Review: G.I. Joe turns out to be summer escapism at its best

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

As a 9-year-old in 1984, I was the perfect age to experience the original G.I. Joe cartoon and collect its accompanying action figures. Two weeks ago, at the age of 33, I immersed myself in a terrific box set containing the entire series and refamiliarized myself with the specifics of the characters and their story.

To say that I'm ready for a teched-up, nostalgia-trip live-action adaptation would be an understatement. Remarkably, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra succeeds on exactly that level: as a high-powered, good-versus-bad adventure that offers no subtlety or substance, Stephen Sommers' film captures the silly energy that made the series such a childhood favorite and finds a way to fulfill the expectations of fanboys from 13 to 30 (okay, 33) in the process.

The film stars Channing Tatum as Duke, lifelong soldier who enlists in G.I. Joe's top-secret defense program after he and his friend Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are rescued by its team during an attack on their military convoy. Joining the ranks of Breaker (Said Taghmaoui), Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), Duke and Ripcord are recruited to protect a deadly new weapon that ultimately ends up in the hands of Baroness (Sienna Miller), Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee) and McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), who intend to use it to spread fear and control the planet's leaders. Soon, Duke, Ripcord and the rest of the Joes find themselves racing around the globe to apprehend COBRA's leaders and intercept their attack before the world's populations are laid waste.

What's most wrong with the film is its vague pretense of contemporizing the Joe team and the universe in which they operate. As a covert organization, G.I. Joe seems to be the worst-kept secret in U.S. government history, especially since its members are not only well-known, as is apparently the case with their leader, General Hawk, whom Duke recognizes on sight, but frequently involved in highly public, almost always massively destructive operations. (The president refers to them in multiple conversations with his staff as if they were in charge of water and power.)

Additionally, while the film retains a semblance of each character's personality from the cartoon series, it dresses them all up in fetish-worthy armor that makes them indistinguishable from one another. God help them if they ever needed two guys to do the same thing in two different places. But because the Joes were a team comprised almost entirely of specialists, their respective costumes were a vaguely legitimate way to identify their fields of expertise, and screenwriters Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett reduce them to superhuman automatons identifiable only by their accents or dispositions.

At the same time, G.I. Joe is itself a superhuman automaton, and that's a good thing: Thanks to wall-to-wall action, there's precious little time for personality—either the characters' or the film's—to distract audiences. The few instances in which the dialogue is purely howl-worthy all fall into so-bad-they're-good territory, and the rest of the exchanges are perfunctory points of exposition that either explain what's just happened or set up what's about to. Further, the film provides itself with an admittedly ridiculous but surprisingly constant internal logic that justifies each new revelation, be it a scientific breakthrough or technique that allows for something awesome to happen, or just a plot-propelling moment of realization that gives the Joes an opportunity to track down their adversaries.

If all of this sounds too forgiving, well, it probably is, but looking back at the original show, all of the conflicts there were one-dimensional, too. But, culturally speaking, there seems to be a need in contemporary entertainment to truly explain and analyze the motivations of each development or each character's behavior—and mind you, in a more mature film, or something truly intended for grown-ups, that's a welcome effort. But in G.I. Joe, all the audience wants is someone to root for and/or against, and reassuringly, there are no shades of gray between the heroes and the villains, nor messy realities like geographical proximity or even physics itself to interfere with the film's raison d'etre—namely, to entertain the hell out of popcorn eaters.

Ultimately, G.I. Joe probably will appeal most to the 12-year-olds in the audience, or at least those adults most eager to embrace their inner 12-year-olds, which means if you felt burned by Revenge of the Fallen then you should beware of this film. Even with its wanton, decidedly grown-up destruction, it feels like a movie that was engineered for thrill-seeking 'tweens, deliberately leaving matters like international politics, personal morality and the complexities of heroism and villainy on the sidelines of the story. But as a trip down memory lane, and the best kind of summer escapism, G.I. Joe delivers what it promises: the reinvention of an animated series as a live-action adventure, but without trying to make that world any more three-dimensional.

Whether that means 9-year-olds now will love this as much when they remake it 25 years later remains to be seen. But for the time being, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra fuels adolescent excitement and imagination at least as well as the source material that inspired it.