Tuesday, February 7, 2012

FEATURE: GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra Revisited

GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra was released to pretty much universal derision. Fans of the series were disappointed with the changes made to the line's lore, non-fans didn't see what all the fuss was about and critics generally panned the movie's premise, plot and performances.

With GI Joe: Retaliation hitting theatres this Summer - and being promoted during the Super Bowl this weekend - USA Network took the opportunity to capitalise on this potential second wave of Joe-mania by screening the TV premiere of The Rise Of Cobra and now, almost three years on, we felt it was a good time to take a look back and see just where the producers went wrong. And also, where they got it right...

Spoiler Warning
Be aware that this retrospective features discussions of the plot and characters from GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. As such, it will contain spoilers.

Hollywood loves remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, sequels and adaptations. Why? Because an existing Intellectual Property makes for an easy sell to the viewing public. Tell an audience that your movie is based on the Transformers and they'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect. But try to cold-sell somebody on an original idea like, say, Moon and they'll be far less likely to get excited about it, because they simply don't know what it is. It doesn't matter which movie is better or more engaging. For the mass-audience, the Transformers movie is the safe bet, so that's where their $10 will go.

Now whilst most people are well aware of what the Transformers are, they'd probably struggle to identify who's an Autobot and who's a Decepticon. There are, however, fans out there who can not only tell the difference but also know the ins and outs of every single character, episode and aspect of Transformers lore to the point of being able to identify their each character simply by the bolts on his or her wheels.

In reality these fans only form a tiny segment of the potential viewing public, despite being long-term supporters of the brand. It's the mass-market audience - who not only don't know but also don't care whether Bumblebee should be a Chevy Camaro or a VW Beetle - that will always be the real focus of any adaptation. Making movies is an expensive business and although most movie-makers will try to remain relatively close to the source material, at the end of the day if a few changes make the new adaptation more palatable to a wider audience, then you can bet those changes will be made.

And that's exactly what happened with GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. The movie-makers saw a way to  introduce it to a new audience who weren't familiar with the source material by modifying the set-up and characters to produce a new, mass market-friendly take on GI Joe.

Now to those people who argue that the movie ''changed too many things'' here's something you really need to consider: GI Joe has never had a rock-solid canon. There is no definitive take on the concept. The comics, the file cards, the cartoon shows and - most importantly - every single story played-out by a kid with his Joes is a different story line. Like Doctor Who, GI Joe adapts to the Zeitgeist and is completely open to change. Don't believe me? Well, since the sixties we've seen GI Joe as a hardcore military toy line, a sci-fi space adventure, a spy-thriller, a futuristic tale of counter-terrorism, an exploration and adventure tale and much, much more.

The Rise Of Cobra  hardly represents the only time the Joe universe has been so overhauled. GI Joe: Resolute and then later GI Joe: Renegades both took the show in radically different directions thematically, stylistically and in terms of tone and even plot. But that's part of what makes GI Joe such an enduring concept: it can be reinvented and reimagined for every age.

The Rise Of Cobra
 is simply another take on the Joe universe.

Cobra Commander And Other Fan-bating Outrages
Perhaps the biggest point of contention for fans that dislike the movie is the new Cobra Commander origin story. In The Rise Of Cobra, the chief villain is not Cobra Commander but is instead James McCullen, weapons manufacturer and CEO of MARS Industries. It's his actions that drive the plot as he attempts to gain control of the world by creating a climate of fear in which his (legitimate) weapons supply business will flourish. It's a Bond villain plot for sure, but it has its own logic and at least his goals are pretty clear.

What's most interesting though is that Cobra Commander doesn't actually emerge as the villain until the final few minutes of the movie and instead spends most of the two hour run time as McCullen's subordinate, The Doctor - a former weapons inspector disfigured in an explosion caused by the MARS CEO. At the movie's climax he is finally able to avenge himself by executing his plan and implanting McCullen with will-sapping Nano-mites, in the process disfiguring him (and turning him into Destro) and then taking control of the company's billions of dollars of assets.

Now contrast that to the Marvel origin story, in which a former used car salesman manages to amass his own private army of followers, drawn to his fanatical drive and funded by his criminal activities. Unless that Cobra Commander was a seriously smooth mofo who regular robbed Fort Knox, that's a bit of a hard story to swallow.

For me, the movie's take checks all the boxes. It's much more believable that Cobra - or MARS Industries - could get their hands on an array of modern weapons, fund the construction of an underwater base and have an entire army at their disposal than the whole Marvel - or even the cartoon series - set-up. Maybe Cobra's telethons and the Cold Slither royalties amassed more funds than we imagined.

But beyond the credibility factor it also shows us so much of Cobra Commander's personality. Not only is he willing to reprogram his own sister to become a criminal to suit his own ends (his sympathetic ''she was an emotional wreck'' motivation is false, as Duke so rightly points out) but he's also willing to sit it out for four years as McCullen plots and schemes until the opportunity arises for him to not only exact his revenge but also take control and redirect MARS' assets into creating his new empire of evil.

If that ain't cold, I don't know what is.

Fans also seemed to respond poorly to Channing Tatum's portrayal of Duke. But aside from not really resembling the character, I think Tatum does a perfectly fine job with the role. Although it's been stated in the past that part of Snake Eyes' appeal is that he's a ''blank slate'' upon which kids/the viewer can project their own character, I've always thought of that as Duke's role. He's heroic, he's brave, he's noble and... he's a bit bland. But that's fine because he's supposed to be the Everyman of the GI Joe team - at least in my view. And Tatum does a fine job portraying a relate-able - if a little generic - action hero. Leave the gags to Ripcord and Breaker and the cool fighting stuff to Snake Eyes. GI Joe is an ensemble piece and everybody has a role to fill, including the ever-reliable-if-predictable Duke.

There were also complaints about the way the backstories of Duke, The Baroness and Cobra Commander were intertwined. But again, this is a new GI Joe canon. The inclusion of the ''across the battle lines'' romance adds more depth to the relationship between not just Duke and The Baroness but is also a nice little callback to the the Sunbow cartoon, which featured a number of episodes with a similar ''forbidden love'' theme between Joes and Cobra agents (or Dreadnoks). In that way The Rise Of Cobra is actually pretty true to what's gone before.

But more importantly the conflicted feelings of Duke toward The Baroness and her own inner-battle are an attempt to spin a little more from the story and add a something extra in the way of depth to the characters. How successful that is I'll leave up to you to judge but personally I'd rather see a movie trying to add such extra elements and not being entirely successful than watch a movie that makes zero attempt beyond the most basic of plot points.

But It's Not All Perfect...
Of course, not everything went to plan and yes, there are some problems with The Rise Of Cobra.

Firstly, the dialogue is pretty clunky in places. Most of the gag set-ups are pretty obvious and there's a fair amount of predictability about what's coming. If I had to describe it in one word, I'd say the script was ''functional.'' But what do you expect from a movie based on a toy line? And yeah, it may be cheesy and unsophisticated but it's also no worse than the majority of Arnold Schwarzenegger movie scripts.

Then there's the whole Snake Eyes-Scarlett relationship. In the comics and cartoons, it's implied that there's more than a teacher and mentor between the pair. Although every writer puts their own spin on this (sometimes it's simply some kind of ''deep Ninja bond'' and at other times it's romantic) it was a disappointment to see that the movie-makers decided instead to partner Scarlett off with Ripcord.

From a mass-audience point-of-view, it's understandable. After all, one-sided conversations between Scarlett and the mute Snake Eyes would probably be difficult to pull-off, especially when the audience knows nothing of their past. But at the same time, making Scarlett the object of Ripcord's affections - and then further reducing her to ''The Girl'' he gets for saving the world - does an injustice not only to the Snake Eyes-Scarlett story but also to the character of Scarlett herself. It's a shame that one of the strongest female characters in toys is reduced so.

It's also a shame that the Storm Shadow-Snake Eyes rivalry isn't explored further. Fans of the comics and cartoons will have a better sense of the complexities of their relationship but the movie audience didn't get to see more of their friendship-turned-rivalry and that's to the movie's detriment, as it's one of the brand's strengths. But at least it's acknowledged, which is better than nothing.

And then there's the special effects. Whilst there are some pretty impressive sequences and the visual direction has a massive amount of hyperkinetic flair, there are some effects that really don't make the grade. Some can be passed off as stylistic decisions. Others, not so much. But then again if you think good special effects automatically make for a good movie, you should try telling that to anybody who sat through the Star Wars prequels.

It's A Summer Blockbuster!
GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra follows the established template found in most Hollywood blockbusters: there are bad guys to boo, good guys to cheer for, a bit of humour, some stuff gets blown-up and it all unfolds over a a fairly rounded three-act plot. And whilst I'm not saying that every movie should be visual bubblegum, the big screen adaptation of a popular toy line is never going to be Chekhov. Yet The Rise Of Cobra - for all the limitations the genre impose - does manage to be a pretty entertaining Summer blockbuster that has a lot of good going for it.

For starters, I like that the movie features multiple lead characters. Yes, the movie is essentially ''Duke's journey'' and we see much of the world through his eyes but beyond that, everybody seems to get to do a bit of something. There are six lead characters here (seven if you include General Hawk) and five villains (plus assorted henchmen), yet - for the most part - it never feels over-crowded. That's quite an achievement and is - again - a nice callback to the cartoon, which featured a rotating cast of characters.

Secondly, despite being a ''mindless'' action movie, the plot actually holds together pretty well. No, it's not particularly complex and sure, there are a few scenes that probably could have been cut (the whole Paris Pursuit sequence springs to mind) but overall, it works. There are no plot-threads left unresolved, the basic premise makes sense, there are a few unexpected turns, the performances are actually pretty good (especially when there's a little bit of sly comedy), character motivations are believable and most of all - and this is something fans who dislike the movie don't seem to get - it's actually pretty true to the spirit of the 80s animated show - which, let's be honest, was pretty hokey.

So like I say, maybe it isn't Chekhov. But nor should it be.

Well, What DID You Expect?
I have to admit that the first time I watched GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra was on a plane journey - hardly the best way to experience any movie, especially an action one. And at the time I wasn't even a GI Joe collector, so there was a lot I didn't really get (at least not in that knowing fan way) and I was left a little cold by the whole experience.

Having re-watched the movie again in a better environment - and now as a collector of GI Joes - I'm left wondering just what, exactly, the hardcore fanbase who've expressed a dislike actually expected from this movie and why they seem to have so many issues with it. Yes, The Rise Of Cobra introduced some new concepts and made changes to many of the characters but really, is that such a bad thing? GI Joe has evolved and undergone a number of radical overhauls over the years and the fact that it can do so and adapt to the times is a sign of how strong a brand it is. So why do some fans find this movie so unpalatable when all it's doing is continuing the tradition of adapting for the audience?

I'm not saying The Rise Of Cobra is a great movie. But it is a solid, action-filled sci-fi techno-adventure with some exciting sequences, a cohesive plot that's never dull and some neat vehicles and gadgets. But most of all it actually is a pretty good adaptation of the source material. Yes, there are changes to the characters, relationships and lore but at its heart it's as much in the vein of the classic cartoons as anything else.

To be honest, I don't understand what else it could have been...


  1. Well said.
    As a lifelong GI Joe fan, I never understood the hate this movie got. It's not one of my favorites, but I enjoyed it enough to see it in the theater & buy the DVD when it was released. I pop it in every once in a while. My wife enjoyed it too.
    Sure the Paris chase scene was unnecessary, but the Eiffel Tower disintegrating was 100% pure GI Joe. And it added gravitas and a sense of urgency.
    Your points about Cobra Commander were on the money as well. Overall, I liked what they did with the character. To me, he acted how Cobra Commander SHOULD act - as a master manipulator. He used Destro and his own sister to do his dirty work, and did so successfully. My only real complaint is his mask in the end. I understand wanting to avoid the hood, but Retaliation shows that the classic mask works.
    What kills me is that hardcore fans praise Zartan above the rest of the villains, yet he is the furthest removed from his classic character. Instead of being a talkative biker mercenary, he is a mute follower of Destro. Don't get me wrong, I think this is the best version of the character EVER. He is a deadly infiltrator and master of disguise - before and after receiving the nanomites. Switching him with the real president is classic GI Joe and I'm happy to see that Retaliation will continue that story line.
    Agree wholeheartedly on your opinions of Duke. I've never liked Duke because he is so white bread and he's never had much of a personality. Tatum was just fine in the role. A more dynamic actor or bigger name would have been absolutely wrong for Duke.
    Molded mouth & muscles aside, Ray Park was born to play Snake Eyes.
    If Heavy Duty would have used his bad ass Mr. Echo voice instead of his real, soft British voice, the character would have been 200% more intimidating and much better. Also, the earring should have been removed...

    1. Thanks. Like you, I'm not really sure why people hated it so much or - more specifically - what they expected from it...

      Thanks for the comments - I know it was a lengthy read but it's good to know that it struck a chord somewhere!


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