Monday, August 10, 2009


“Van Helsing” director Stephen Sommers pays tribute to several Hollywood blockbusters in his latest effort “G.I. Joe, The Rise of the Cobra,” (*** out of ****)the second-live action film celebrating the legendary line of Hasbro action figures. Sommers makes allusions in “G.I. Joe” to the James Bond epics “Moonraker,” “Thunderball,” and “The Spy Who Loved Me” as well as the Clint Eastwood Cold War thriller “Firefox” and Jean-Claude Van Damme sci-fi flick “Universal Soldier. “G.I. Joe” bristles with larger-than-life heroes and villains clashing with super-charged weapons amid futuristic pyrotechnics. Not surprisingly, characterization takes a backseat to the high-octane, adrenalin-laced action sequences. Sadly, the formulaic storyline doesn’t spring as many surprises as most big action films, but Sommers keeps the action moving swiftly.

A treacherous Scottish arms dealer named James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston of "Dr. Who"), who is in league with a vast criminal organization called COBRA, has spent ten years creating a apocalyptic new weapon with NATO funding. McCullen’s Mars Weapons Company have subverted microscopic green nanomites originally used to eliminate cancer into feisty little buggers can munch their way through either the armor on an army tank or the Eiffel Tower. McCullen presents this formidable weapon to NATO, and our two heroes, U.S. Army officers Duke (Channing Tatum of “Public Enemies”) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans of “Dance Movie”), escort it via a heavily armed convoy with Apache helicopters flying overhead as escorts. Out of nowhere the military escort is ambushed. A stealthy ninja in white, Storm Shadow (South Korean superstar Byung-hun Lee), and a spectacularly sexy kick-butt babe-in-black, the Baroness (Sienna Miller of “Factory Girl”), try to steal the suitcase containing the four warheads with the deadly nano technology. Duke recognizes the Baroness as a girl that he almost married. Fortunately, our heroes manage to hang onto the warheads because the elite G.I. Joe commando team intervenes and thwarts the villains. A black-clad ninja, Snake Eyes (Ray Park of “Fanboys”), crosses swords with Shadow Storm. As we learn afterwards, these guys have a history of hate. Later, the villains manage to reprogram a homing device in the suitcase and the Baroness and her team invades the G.I. Joe headquarters—called the Pit--deep beneath the desert sands of the Sahara in Egypt. They catch the heroes off guard, wound General Hawk, and steal the warheads.

McCullen has teamed up with a malevolent scientific genius, the Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “The Look Out”), who injects this nano serum into soldiers. We see one soldier thrust his arm into a glass case housing a venomous cobra and the snake bites him. The soldier withdraws his arm and the nano technology in his bloodstream repels the venom. You see it leak out of his wounds. We're talking some bad mothers here! McCullen wants to demonstrate to the world how lethal his cannibalistic nano technology is and dispatches his minions to Paris to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, Duke and Ripcord convince General Hawk (Dennis Quaid of “Vantage Point”) to let them join the team in exchange for Duke’s information about the Baroness. Duke had planned to marry her, but things got complicated when he made a promise to look after her brother during a raid in Africa. Our heroes pass all the grueling trials, including some devised by a combat instructor (Brendan Fraser of the “Mummy” movies in a cameo). Duke and Ripcord don a couple of accelerator outfits, created by the Stan Winston Studio, which enable them to hoof it around Paris at 40 miles per hour, dodge missiles streaking toward them, and hurtle cars like daredevils, as they pursue the Baroness and Shadow Storm. This qualifies as the best action scene in “G.I. Joe.”

At 118 minutes, “G.I. Joe” rarely sacrifices its momentum, except to plunge us into frequent flashbacks so we can learn important events that shaped the lives of the heroes and the villains. The Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett screenplay isn't for an instant remotely believable, but the action is pretty exciting. Unfortunately, predictability sets in early, enough so that a couple of revelations lack sufficient punch. Furthermore, Sommers and his scribes shun any effort to create characters here because that would interfere with the hyper-kinetic action sequences.

Sommers directs with a sure hand, but the humor that made his previous movies so charming is conspicuously absent. The chief villain mimics the James Bond villain Drax from “Moonraker” (1979) because he steals his own weapons back from the military. Later, Ripcord pilots a state-of-the-art “Firefox” jet with a sophisticated weapons system that responds to vocal commands instead of hands-on application. He has to chase two deadly missiles before each destroys major world capitals, another cliffhanger “Moonraker” ploy, and blast them to smithereens. The massive polar ice cap base that the COBRA organization has built recalls another Bond bonanza “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Kevin J. O'Connor and Arnold Vosloo are two other “Mummy” cast members who show up here, and Vosloo gets to impersonate the President. The nanomites recall the scarabs that swarmed throughout “The Mummy.”

People who loved the “G.I. Joe” cartoon show might be in a better, more informed position to criticize this actioneer. However, it should be known that Ripcord wasn’t an African-American in the cartoon but the villains did launch an assault on the Eiffel Tower. The performances here are serviceable. Channing Tatum seems rather leaden, but then most action heroes are one-dimensional. Our heroes aren’t as flamboyant as the villains. Christopher Eccleston chews the scenery with considerable relish like his nanomites and makes a fantastic villain, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes the most of his evil doctor. Although it isn’t as audacious as “Transformers 2,” “G.I. Joe” ranks as an above-average testosterone thriller, with an ending that leaves the film open to an inevitable sequel.

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