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The Rise of Cobra

GI Joe
by yo go re

The first Transformers movie was surprisingly good, which is why Transformers 2 was so disappointing - we knew a better movie was possible. And when TF2 stumbled, that just added fuel to the flames for everyone who was expecting Hasbro's other summer movie, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, to be a terrible waste of time.

For whatever reason, the film seemed to get nothing but bad buzz from day one. The fanboys hated every announcement - the cast, the costumes, the plot, the director, the special effects, the trailer... everything was an excuse for bitching and moaning about how this movie was turning into a complete travesty. But then the oddest thing happened: as more trailers came out, the movie started to look better; attitudes softened. By the time the movie came out, some folks were even - *gasp!* - looking forward to it! Unthinkable! And suddenly it seemed that everyone who saw the movie said the same thing: it exceeded their expectations. In fact, it wasn't bad at all.

A lot of the complaints about the film, even after its release, have more to do with people's own perceptions than the actual quality of the film itself. Some people wanted hardcore military fiction, like Blackhawk Down; that hasn't been GI Joe's bag since 1969. Others wanted a straight Generation 1 adaptation, and complained about "changes" to their favorites, ignoring the fact that this was a new continuity with new characters; this isn't a RAH movie, and it was never meant to be. Rise of Cobra draws from (nearly) every facet of GI Joe history - yes, its heaviest influence is A Real American Hero, but everything gets some play.

More and more, big-budget updates of geeky nostalgia properties take a serious tone. Wolverine may have been a big action fest, but it can hardly be said to be fun. Dark Knight was a superb film, but also rather depressing. Hell, trying to be dark is what crippled Superman Returns and stopped that franchise before it even got started. Rise of Cobra adroitly sidesteps that issue: it's a shameless popcorn movie, but it's never unengaging or insulting. Director Stephen Sommers doesn't have a perfect track record, but Rise of Cobra is more The Mummy than Van Helsing, and that's not too shabby.

The "Rise of Cobra" subtitle is a direct indicator of the movie's structure: this isn't a battle between established forces of Joe and Cobra, it's an origin story. And not just for Cobra, either - we get numerous flashbacks filling in the key character relationships, and allowing those characters to become (slightly) more than cardboard cutouts with machine guns. There's a subtlety here that most action movies would file right off. Characters have emotions and motivations, not just reactions and quips.

However, the traditional action move tropes are all in effect here: eye-rolling one-liners, crazy car chases, shootouts and swordfights, and of course plenty of baysplosions. The pacing is good, with four major sequences spread through the film's 117-minute runtime, each taking place in a different exotic locale. The action is intense, but cut with a decent level of humor. Well, okay, sometimes a little too much humor (but Ripcord is still no Skidflap). The editing is clear, saving us from any Michael Bay-style "wait, what just happened?" moments. The effects, both digital and practical, blend better than the first sneak peeks would have led us to believe. And the Delta-6 Accelerator Suits, target of so much fanboy hate, play a much less significant role than it seemed.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Rise of Cobra is how successfully it merges real human moments with the cartoony elements of the story. The merits of Marvel's comicbook stories vs. Sunbow's animated continuity have always been a point of debate among the fandom, but this movie mixes the two. The action is pure cartoon, with manned drill pods, fold-out flightpacks, and what may as well be laser rifles, but the characterization owes more to the comics, showing hints of Larry Hama's deft touch - which shouldn't be much of a surprise, since he was invited on as a consultant (a real Cue Cullen moment for the fans when it was announced). The movie doesn't go out of its way to explain any of the craziness: giant bases are built in total secret in inconvenient locations, technology that should realistically pulp the user is safe even if you've never tested it, and we're just meant to accept it; thanks to the way the film is put together, we do.

Paramount is using both RoC and TF2 to help push Blu-ray, but the movie still looks nice on the regular DVD release. The colors are bright and vibrant, and the contrast is top-notch: the blacks are inky, but you can still make out details even in the darkest spots (say, Snake-Eyes' uniform); at the other end of the spectrum, the bright whites of the Arctic snowfields present no blooming or washout. Some sequences look more like videogame cutscenes than a film, but when 95% of a scene is something practically unfilmable, what do you want? Details are rich throughout, particularly noticeable in closeups or the first tour of The Pit.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is a dream for action movie fans. There's a varied ambiance that ensures a NATO meeting room sounds different from a Central Asian forest. In the action scenes, the quiet hiss of hydraulics can be picked out among the bursts of gunfire. Dialogue is clear, and never overwhelmed by sound effects. In all, an impressive presentation.

The special features, on the other hand, are slightly disappointing. You'll get the same extras whether you buy the DVD or Blu-ray, which is a true oddity: isn't one of Blu-ray's selling points supposed to be that you get tons of additional features? We begin with a commentary from director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay, which does spend some time on play-by-play of what we're watching, but also goes into the casting and costume choices - for instance, Sommers had to fight with one of the studio guys to keep Snake-Eyes in a mask. He's also honest about effects shots he's unhappy with, and discusses changes that were made to the script as shooting went on. It's quite interesting from a behind-the-scenes perspective.

"The Big Bang Theory: The Making of GI Joe" thankfully has nothing to do with the god-awful CBS geek minstrel show. This half-hour feature begins with Brian Goldner discussing Hasbro's work to bring their toy powerhouse to theaters, then introduces the origins of the ARAH story (as opposed to America's Movable Fighting Man). Sommers and and writer Stuart Stuart Beattie point out specific ways the comics influenced the story, because they wanted to make the existing fans happy. There are on-set interviews with the cast, and we get a lot about the production design. Plus, if you want to see everyone make fun of Stephen Sommers, this is the feature for you.

"Next-Gen Action: The Amazing Visual FX and Design of GI Joe" may have a hyperbolic title, but it's a fairly tepid breakdown of the action scenes and CGI workmanship. It's 21 minutes long, but zips through things far too quickly. We brush the surface of several different elements, but never really go in-depth. Hell, there are at least a dozen things mentioned in the commentary track that would have been cool to see here.

The disc includes no deleted scenes, although we know there are at least a few - you know, little bits you saw in the trailers but not in the finished film. Such a thin selection of extras gives me a bad feeling: the feeling that a double-dip "Special Edition" release is coming later.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra had a tough assignment: it's an adult's version of a children's property, and it had to appeal both to those of us who hear "GI Joe" and think of a team of Real American Heroes, as well as to the kids of the people who hear it and think of a single guy with real cloth outfits and kung-fu grip. It was never going to be high cinema, and Sommers was brave enough to not try to force it to be. You've got clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, but the movie never stoops to pandering. You don't have to turn your brain off to enjoy RoC, nor do you have to watch it through the eyes of a child. If you're willing to accept this movie for what it is, rather than what you think you want it to be, you'll be highly entertained.

-- 12/04/09

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