G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra: Straight to Self-Parody

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Frank Masi / Paramount / AP

A scene from G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

One of the few smart things about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was the decision by Paramount Pictures to refuse to screen the movie for the press. The studio's previous summer toy story, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, had earned a sheaf of pans, then took in more than $800 million in its first six weeks of release. Hoping lightning would strike twice, but without the annoying critical thunder, Paramount showed G.I. Joe, which it hopes will be the first in a lucrative series, only to a few reliable bloggers. Less docile scribes like me had to catch a public screening last night at midnight. As the old line goes about some long-ago lemon: The movie wasn't released — it escaped.

Now that I've seen the movie, I understand the Paramount bosses' urge to suppress it. G.I. Joe has plenty of narrative strands, most of them taken from the '80s TV cartoon show and Marvel comic version of the antique Hasbro soldier figures, but they are woven clumsily. Director Stephen Sommers, who did the Mummy trilogy, has no skill with actors and little more with the manipulation of real and virtual hardware. We know the theme will be "War is swell," but the film plays like a long slog in the Big Muddy.

Like Paramount's recent spiffed-up Star Trek franchise, the new movie casts a number of medium-known young people — here Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols and a few others — as members of an élite force of the best, the brightest and the hottest. G.I. Joe is not a man but an international paramilitary force, kind of like Blackwater but without all that messy scandal. The cadre is up against an arms dealer whose organization will eventually spawn Cobra, reminiscent of the SPECTRE cartel of the early James Bond films. They're the sort of well-bred terrorists who, just before firing the weapons that will bring the world to its knees, invite a hero into their lair to explain their evil plans and allow him to thwart them.

To err on the side of kindness, we might guess that the strategy of Sommers and his screenwriters was to ignore the prototype stage of a franchise launch — a vigorous introduction of the characters and motifs — and go directly to self-parody. We are told the main story takes place "In the not too distant future ..." If that recalls the first line of the old Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, you will have brought the proper attitude to the movie: it hardly needs wisecracking robots, for it not only carries the seeds of its own destruction but hands them out like a Burpee's salesman. An early scene, flashing back to 17th century France, plays like a lost Monty Python sketch. For its modern-day Paris scenes, the movie borrows some set pieces (including the blowing up of the Eiffel Tower) from Matt Stone and Trey Parker's Team America: World Police, an action comedy performed by puppets, from whom the expressionless performers appear to have taken their acting cues.

I'm honor-bound to mention a few nice bits. There's a furious, well-orchestrated martial-arts battle between the kids (Brandon Soo Hoo and Leo Howard) who will grow up to be the opposing warriors Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. My current fave young actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, seems to be wasted in a small role but isn't; he'll be more prominent in a sequel. Nichols, playing the brainiac "Scarlett" O'Hara, has an appealing manner and comely biceps, and she engages in a savory girl fight with Sienna Miller, as the mostly villainous Baroness. This PG-13 adventure boasts a lot of real and virtual shooting, but few of the major characters get killed. The only collateral damage is in the audience, where, as you sit through the movie, you can feel your IQ drop minute by minute.

At the end, a new villain rises and an old bad guy assumes a position of great power. "This has only just begun," one of them says, explicitly promising or threatening a sequel. Will there be more of the same? It doesn't matter to me, or I to the filmmakers; my G.I. tract, in fact the communal contumely of critics, is irrelevant to box-office performance. G.I. Joe could be a Transformers-size hit, or it could be another The Golden Compass, the first episode of the His Dark Materials novels; that film cost $180 million and helped drive New Line Cinema out of business. Who knows? Nearly 30 years ago, director Robert Benton mused on a famous flop of the day. "When Steven Spielberg made 1941," Benton said, "he probably thought there'd be a 1942."