DOWNEY, California — These are strange times we live in. People my age grew up playing with 12-inch-tall versions of "G.I. Joe" characters, imagining wondrous adventures as we grew up in the '80s. Now, Hollywood is bringing back "Transformers," "Smurfs" and all the rest — and risking our beloved memories as they attempt to see if we're still interested.
A little while back, the surreal became real as I walked around the set of "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" and witnessed elaborate props and highly paid stars attempting to re-create what we used to do in our backyards for free. And what I saw had this lifelong fan of the franchise thinking, "Yo, Joe!" as often as it did "No, Joe!"
"Today I'm fighting; I'm always fighting," laughed "Star Wars" veteran Ray Park, who landed the coveted role of Snake Eyes in the film. "I've been getting into the research, reading a lot of the comics. I looked at as many old cartoons and new cartoons of Snake Eyes as possible; Snake Eyes is a character that I've grown up with, so it's something I've been very familiar with from the beginning. I wanted to be prepared and be strong for any unexpected challenges, so from the beginning I was doing kickboxing. I was wearing a sauna suit every day, I was wearing [the costume], I was wearing sea goggles, I was wearing gloves. I was trying to put myself through the worst conditions ever, and most of the training sessions I was puking up."
Whether Park and co-stars Sienna Miller, Channing Tatum and others were giving their all to the production could not be questioned. What did seem odd, however, was that few of them were wearing the beloved costumes from the "Real American Hero" toy line. Most of the weapons, vehicles and story lines seemed quite different from the immensely popular franchise they were remaking. Oh, and the Baroness didn't have a German accent.
"I'm doing an American accent," explained Miller, who admitted that she wasn't very aware of the franchise while growing up in England. "I thought 'G.I. Joe' was one guy called Joe. ... I had seen the cartoon, I think, when I was younger, but it was all very hazy. I didn't know who Baroness was, but I just loved the script. I loved the idea of doing something so different and so big. It's a lot of fun, and the costume is pretty fantastic."
As we walked around, the cast and crew showed off some elements of the film that were way cooler than what my little 10-year-old mind (or Sunbow's classic TV show) could have devised in the mid-'80s: In one scene, for instance, Snake Eyes needs to use nothing but his fingertips to "walk" across a pressure-sensitive floor.
"My fingers are still killing me, and my forearms are still killing me from that," grinned Park, whose physical prowess caused fans to lobby on his behalf, landing him the part. "I can walk on my hands, but I can't walk on my fingertips; we had a system of wires [holding me]. ... But I was putting the pressure on my hands to make it more believable that I was doing it, and it killed me. I'm so glad I did it, but I said to [director] Stephen Sommers, 'You know what you've done to me? You're going to make every kid in the world ask me, "Hey can you do a finger-walking handstand?" ' "
"We have an opening battle scene where everyone gets introduced in their characters and there's flashbacks and stuff," explained Tatum, who regretfully told me that he doesn't get to say "Yo, Joe!" but insisted that being on the "Rise of Cobra" set was like playing in the world's biggest toy box. "I got to run up this hill where tracers are going past my head and people are being blown up, things are getting blown up, I get blown up. It's fun. In real life I would have been in a million pieces, but in 'G.I. Joe,' I get flown through the air somehow and roll, I land and I keep running."
"Hopefully this is a harbinger of good things for us, but we've had more requests for people's kids to come to the set than any movie I've ever worked on," admitted Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a Hollywood veteran (and "Transformers" franchise engineer) who serves as producer on the film. "I mean, it's staggering how many kids wanted to come here! I can't quite figure it out, because they didn't grow up with the TV series and the comic book. What we've found out was a lot of dads have handed down the toys and stuff to their kids, so these kids that come in — 6, 7 years old — know it better than we know it.
"They're constantly asking, 'Is Storm Shadow going to fight Snake Eyes? How many times? Who wins?' " di Bonaventura marveled. "It's constantly been a flow of children coming through here, which I think is probably a great sign for us."
The set was big, loud, familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time. It made you want to see the movie, and at the same time wish you could just go home and watch old VHS tapes of the TV show. Who knows? Maybe us dads will want to pass this movie onto our kids, as we have our old toys. Maybe these 6- and 7-year-old kids will someday look at "Rise of Cobra" as fondly as we remember the '80s TV series. On August 7, we'll know the answers to these questions and more. And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.
Check out everything we've got on "G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra."
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