DVD Release Date:  November 3, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  August 7, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout)
Genre:  Action
Run Time:  118 min.
Director:  Stephen Sommers
Actors:  Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Byung-hun Lee, Dennis Quaid, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sienna Miller, Said Taghmaoui, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbage, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce

It's not unusual for critics to complain that big-budget action films focus on, well, action at the expense of character development, but each summer the bar is lowered further. The answer for the critic is to either lower his expectations, or take the predictable barbs sure to come his way when he complains, for the umpteenth time, that a certain film has compensated for a lack of interesting characters by focusing almost exclusively on screen spectacle.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, directed by Stephen Sommers (The Mummy), is the latest case in point. Its reported $175 million budget can be seen up on the screen—some of the film's special effects, while not advancing the art, are effectively eye-catching—but viewers are left with a story that feels half-formed at best. Apparently not much of that $175 million went to the screenwriters.

James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) has developed the world's first nanotech warheads. Not only will the weapons cause destruction upon initial impact, but the materials in the weaponry will then spread out, devouring and destroying everything in their path.

McCullen chooses Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) to transport his weapons safely to the U.S. government, but the team comes under attack from Ana (Sienna Miller), Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and a group of super villains. The weapons fall into the bad guys' hands and several of the good guys die, but Duke and Ripcord are saved by Gen. Hawk (Dennis Quaid) and his international G.I. Joe team. Hawk recruits Duke and Ripcord to help regain control of the warheads before they can destroy Paris, Moscow, Beijing and Washington, D.C.

The pursuit will involve the destruction of the Eiffel Tower, lots of car chases, tremendous explosions and some speedy underwater vessels called "sharks" that, in their plastic, retail-ready form, are surely already flying off toy-store shelves. For G.I. Joe is, if nothing else, the start of a big-screen franchise that will sell lots of merchandise for Hasbro, which launched the toy line decades ago. (G.I. Joe comics, dolls and a TV cartoon show were popular among earlier generations, but this is the first live-action big-screen treatment based on the products.)

The plot of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra has all the subtlety of one of those animated episodes of G.I. Joe from the mid-1980s. When an endangered Joe asks his tormentor, "Why don't you just kill me?" and she responds that she's delaying his death because her boss "has something special in store" for the soldier, one can't help but think of Austin Powers-style spoofs of such predictable hero-in-peril moments. Anyone who thinks the soldier's fate is seriously in doubt hasn't seen many movies.

Another sign of screenwriter laziness: multiple flashbacks. Rather than devoting words and ideas to establishing a coherent storyline in the present, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra keeps backtracking to earlier events. The movie opens in France, in 1641, before picking up "in the not too distant future." Duke has a flashback to his earlier relationship with Ana, a former fiancée who broke their conditional engagement after Duke failed to protect Ana's brother, Rex (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Most distracting of all is Storm Shadow's back story that involves a childhood rivalry with a fellow student. Why should viewers care that this one-note villain is psychologically damaged?