Shiny Shelf

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra

By Mark Clapham on 07 August 2009

There have been movies which have acted as a shopfront for toys, and there have been movies based on toy ranges, but ‘GI Joe’ gets closer than most to actually taking the concept of the ‘toy movie’ to heart.

Maybe it’s just because the last movie I saw was Michael Bay’s joyless, pretentious and pointless ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’, but the greatest sense I came away with from ‘Joe’ was just how damn playful it was in comparison. Whereas Bay took chunky, appealing toy robots and turned them into super-detailed whizzy clicky nano things, Stephen Sommers has gone the opposite route, using whizzy super advanced nano-tech as an excuse for a world full of plasticky big boys’ toys that the protagonists can gleefully smash together. Wheee! Zap! Crack!

‘GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra’ is set in a world where both heroes and villains have secret bases that are little more than glorified, super-sized toy boxes, multi-level lairs full of little submarines and rocket packs and, in the baddies’ case, multipronged brain hurty plot devices. Training exercises are live action computer games, right down to the scores popping up above the targets heads.

While the Joes are a military organisation and the bad guys are engaging in acts of ‘terrorism’ the film deftly sidesteps any possible connection to real-life violence and warfare: the enemy troops are brainwashed homunculi who can be gleefully blown up and ripped apart like dolls, while normal firearms are frequently tossed aside for a more fantastical arsenal of railguns, lasers and stylised ninja sharp stuff. The action is plausible enough to please small boys but fantastical enough to soothe the nerves of parents, although there are some stabs of horror that may be a bit much for younger kids.

Sommers redeems himself here for much of the overlong, self-involved, self-mythologizing ‘The Mummy Returns’ and ‘Van Helsing’, both of which he wrote as well as directed. Working from a script by other writers, Sommers seems free of his own authorial ticks, never trying to weigh the film down with anything as inappropriate as meaning or characterisation – which is good, as aside from some frankly shocking moments of poor CG, the film’s clunkiest moments are when it tries to characterise. Far better are some outrageous bits of cinematic shorthand, where the narrative slides into hilariously perfunctory and bonkers flashbacks and then back out again, sketching in backstory in bold strokes of narrative crayon.

Thankfully these moments are few and far between and no-one is revealed to have a secret tattoo that makes them the reincarnation of oh-god-what-ever. Instead, the plot and script are functional and fine, with nods to the fans here and there and a sound A-B-C structure that toploads all the exposition into the first few minutes, saving the audience from having to do any further thinking in the following two hours. Yes, every gag and ‘twist’ is telegraphed so far in advance you begin to wonder whether where you thought the film was going was in fact a red herring (it isn’t), and the delivery of these ‘plot developments’ have all the grace of a traction engine attempting a wheelie, but it keeps moving and does the job. There’s enough sly winks to remind the adults not to take things too seriously, and the kids will feel all clever for working those twists out before they happen.

Most of the actors competently fulfill their function as action guy or comedy guy or bad guy, while some seem to know exactly what kind of film they’re in and exactly how to pitch it – Dennis Quaid, Christopher Eccleston, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in particular pitch their performances precisely balanced on the edge of Total Cartoon without tipping over. Channing Tatum has expressed a desire to have a career like Jason Statham, and seems perfectly up to that task, while Byung-hun Lee is as asymmetrically cool as Storm Shadow as he was in ‘The Good, The Bad and The Weird’. The weakest link here is Sienna Miller as the Baroness – she’s fine as an ice-cold sadist dominatrix chasing after the magic plot briefcase, but when given an emotion to express she’s instantly revealed as The Worst Actress Ever.

‘GI Joe’ is silly, nonsensical and dumb, and like pretty much all modern action films it has the odd sequence where the fast-cutting turns the action into a flashy puree of whatever, but it has enough cheesy charm that it never feels like it’s bludgeoning or insulting the audience. It happily pulls toy after toy out of the box, crashing them together and throwing them around on screen and saying look, isn’t this kind of cool?

Well yes, it kind of is.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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