Reassessing Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Bizarre Turn as Cobra Commander in ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’
Aug 1, 2018 at 3:30pm
Photos: Getty Images, Hulu
After making a name for himself as a tween actor playing a curmudgeonly alien on the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun, Joseph Gordon-Levitt re-emerged in the mid-to-late ’00s and successfully transitioned from high school crowd pleasers like 10 Things I Hate About You to more dramatic fare like Brick and Stop-Loss. 2009 and 2010 would be the biggest years of his career to date, as he won hearts in the surprise romcom hit (500) Days of Summer and then stunned viewers with a gravity-defying performance in Inception. He even hosted Saturday Night Live during this time, a rite of passage for every actor entering the big time.
And in the midst of all of this, between (500) Days of Summer and Inception, Joseph Gordon-Levitt played Cobra Commander in the truly awful G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Roll that decision around in your noggin for a while and see if you can come up with anything other than “……. what?”
But since G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is now streaming on Hulu, I figured I could try to come up with something other than a bewildered expression when trying to figure out why a suddenly A-list actor would take on a role as completely ludicrous as Cobra Commander–and I don’t even mean “ludicrous” as a positive, like I would were I describing the animated version of the cackling snake-themed villain. Everything about the movie is bad, bordering on unwatchable, and I’m admitting that as someone that grew up loving G.I. Joe more than most anything else on the planet (there is no greater movie opening than the animated Joe film’s one-two punch of that killer title sequence and Pythona’s raid on the Cobra Terrer Drome).
The Joes’ all-black jumpsuits are boring. Channing Tatum is a total void, lacking all of his 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike charisma. Marlon Wayans is in a different movie entirely, spitting out placeholder jokes that never got punched up. Baroness is brainwashed, Cover Girl is wasted, Scarlett is bland, the “accelerator suits” look like dollar store Iron Man knockoffs, and Snake Eyes has a damn mouth molded onto his mask.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
And then there’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Cobra Commander. Or rather, he’s playing Rexford Lewis, a.k.a. the Doctor, a.k.a. Cobra Commander. Actors: if you’re offered a triple role and even one of the roles is named “Rexford,” you turn it down. Here’s the face journey Gordon-Levitt goes on in The Rise of Cobra.
From left to right, that’s Rexford Lewis (or regular Joseph Gordon-Levitt); The Doctor (or Keanu Reeves playing steampunk Sweeney Todd); and Cobra Commander (or the most extreme Crystal Head Vodka brand ambassador).
There’s a chance JGL took this role because he didn’t think anyone would spot him. The Rise of Cobra actually presents these three characters as totally different people for the majority of the movie, and two of them obscure his face completely. Plus, his real face was not included on any promo materials, nor was he prominently featured in trailers. Cobra Commander’s costume, even his role in the film, was a huge mystery before Rise of Cobra slithered into theaters. At the time, it was entirely possible to watch this movie and think that the future Don Jon did a few days on set in army fatigues with his pal Channing Tatum and then peaced out to hear a pitch from Christopher Nolan. But no. Gordon-Levitt’s involvement was way deeper than that. That is him underneath all those prosthetics, and that was the selling point for him.
Here’s Gordon-Levitt in 2009 telling Vulture why he took the gig, and name-dropping two Oscar winners along the way:
“Yeah. My face is in it. There’s this crazy kind of getup that I wear. It’s got makeup and it’s got all this other stuff, and it’s a mask, basically. You can hardly tell it’s me. And that, to me, is the best. That’s why I love Daniel Day-Lewis or Gary Oldman. Actors like that, where they’re so different as each character, the actor disappears. Doing G.I. Joe made it real easy to disappear because of all the elaborate stuff on my face. And it demands a totally different kind of acting style. You sort of check your realism at the door.”
Is “realism” actor speak for “dignity”? Ouch, too far! But still, Gordon-Levitt was shooting for There Will Be Blood with his G.I. Joe performance and his vibe was way more in line with the villains on the campy ’60s Batman series. I mean that as a compliment… mostly?
In a twist of fate cartoonishly tragic enough for an episode of G.I. Joe, the very makeup Gordon-Levitt wanted to work with became the biggest hindrance to his performance. For the first two-thirds of the movie, he’s covered with a Savage Garden wig and what looks like a vacuum cleaner attachment. He can’t even move his neck! But hey, at least he didn’t have to show his face like poor Christopher Eccleston.
So the performance before JGL ditches the Party City wig leaves a lot to be desired. Up until then, he’s a generic stiff-necked baddie with a ridiculously deep voice. Apparently that’s all Joseph too, but it’s really hard to picture that sassy, slightly hissy growl coming out of his mouth. But then when it comes time to ratchet up what-passes-for-drama in this movie, The Doctor makes like a drag queen lip-syncing for her life and snatches that wig right off his head.
You get a little peek of all that makeup Gordon-Levitt was so keen on wearing, which makes him look like the star of the sexy Freddy Krueger reboot you know has to be on the way. And with that terrible wig off of his head, this is where Joseph starts to shine. I’m talking dude does some eyebrow acting–because those are really the only part of his face he can use. But he goes for it, especially after the character has revealed his big secret (Rexford survived getting blown up in an air strike, leaving him scarred and super into monocles). He goes full Gollum in this scene, darting around and peering around objects maniacally.
After being a non-entity with a loud voice for most of the film, the villain comes alive… in the second half of the third act. That’s when we get the grandstanding and screaming fans remember from the cartoon. Hell, Gordon-Levitt even gets to sink his teeth into a very cartoony villain line.
I mean, just look at the eyebrow work! None of this comes close to touching Daniel Day-Lewis’ “milkshake” speech but, I dunno, at least it looks like Joey’s having fun playing dress-up?
And then comes the turn, the most embarrassing moment in a film that blasts Black Eyed Peas over the end credits. We get to meet Cobra Commander, for real, in the burned flesh and glass mask.
Man, there’s a real “Somebody STOP me!” vibe to that GIF, isn’t there?
Fortunately for all of humanity, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and its bizarre take on the over-the-top Cobra Commander was stopped. The movie was stopped by the aforementioned Black Eyed Peas and the sound of “Boom Boom Pow.” This riff on the franchise was stopped by G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which wisely ignored 99% of this movie. And this all-over-the-map take on Cobra’s leader was stopped by actors Luke Bracey and Robert Baker, who teamed-up to play Cobra Commander’s body and voice, respectively, in the sequel.
After paying this much attention to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Cobra Commander, do I have an answer as to why he made this pitstop on his rise to fame? I don’t. I honestly don’t. I did learn that JGL only needs an eyebrow to pull off a menacing performance… just so long as a cheap wig doesn’t get in his way.