Despite the fact that the President of the United States is depicted as a pasty white guy, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is an unmistakably Obama-era military fantasy, premised on the existence of a messy, multi-polar world in which America’s chest-beating style of leadership has been dialed down as a result of our deep participation in an international military cooperative, one that prides itself on equal input among its member nations, and in which even France is boldly asserted as a key player. The G.I. J.O.E. squads that fan out across the globe to combat terror could be fairly described as world police, just don’t call them Team America. This “near future” world, as it’s described at the outset, consequently struggles with a power vacuum and is plagued by a frightening disparity in weaponry between the good guys and terrorist bad guys, as demonstrated in the opening scene in which an American military convoy is ambushed by an enemy possessing advanced technology such as hover-and-zoom-away aircraft and pistolized disintegrators, the latter of which are employed by a leather-clad, walking fetish fantasy called the Baroness (Sienna Miller) to vaporize several U.S. soldiers in the ensuing battle.
Instead of cherry-picking the 40-year-old G.I. Joe toy, comic, and cartoon franchise for elements to construct a plausibly grounded military actioner, director Stephen Sommers has gone whole hog in filming a comic story that’s photoreal, with impressive, weighty effects, but also laughably devoted to preserving the ultra-convoluted, “anything goes” comic ethos that previous tent-poles like Spider-Man have diluted. This adherence to comic logic is perhaps most embodied in the villain, McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), a Euro baddie and honcho of weapons manufacturer M.A.R.S., whose main gripe is a 350-year-old insult to his Scottish clan. Then there’s the Baroness, who is both a British peer and a wealthy Washington D.C. socialite but displays the persona of a high school girl. After a betrayal by a loved one, witnessed in compact flashbacks, the Baroness takes up freelance villainy and dyes her blond hair brown, which is one way comic characters express dissatisfaction; another is faking their own death, which a different character does. None of this feels out of place when you consider that M.A.R.S. and G.I. J.O.E. also each employ one traditionally-suited Japanese ninja, presumably because of a mutual understanding that it’s simply cool to have one-on-one ninja fights erupt during their otherwise inconclusive skirmishes.
One of the few ways Sommers tethers his comic fantasy to the recognizably real world is through an unexpected reliance on brutal violence. Guilty, innocent, and even harmless characters in G.I. Joe are shot, blown up, skewered on swords, vaporized by energy weapons, and executed at point-blank range, though blood is almost nonexistent and the characters are invariably so one-dimensional as to make no emotional impact, alive or dead. Sommers ups the ante for its own sake, racking up a body count for more or less the same reason that he presents busty, redheaded Joe team member Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) bouncing on treadmills and engaged in flirtation with a fellow team member—because the audience isn’t there for a treatise on NATO regulations. In touching the upper boundaries of his PG-13 rating, Sommers seems to be operating under what he perceives as a pact between himself and his 11-year-old fanbase, to simply provide them with as much awesome shit as he’s allowed to shovel at the screen; that shit includes an elaborately designed M.A.R.S. headquarters submerged under the polar ice caps and patrolled by a minefield of mechanized sea bass, a drivable drill weapon the Baroness uses to penetrate the walls of G.I. J.O.E. secret headquarters (Brendan Fraser is glimpsed as a gym instructor there!) and a pair of mechanized, flight-capable body suits that tear up the streets of Paris in one rousing scene, and should have G.I. J.O.E.‘s legal department buzzing with calls from Marvel Entertainment.
For a film like G.I. Joe, with an outlandish roster of villains, which even includes a German expressionist-style mad scientist played to the campy hilt by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cardboard heroes are the traditional counterweight to the bad guys’ outlandishness. Still, even cardboard isn’t as stiff as G.I. J.O.E. team leaders Duke (Channing Tatum, whose looks and charisma would seem to make him more suited for a film adaptation of Mr. Potato Head) and Ripcord (an insufferable, unconvincing Marlon Wayans, representing perhaps the worst casting choice since Cheri Oteri played a Marxist guerilla in Southland Tales) who combined have less depth than the holographic Dennis Quaid who beams up after the initial battle to growl at Duke and Ripcord for a few minutes before predictably inviting them into his secret underground lair.
Still, unlike the atrocious Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which was just a random assemblage of footage that few reasonable people could enjoy, G.I. Joe is not a fraudulent entertainment. It arrives at the court of 11-year-old public opinion fully prepared and confident in its wares, with a handful of expensive, ass-kicking set pieces and exposition filler that’s designed to float by as painlessly as possible—nothing more. Knowing that going in is, well, half the battle.