The one persistent thought that went through my mind while watching G.I. Joe: Retaliation was that the childhood adventures I puppeteered with my G.I. Joe figures where much more creative and fun than anything cooked up by the filmmakers in charge of this franchise. Of course, I would throw Transformers, Star Wars guys, He-Man and other toys into the mix, an impractical possibility on a corporate and imaginative level, but it was infinitely more satisfying than what they’ve put up on screen. Twice. And in spire of all the different players I threw in during my playtime, infinitely more logical too.
But if there’s a single improvement that G.I. Joe: Retaliation makes over it’s predecessor, The Rise of Cobra, it’s that it feels like someone put two minutes of research into military tactics and structure, not to mention two minutes of research into the actual franchise it’s based on. Basically, it looks like how a G.I. Joe movie should look, at least until Ray Stevenson as Cobra merc Firefly unleashes a flurry of mechanical a fireflies with exploding butts while riding a motorcycle that separates into several independent rocket propelled grenades. But I digress.
This sequel is set several of years after the original, and the “Nanomite Wars” have come and gone. Duke (Channing Tatum) now leads G.I. Joe, and the President (Jonathan Pryce) is still Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) in disguise. But now’s the time that Cobra is putting their master plan into motion. Framing the Joes for the theft of a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, Zartan takes the chance to use his executive privilege to eliminate them, and then calls for the worldwide disarmament of all nuclear weapons. But before you can say “peacenik,” three Joes survived the Cobra blitz, and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) leads Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianna Palicki) come back to America to, well, retaliate.
First off all, while I appreciate the effort to make this grounded and suggest that this takes place in something resembling the real world, the idea of the Joes saving defectors from North Korea and securing loose nukes in Pakistan seems rather a far cry from the old storylines involving Cobra’s weather control machine and stealing the DNA of the world’s greatest tyrants to create a super Cobra-leading tyrant. It’s just jarring is all, like suddenly seeing Stephen Colbert host the CBS Evening News.
But that would be bad enough if they hadn’t of kept a lot of that silliness from the first movie. There’s a rather elongated scene where Roadblock and Duke play Call of Duty and suck, and at one point Cobra Commander tells Destro that he’s “out of the band.” Justified’s Walton Goggins also appears as the warden of Cobra Commander’s prison, and it seems like for a minute that he’s in an entirely different movie all together. In fact, I would say that G.I. Joe: Retaliation is actually made up of about three or four different movies making it a Russian nesting doll of a blockbuster. There’s the war movie, the fugitive movie, the kung-fu movie, and something resembling a combination platter or RED, The Rock, Die Another Day, Battleship, Olympus Has Fallen, Red Dawn and xXx: State of the Union. Basically, the screenwriters have Netflix and proved it.
I give kudos to Dwayne Johnson through because Retaliation‘s many faults he’s still a reliable and magnetic leading man. Poor Channing Tatum gets the shaft (again) despite the fact that some of the rumors of Retaliation’s delay revolved around capitalizing on the actor’s rising stardom, Duke’s total screentime doesn’t mount to a hill of beans. But if you can say anything for Tatum it’s that his limited presence makes more of an impression than D.J. Cotrona, and he has more of a character than Bruce Willis’ General Colton, who basically comes across as Bruce Willis with a rank. (I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t get a “Yippee Ki-yay!” at any point.) The film does make good use of Adrianna Palicki’s assets, but probably not in the way that she, or any other even marginally feminist viewer of G.I. Joe might like. One wonders if the term “irony” passed through the minds of director Jon M. Chu when he followed up a scene of Lady Jaye bristling at Gen Colton’s characterization of her as a secretary, with a scene of Jaye in sweats using her sex appeal to lure the President’s chief of staff into a kidnapping.
Speaking of Chu, I wonder if he was in over his head. His past experience capturing poppin’ fresh dance moves in the Step-Up series of films and the Justin Bieber documentary doesn’t exactly prepare one for making a big Hollywood action movie. But the action in Retaliation, I have to say, is fine. Where the film is lacking is tight editing, pacing and direction. Logic would have also been nice, but I don’t expect miracles from these things. Really though, when the doomsday plan seems horribly stupid and the machine by which you’ll achieve it has a super lame function, is saving the world really such a big deal. And by the way, ninja’s are cool because they’re mysterious, so going into the lengthy backstory of the ancient Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow rivalry is as counterproductive as it is lame.
But did the film do anything right? As I said, Johnson was solid, and I liked the tangible parts of this world, like how all the vehicles used looked real. And by the way, thanks for actually giving us a Cobra Commander we can recognize, although I still miss Chris Latta‘s patented screeching voice ordering Cobra’s retreat. But if there is to be a G.I. Joe 3, and there’s no reason to expect that there won’t be, maybe we can try something serious, something that seems less jokey all the time. And we need to reaffirm the proper definition of terrorist. A terrorist group, like Cobra’s supposed to be, isn’t going to squander time putting a puppet President in place, so that the fake President can organize a world conference to get rid of nuclear weapons. If they can get to the President, they’re going to kill him on live TV for the shock value and damn the consequences. (Although the White House draped in Cobra flags is till a cool visual.)
So let’s consider how a G.I. Joe movie should really look. Below is a clip of the opening to the animated 1987 G.I. Joe The Movie. Now forgetting all the insane snake people, Nemesis Enforcer and Cobra-La bull$#!% that follows in the next 77 minutes, this three minute intro has everything a G.I. Joe movie should: big action, a simple, understandable plot and some damn satisfying patriotic imagery. “Yo Joe!” indeed.