In the aftermath of Michael Bay’s Transformers, the new frontier for Hollywood blockbusters wasn’t just comic books, it was action figures.
Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe would prove to have stronger legs over the next decade, there was a brief moment when 1980s-era Saturday cartoons seemed like the choice ground to mine blockbuster scripts. There was a sweet bonus for investors and producers too: there were already action figures to sell.
A lot of those movies were... not great, but at least one of them has a more interesting story behind its creation than anything you see onscreen. With a new prequel reboot on the horizon — Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins this July — there’s never been a better time to watch G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, now that it’s finally streaming on Netflix.
Based on the ‘80s military-themed toy line that was made in direct response to the popularity of Star Wars (Netflix’s The Toys That Made Us has an episode that explains it all), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is the picture-perfect definition of a dumb summer action movie. Unmotivated camera movement, exotic locations, hot people’s bodies, a warm color temperature — it is unavoidable just how of its time The Rise of Cobra even looks. Michael Bay’s name is nowhere in the movie’s credits, but his influence permeates almost every frame.
An anomaly to The Rise of Cobra is its large cast of noteworthy actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the same year he played lovestruck loser Tom in (500) Days of Summer, rises as the iconic villain Cobra Commander. He orders around Destro, played by Christopher Eccleston, who was still a few years fresh from Doctor Who. Byung-hun Lee, once primed to be the biggest South Korean/Hollywood crossover star, appears as the ninja Storm Shadow in one of the cleanest comic book movie costumes of all time. Sienna Miller, a BAFTA-nominated thespian, appears here in her one and only action movie role.
And that’s just the Cobra squad.
As for the G.I. Joe team, the lineup includes Marlon Wayans, Dennis Quaid, Rachel Nichols, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Park (as the mute “Snake Eyes”), Saïd Taghmaoui, and Brendan Fraser in an uncredited cameo (and a role Fraser likens to be an ancestor of his Mummy character). Whatever else, The Rise of Cobra is one hell of a stacked movie.
And then there’s Channing Tatum. Before he revealed himself to be an eccentric screen star capable of subverting his own physical looks, Tatum was placed in G.I. Joe as the square-jawed action hero “Duke” that Hollywood thought he was destined to be forever. It’s actually strange we live in a reality where Tatum tried to be Gambit and not Captain America.
At first, Tatum wanted nothing to do with G.I. Joe, either. “I was originally opposed to it,” he told Collider in 2008, saying his transition into the project from the anti-war picture Stop-Less left him disinterested. “Especially coming off of Stop-Loss, playing a soldier about a really sensitive topic? I had no interest in going to play a fake soldier in a hyper-real kind of fantasy war. I was just like, ‘Nope. No Thanks.’”
But Tatum turned around both because of the movie’s action-fantasy elements (“It’s X-Men and Mission Impossible, Star Wars, that’s how it is,” he said) and, as he would later reveal in 2015, contractual obligations with Paramount.
Key to G.I. Joe is its emphasis on ridiculous military technology that seems like science-fiction. That’s not a mistake; it’s actually the very point of The Rise of Cobra, which merely appropriates Hasbro’s G.I. Joe toys to draw nostalgic ticket sales.
In 2003, film producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura had publicly expressed interest in producing a movie around advanced military technology. Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner took notice of di Bonaventura and cold-called him on producing a movie based on the G.I. Joe action figure franchise.
"From one conversation to the next, we hit it off," di Bonaventura told MarketWatch in December 2008. "In normal times, it could take months of conversation to move forward. Brian and I did it in two or three times.”
But just as G.I. Joe was heating up, so was the Iraq War. Oddly enough, the producers saw this moment as the absolute worst time for a film like G.I. Joe, which led them to produce Transformers first. (Wouldn’t you know it, transforming cars from outer space are less politically loaded than an army of elite international soldiers.)
In a set interview with Latino Review during the filming of Transformers, producer Don Murphy said:
“[Transformers] started almost haphazardly at the beginning. I had been in conversation with Hasbro to do G.I. Joe, and Sony was interested in doing it. Then we invaded Iraq and it became kind of clear that doing a movie called G.I. Joe was probably not the smartest idea at that point.”
In another interview with Latino Review from March 2007, di Bonaventura joked, “Unfortunately, our president [George W. Bush] has put us in a position internationally where it would be very difficult to release a movie called G.I. Joe.”
Still, after Transformers, G.I. Joe was a no-brainer. Stephen Sommers, best known for directing millennial staples like The Mummy (1999), was hired by Paramount based on his well-received pitch that was partially inspired by the similarly technology-driven James Bond film series.
But the project encountered several roadblocks in its conceptual stage — primarily by fans. While acclaimed G.I. Joe comics writer Larry Hama was hired as a consultant to tune the script closer to the G.I. Joe comics, there were still divergent ideas that leaked, including the G.I. Joe team being based in Brussels and actually having an acronym (“Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity.”) Uproar from fans and even Army Times, which called this revision “the epitome of corporate greed and destroys the foundation in the belief in the American way” (reminder, this is a movie based on action figures), was so loud about that Hasbro actually issued this official statement:
“Hasbro’s G.I. Joe Team wanted to take this opportunity to clarify some of the facts regarding the G.I. Joe live-action movie that we are developing with Paramount Pictures. First and foremost, we are not changing what the G.I. Joe brand is about. The name ‘G.I. Joe’ will always be synonymous with bravery and heroism.”
In retrospect, everything about G.I. Joe is hilarious. From its origins as an action figure franchise to a movie project vaguely about military technology to causing an uproar with collectors and Army veterans alike, all for a middling summer action movie that lacks any lasting imagery, characters, or actual stakes in what should have been an easy plot to crack.
It’s an action movie that doesn’t make any intelligent use of its source material’s iconography outside its two supporting ninjas, one of whom doesn’t say a thing. It’s a movie that doesn’t have one single memorable image, and it’s just almost two hours long. It has Channing Tatum wearing an armored Power Rangers costume running through Paris, and somehow this is the least interesting thing in the entire movie.
The worst thing about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is how much you will not remember anything about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Knowing what happened behind the scenes and the career fallouts from its release is the only thing that lends Rise of Cobra mystique. Otherwise, it’s merely a movie engineered for Saturday afternoons on FX. While Transformers at least has a facsimile of an earnest film — a coming-of-age story of boyhood told through cars and your first crush — G.I. Joe had an opportunity to have interesting things to say about the inflated budgets of the U.S. military amidst the trenches of the Iraq War. Instead, it’s an excuse to blow things up and deliver empty quips.
In that way, it’s kind of the perfect G.I. Joe movie.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is streaming now on Netflix in the U.S.