hasbro's second biggest action brand after “Transformers,” a “G.I. Joe” film emerged as well. Unlike most of those toy lines, which barely had enough substance to support a film. “G.I. Joe” had years of cartoons and comic books to pull from. Though less popular than the giant robot movies, “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” still launched a franchise of sorts.

In the not too distant future, weapons manufacturer James McCullen has invented a frightening new type of war machine: Missiles equipped with nanobots, which can eat away at any metallic substance. Secretly, McCullen is the head of an terrorist cell and has used the technology to create an army of super-soldiers and hi-tech weapons. He has plans for world domination. Opposing him is G.I. Joe, a secret military organization. Duke and Ripcord, two regular soldiers, end up discovering the Joes and being recruited. Together, they work to stop McCullen and his cohorts' schemes. Duke, however, has an unexpected personal connection to the bad guys.

On paper, Stephen Sommers seems like a solid choice to direct a “G.I. Joe” movie. A lot of his films resemble Saturday morning cartoons already. “The Rise of Cobra” attempts to capture the spirit of a children's cartoon show. So there's a lot of plot points you're just not suppose to think about too hard. How can a covert operation as huge as the Joes operate in secret? How can the bad guys afford to build a huge underwater base and hundreds of vehicles? “Don't worry about it,” the movie whispers. However, “G.I. Joe” eventually becomes too dumb to be entertaining. A secret military group is one thing but how can it be secret when its agents rampage through a major city? How can G.I. Joe be so wide ranging but so easily infiltrated? Why do the villains not notice Duke activating a tracking device near the end? The film is ultimately too preposterous to be entertaining.

While I've been know to enjoy a “Transformers” action figure or cartoon show in my time, “Beast Wars” especially, I never had much fondness for “G.I. Joe.” Robots and dinosaurs trumped army guys, in my youthful eyes. I think my greatest attachment to the show was thinking the Baroness was really attractive. Yet even I can tell that “The Rise of Cobra” deviates greatly from the source material. The film attempts to build an origin story for Cobra, the Joes' enemies. Yet we have little reasons to care about how Destro, the Baroness, and Cobra Commander came to be when they barely resemble the versions we know. Many of the defining characteristics of the Joes are stripped away. Not to mention the visual design is vastly different and simply not as appealing.

While “The Rise of Cobra” is practically “G.I. Joe” in-name-only, the film is also hampered by an overemphasis on back story. The film frequently pauses the pace cold, in order to explain the character's origins. The movie opens with an irrelevant flashback, showing Destro's ancestor. Later, we learn all about Duke, his relationship with his girlfriend and his presumed dead brother-in-law. There are long moments explaining Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow's young adventures. “The Rise of Cobra” stops just short of explaining the life stories of everyone in the film. This stuff not only kills the story's forward-momentum, it also leads to a script that feels weirdly uneven.

I definitely recall “Joe” fans being concerned when it was announced that Marlon Wayans would star in the movie. The filmmakers assured the fans that Wayans' brand of broad comedy would not destroy the film. Fans' fears would be well-founded. The comic relief in “G.I. Joe” is painfully bad. Wayans' character, Ripcord, is so grossly incompetent that you don't know why he's allowed to stay on the team. While wearing a high-tech powered armor, he makes a mess in Paris and then cracks especially weak quips about it. He hits on a female co-worker in crude ways  that would surely classify as sexual harassment. Characters frequently make off-hand remarks and crack jokes, all of which take the viewer out of the film due to how weak they are.

Sommers was supposedly attracted to the material due to its resemblance to the “James Bond” franchise, a series he already pay homage to in “Van Helsing.”  However, this love for elaborate gadgets ends up derailing the film. Goofy vehicles and gimmicks obviously have their place in the “G.I. Joe” franchise but the movie possibly takes it too far. The film pauses to linger on fancy vehicles, like drilling submarines or overly complex jet-packs. One especially egregious example is a camouflage suit that makes its wearer all-but invisible. A character slips into the suit during a fight where it's almost useless. The prop is then never mentioned again. It seems a lot of this stuff was included just because the director thought it was cool.

As an action movie, “The Rise of Cobra” satisfies at least some of the time. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are well choreographed. There's a pretty cool moment where a fight breaks out during a vehicle chase, Snake Eyes reaching through a vehicle and being repeatedly blocked. The ninjas continue to be a source of decent action. During a flashback to their youthful days, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow leap over a hot stove. Later, the two have a pretty neat sword fight near the end, leaping between bars of burning electricity. There's also a surprisingly brutal fist fight between Scarlet and Baroness.

However, many of the other action scenes are less satisfying. Sommers' tendency to lean on CGI effects continues in “G.I. Joe.”  The computer generated images are generally more convincing than those seen in “The Mummy Returns” and “Van Helsing.” The green fart clouds of nanites look pretty bad but, otherwise, it's okay. Instead, CGI is used to casually violate the laws of physics. The film's own frail sense of reality is foiled but the overly elaborate effects. Like the entire sequence devoted to the Accelerator Suits, likely included to ride 'Iron Man's” coattails. Characters leap through the air, while surrounded by increasingly larger explosions, in a way that becomes cartoonish. A later submarine chase has a similar problems, the film becoming completely detach from believably.

Even more disconcerting is how unpolished many of those action scenes are. This is not Sommers best directed movie. He's smart enough to stay focused on the big CGI set pieces and the decently prepared melee fights. However, the movie largely lacks the energetic and clear direction that distinguished his work up to now. The Paris chase scene is frequently difficult to follow, especially once the pursuers enter a train station. The concluding raid on Cobra's aquatic base is overly dark and blurry. There's even a few instances of shaky-cam! There's at least one moment of slow-mo too, though thankfully no crash zooms.

The film's cast is another problem. Channing Tatum stars as Duke. This was before Tatum reinvent himself as America's lovably doofy older brother. At this point in his career, he was just a slab of bland, hunky meat. As Duke, Tatum is never convincing. He is unable to bring any life or personality to a thinly defined character. Tatum isn't the only talented actor wasted in the film. Rachel Nichols' Scarlet is treated terribly. She parades around in revealing outfits, the film lingering on her cleavage. Despite supposedly being a highly trained agent, Scarlet is repeatedly beaten, outsmarted, or made a fool of. It's embarrassing and I feel bad that this was what Nichols was given to work with. (Considering another female character is brutally killed on-screen, “G.I. Joe” ends up feeling distressingly sexist.)

The rest of the cast is more varied. Dennis Quaid does an amusing John Wayne impersonation as Hawk, the Joes' commanding officer. Most of the villains seem to be having fun. Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon Levitt happily ham it up as the soon-to-be Destro and Cobra Commander. Arnold Vosloo enjoys his sadistic villainy as Zartan while Lee Byung-hun is intense and intimidating as Storm Shadow. Yet for every enjoyable performance, there's an underwhelming one. Like Wayans, who nearly destroys the movie single-handedly. Or Sienna Miller, as the Baroness, who seems way out of her element. (Sommers sneaks in cameos for Brenden Fraser and Kevin J. O'Conner, in case you were wondering.)

Following “Transformers'” lead, Paramount and Hasbro hoped to launch a franchise with “G.I. Joe.” The film is peppered with sequel hooks. By the end, Duke and Ripcord are established as Joes, Cobra has risen as a formidable foe, and the President has been replaced with an evil doppelganger. The film was a financial success but was poorly received by fans and critics. The eventual sequel ejected, killed off, or flat-out ignored many of the original's characters and story points. And was likely better for it. I actually sort of liked “Rise of Cobra” the first time I saw it, enjoying it for a brainless popcorn flick. I guess I've gotten grouchier in the last eight years, as I found this to be one of Sommers' weakest films upon re-watch. [Grade: C] 

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