MOVIE REVIEW: G.I. Joe: Retaliation



G.I. Joe: Retaliation had quite the odd journey to arriving this spring to theaters.  After 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra only made $150 million of its reported $175 million budget back at the domestic box office (though it doubled that total overseas, padding the bottom line), most industry insiders felt that Paramount Pictures wasn't going to sink that kind of money into another Hasbro movie not named Transformers.  

To much surprise, they stuck with the plan to make a sequel and re-signed star Channing Tatum and brought in Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson for some extra muscle.  Last year, the $130 million budgeted G.I. Joe: Retaliation was finished and dead-set on a flashy summer release on June 29th, getting a head start on the Fourth of July weekend at the box office.  Expensive Super Bowl ads were paid for, a smashing teaser trailer with a sweet "Seven Nation Army" cover was making the rounds, and the all-important toys and other marketing tie-ins were already prominently out on department store shelves.  Inexplicably in late May, Paramount Pictures pulled the film from release, yanked the merchandise out of stores, and delayed it until March 2013.

While the studio claimed they wanted that time to convert the final product to profit-friendly 3D, everyone else read into that move that Paramount had a lemon on its hands and didn't know how to cushion the disaster, especially after watching Universal Pictures sink itself with Battleship earlier that summer and Disney lose a lot of money on John Carter that spring.  An off-peak time like spring is normally where expensive duds that aren't good enough for summer end up landing.  The very same thing happened at almost the exact same timing with Jack the Giant Slayer, which moved from Summer 2012 to Spring 2013, and look how that turned out.

Furthermore, once Magic Mike took off last June, rumors circulated that the studio wanted more red-hot Channing Tatum, whose Duke character from the original wasn't supposed to stick around long.  It didn't take long for G.I. Joe: Retaliation to come across looking like an absolute industry joke.  With all that transpired, all that indecision might have actually been the best thing for the movie.  Spring is an easier time to make money at the box office than the summer.  The movie had a longer stretch to sell itself, work out the bugs, fix its appeal, and ultimately distance itself from any competition (no, Olympus Has Fallen does not count as competition).  After a big $40+ million opening weekend atop the box office, the franchise just bought itself new life and a third movie.  First, before we look at the future, let's talk about this one.

Thanks to a snappy prologue, we learn that, since of the events of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra when Destro (sorry, no returning Christopher Eccleston) and Cobra Commander (sorry, no returning Joseph Gordon-Levitt either) were apprehended, "Duke" (Tatum) has ascended to lead the elite G.I. Joe team with "Roadblock" (Johnson) as his trusty second-in-command.  Their latest threat is to neutralize is a stolen nuclear warhead in Pakistan after their president is assassinated.  On their team are "Flint " (bit player D.J. Cotrona), "Lady Jaye" (TV star Adrianne Palicki), a platoon of trained grunts and the elusive operative "Snake Eyes" (a returning Ray Park, playing everybody's favorite character).

The trouble is, if you care to remember from G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the evil master of disguise Zartan (professional movie villain Arnold Vosloo) is impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce), who is stuck as a prisoner in a hidden bunker at the Presidential retreat home.  Exploiting his Presidential power, Zartan orders a counterstrike on the Joes, wiping out their ranks, and brands them as national enemies instead of heroes.  The warhead is lost and the Pakistan assassination is pinned on Snake Eyes.  He conveniently replaces G.I. Joe with Cobra operatives as the nation's top defense force.  With a high approval rating, the public thinks nothing of it and he platforms for worldwide nuclear disarmament. 

At the same time, "Storm Shadow" (a returning Byung-hun Lee, somehow surviving his fate from the first movie) and "Firefly" (Ray Stevenson) spring Cobra Commander from his secret prison to complete the rest of Cobra's insidious plan, a satellite-based weapons system named Zeus, whose gravity based projectiles make nuclear weapons look like bottle rockets.  With plans to control America's allies and enemies, there is little to stop the crooked Cobra President.  The few Joes remaining make it back to the states and enlist the help of the program's originator, General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), to retaliate against Cobra, expose the President, and clear their names.  Gee, I wonder who wins.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is one of those movies where you just need to turn your brain off and enjoy the fun.  The first film four years ago, directed by The Mummy franchise man Stephen Sommers, aimed for the over-the-top flair of the G.I. Joe cartoon we children of the 80's grew up on.  With its Iron Man-ish super-suits, energy weapons, horrible Marlon Wayans humor, monologue-driven villains, and wild battle sequences on land and under the water, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra clearly sailed over its mark in many people's opinions, especially when compared against the grounded and realistic takes on heroes like Iron Man and The Dark Knight that came out the year before.  Those that could sucker themselves enjoyed the fireworks.

Though it wasn't going to take much, this second film actually turns the cartoon flair down a notch or two.  The plot is still a preposterous and contrived mess of implausibility, but, remember, you were supposed to turn your brain off.  The combat scenes and action sequences aren't quite as wacky (bullets instead of lasers), but the special effects and stunts still impress.  You won't be looking at your watch because director Jon M. Chu (two Step Up movies and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) knows the music video he's trying to shoot and keeps the shiny objects coming.  The presence of the no-nonsense Dwayne Johnson, set on Smackdown mode, is a colossal upgrade over two more hours of Marlon Wayans humor that we could have been stuck with.  It's his vehicle and franchise now.

Where the missteps are this time around are with everyone else around Johnson's lead.  If you couldn't read between the lines of the plot description above, you don't get very much Channing Tatum, which will clearly disappoint the ladies.  Even with his post-Magic Mike beefed up part, he is missed when he's gone.  The brief scenes with him and Johnson are easily the best of the movie and the producers are missing out on what could have been a great duo going forward to drive this franchise.

Virtual no-names D.J. Cotrona and Adrianne Palicki are pretty, but flat wall posters and expressionless action figures that don't bring much to the supporting cast.  To think Palicki could have been your new TV Wonder Woman a year ago is baffling.  Sure, the former Friday Night Lights star can fill fatigues or evening wear, but she has zero personality.  Somebody go call Gina Carano and end the debate.  Cotrona is worse.  The dialogue-less Ray Park as the silent Snake Eyes acted better than that cut of meat.  Also, the villains are nowhere near the fun of the first film.  Only Walton Goggin's sleazy prison warden moves the dastardly fun needle before he's dispatched.  Lastly, there's a downright weird cameo role for rapper/filmmaker the RZA as "Blind Master" that's jarringly bad and only serves to ramble history and introduce a side character (Storm Shadow's hot chick cousin "Jinx") for Snake Eyes to work with.

Finally, it is assumed that the presence of Bruce Willis in G.I. Joe: Retaliation was to add a little "gravitas" to the puppet show, but it doesn't come across that way.  His extended cameo feels like the action movie equivalent to Christopher Walken spicing up the supporting cast of a comedy.  Neither can lead the show anymore, but both can still put on their signature act and we all love their quirk and presence.  Willis's contract for this flick must have had a minimum quota of smirks and whispered lines of menace, because that's all that comes through.

As fun as it is, G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn't breaking any new ground, but, again, it doesn't have to.  While it's less out-there than the first film, it still delivers enough cool action to entertain.  It was better than A Good Day to Die Hard in this critic's opinion.  It's not a movie you'll brag about at the workplace water cooler on Monday, but it's one you'll catch yourself still sitting down to watch again on basic cable for the next several years.  It's not dazzling enough to reach a cult status or guilty pleasure level, but if they keep bringing out the big guns, we are likely to keep coming back.

LESSON #1: THE ESCALATING NATURE OF RETALIATION-- In watching the preposterous heights of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the number of ridiculous lessons nearly match the number of explosions.  I'll try to get lofty with the first lesson by using the movie's title with a purpose.  "Retaliation" might as well be the movie military's word for "one-upmanship."  This movie is, essentially, a 90-minute penis-measuring contest between the Joes and Cobra.  Who can bring the bigger gun and who can do the most damage?  Eventually, you're going to have to run out of ways to top yourselves, right?

LESSON #2: THE IMPORTANCE OF A GOOD CODENAME-- Come on!  This is a G.I. Joe movie!  You have to have a cool codename.  If you don't, you are no better than a sacrificial "red shirt" from Star Trek.  For example, I feel bad for Joseph Mazzelo, the little boy from Jurassic Park 20 years ago (which is, coincidentally, stealing money from you with a 3D re-release in theaters now).  In a double-take small part, his codename is "Mouse."  Yeah, that's not going to cut it.  That's not going to strike fear into the troops and terrorists of Cobra or get the girl.  By the way, what the hell is a "Storm Shadow" anyway?

LESSON #3: KNOW A GUY WITH A HOME ARSENAL-- You know, if you are a group of three good guy soldiers, terrifically out-numbered against hundreds of impostor Cobra agents protecting the most watched and guarded man on the planet, all you need is one screw-loose general with an obscene home arsenal of every weapon imaginable stashed in every drawer and cupboard as if it came installed that way from IKEA or Crate and Barrel.  Guess who looks like Bruce Willis and is not going to like any gun control laws?  That would be retired General Joe Colton.

LESSON #4: IT'S A MOVIE LAW OF SCIENCE THAT THE MOST ELABORATE POSSIBLE PRISON IS DOOMED TO FAIL WITH SECURITY-- In a fun extended cameo, Justified's Walton Goggins has a scenery-chewing part as this prison warden of a colossal waste of tax dollars, electricity, and scientific staff to hold just two prisoners in some strange water-bound suspended animation.  Just as bad as Demolition Man or other bloated action movies, the fancier the prison the more likely it is to fail.  It's a movie rule. 

LESSON #5: REBOUNDING FROM A LOSS-- Our sturdy Joes take quite a defeat early on that busts up their ranks.  It's not about how you lost.  It's about how you get back up and fight again.  While Dwayne Johnson channels more of an Apollo Creed vibe than a Rocky Balboa feel, you still get the idea.  Hey, speaking of Dwayne...

LESSON #6: CAN SOMEBODY GET "THE ROCK" SOME AIR-CONDITIONING ON THE SET?-- Alright, Rock, we get it.  You put your time in at the gym.  You're ripped to shreds and can tear every single one us in half.  The constant wardrobe of "SMedium" Under Armor shirts suits you.  Your chiseled Herculean features and stunning tattoos are boldly on display in both natural and artificial light.  Do we need the stripper layer of sweat and glisten?  I bet he's got a guy on his staff that just spritzes him between takes.  Either that or Dwayne Johnson has a clinical difficulty in maintaining his body temperature.  It's funny and distracting.

LESSON #7: DO YOU WANT YOUR PRETEND MOVIE TO LOOK, POLITICALLY, LIKE IT'S NOT PRETENDING?  THROW IN A FAMILIAR PUNDIT OR TALKING HEAD.  THAT WILL WORK FOR SURE...-- With popular political commentator, the "Ragin' Cajun" James Carville (notching his fifth film appearance on his resume), on the payroll to deliver a cameo and a few lines, G.I. Joe: Retaliation continues the sad blockbuster trend of bringing in real-life figures to further unbelievable plots.  Whether it's Senator Patrick Leahy in The Dark Knight or (worst of all) Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin souring his own history inTransformers: Dark of the Moon, it's baffling to watch blockbusters pander like this.