G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Ray Tate
When I first heard about G.I. Joe blasting its way to the big screen, I was somewhat intrigued. When I learned that Sienna Miller was going to portray the Baroness, I became even more interested in seeing the film. Then, I saw the trailer. I saw the Joes wearing exoskeletons and decided to skip the flick altogether. The G.I. Joe team did not wear exoskeletons, nor did they need exoskeletons. It was clear to me that the Powers That Be were just trying to leech some of the goodwill for Iron Man. If you liked one guy in a suit of super-armor, then you'll like two or three even better.

I was determined to skip this film, but then a friend informed me that Christopher Eccleston was in the movie. I cursed. Christopher Eccleston made Doctor Who successful again. Christopher Eccleston bumped Paul McGann off the top of my favorite Doctor list. I felt no actor would surpass McGann’s performance, but Eccleston did it. I had to see G.I. Joe because of Christopher Eccleston.

Eccleston portrays Scottish weapons dealer McCullen. He sells his trade to NATO forces, including the latest addition to his arsenal, weaponized nanotechnology. Fear not Who fans, Eccleston is not merely in G.I. Joe for a bit part. His is a central role.

Eccleston’s acting as usual is fantastic. In this movie, he projects the character’s callousness and cowardice. Imagine the Doctor as twisted as he was in the books that were published during the hiatus of Doctor Who, and you'll get a good idea of the kind of reptile Eccleston embodies in G.I. Joe.

The villains of the G.I. Joe cartoon were two-dimensional. They were smart, and they were evil, but that's it. Their contemporaries Starscream and Megatron were far more interesting evildoers. The Joes on the other hand were some of the most richly characterized dramatic cartoon characters of the period. Lady Jaye and Flint were an item.
Duke died in G.I. Joe. Snake-Eyes intended to sacrifice himself to save his comrades. In the original mini-series, Scarlett says good-bye to him in a touching, understated emotional moment you do not expect to see in a cartoon series. She exhibits outright joy when she finds out that he’s alive.

In the movie, the depth reverses. The actors interpret the villains as cunning individuals with unique, understandable motives and histories to explain their actions. These rationales fail to instill sympathy, yet they fascinate. Sienna Miller crafts a multi-faceted portrayal of the Baroness. Byung-Hun Lee makes Stormshadow an introspective killer with a tarnished sense of honor. The Joes pale in comparison. The exception is of course Snake-Eyes, the coolest of all Joes. Ray Park simply feeds off what has been already established and a thorough back history with Stormshadow, hinted at in the cartoon but never explored. Kudos also goes to the young martial artists portraying the warriors as little boys.

The movie starts well with a sharp opening and an excellent introduction of COBRA and the Joes. As soon as the Joes acquire Duke and Ripcord, the plotting dips in quality. Scarlett for instance seems to be with Snake-Eyes. Early in the movie, she drapes herself on him while listening to intel. Ripcord, portrayed by Marlon Wayans, does not seem deterred by her interest in Snake-Eyes and actively pursues her, during a cliché montage of training. He specifically mentions that Scarlett appears to be attracted to both he and Snake-Eyes. Although where he sees the personal attraction escapes me.

In the end, Ripcord "wins" through expressions of kindness and heroism. This aspect of the film nevertheless troubled me. Was it actually a triangle if the makers of the film fail to address what Snake-Eyes thinks? How good of a guy is Ripcord if he bird-dogs Snake-Eyes' squeeze? Where is the scene showing Snake-Eyes and Ripcord agreeing to let Scarlett decide on whom she wants to be with? Is she actually Snake-Eyes' lover? If not, why did she drape herself over him in that earlier scene? Movie short-hand is one thing. Omission is another.

Rachel Nichols is a good actress, but she's not actually allowed to act in G.I. Joe. She's just the cute, red-headed action girl. I love red-heads. I love action girls, but I like them to have depth. Nichols imbued personality to Rachel Gibson on ALIAS. She had so much chemistry with Jennifer Garner that a rumor about Gibson's sexual orientation arose. Scarlett unfortunately comes off as somewhat wooden. While she impresses during her introduction, the makers of the movie do not follow through.

The physical sets are awesome and inventive. The filmmakers and actors skillfully depict the battle that takes place in Joe headquarters and the sword fight in the pulse engine room. Genuinely disturbing moments occur when COBRA drill bores dig through the walls and a background character succumbs to a surprising death. On the other hand, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which predates G.I. Joe by five years, generated more excitement with their underwater engagements, and then of course there are the exoskeletons. Coming into the film, I knew I would hate them, but I could not have predicted how much I would hate them.

Stormshadow and the Baroness escape with the nanotech in a Hummer and proceed to wreck traffic in Paris. Snake-Eyes catches up to them, leaps onto the roof of the truck and stops them in a rousing moment. He does all of this without an exoskeleton. Duke and Ripcord follow in these awful things.

Only Duke and Ripcord use the junky special effect eyesores. Therefore, the exoskeletons are superfluous. If the suits were necessary in the story, all the Joes should be wearing them; what a nightmare that would have been. Only Duke and Ripcord appear to need them, and they fail miserably anyways. Snake-Eyes on the other hand succeeds. What was the point? That cgi gurus can design and animate ugly suits of armor? The whole Paris chase would have been more exhilarating had Duke and Ripcord pursued the Baroness and Stormshadow, who flee from Snake-Eyes’ manage to just survive Snake-Eyes‘ brilliant stratagem, unencumbered.

For a the first twenty minutes or so, I thought that G.I. Joe was going to be another Transformers film, a movie that mainstream critics would hate but fans would love. Let me just say that G.I. Joe is not a horrible film. It's no wretched Batman Forever or even an idiotic Daredevil, that is for certain. It's a flawed film, but it's watchable. However, the entire movie could have been and should have been much better.

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