The live-action feature film G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra does to the ’80s animated TV series/toy commercial G.I. Joe (and associated comics and spin-offs) what the 2000 X-Men movie did to that franchise. By putting a bunch of exaggeratedly individualized characters into identical black leather outfits and giving them all the same grunt-y bad-ass personal affect, the film irons out the series’ traces of personality and makes it largely generic blockbuster fodder. At the same time, the filmmakers have gone out of their way to respect the source material, from in-jokey fan-bait lines like “Knowing is half the battle” and “He’s a real American hero” to the giant secret evil base with a self-destruct button.
The plot, too, is a sprawling international action-caper that could have come straight from the old TV show. Arms manufacturer Christopher Eccleston has developed nanotech warheads capable of destroying a city; a private assault team headed by Sienna Miller is out to steal them and terrorize the world into submission. When they assault a military convoy transferring the warheads, survivors Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans get absorbed into the elite international commando unit G.I. Joe, under the command of Dennis Quaid, doing a passable John Wayne impression. As Miller and her compatriots (including mad scientist Joseph Gordon-Levitt and brooding ninja Byung-hun Lee) keep trying to get at the warheads and set them loose on the world, director Stephen Sommers has the story play out via a series of closely chained setpieces based so heavily on glistening future-tech effects that the film has a Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow gloss; the whole world feels shiny, artificial, and calculated.
That goes double for the characters, all broad archetypes acting out simple clichés. (At one point, Tatum actually displays his manly angst over a fallen comrade by glumly driving by the man’s funeral on a motorcycle, in the rain, in shades and black leather.) The central plot-driving relationship between Tatum and Miller is entirely rote, as is the acting, which mostly consists of yelling and macho one-liners. But unlike Michael Bay with the similar Hasbro-cartoon update Transformers, Sommers seems to understand that viewers didn’t show up for cheesy human interaction. Instead, he covers the screen with nearly nonstop action that’s slick and propulsive, yet clearly choreographed and easy to follow. Much like previous Sommers films (The Mummy, Van Helsing), The Rise Of Cobra holds to a thrill-ride sensibility that’s unchallenging and more than a little goofy, but exciting and consistently well-managed. It gets wearisome by the end, but at times—particularly in the Parisian car chase, with two cyborg-suited men and the ninja Snake Eyes trying to prevent catastrophe—it’s a strong rival for Star Trek among the summer’s most purely exciting action films.