April 04, 2013

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION Is Entertaining Yet Forgettable

"You love my panties."

Lately I've been feeling like there hasn't been enough variation in my cinema diet.  I've watched a lot of movies from the last two or three years, mostly through Netflix Instant.  I have no doubt that once the summer movie season really gets into gear I'll be spending a lot more time in the theater, but there have certainly been a few new releases that have piqued my curiosity, even if my expectations aren't particularly high.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation falls squarely into that category.  Before venturing out, I re-watched Stephen Sommers's G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra just for comparison purposes.  My recollection was that the movie itself was essentially kind of fun in a cartoonish, over-the-top kind of way, somewhat appropriate considering the source material.  The biggest stumbling block was casting Channing Tatum in the lead role of Duke.  Putting it kindly, Tatum still hadn't really loosened up and shown any of his own real life charisma on screen.  Putting it unkindly, Tatum was a walking absence of personality and seemed incapable of walking and talking at the same time.  So, when the new creative team set about to make a sequel, they made the downright ballsy move to redefine the franchise by killing off Duke in the very beginning of the film.  At the time, it seemed like a great idea, a clever way to recognize the first film's mistakes and literally expunge them.

Then 21 Jump Street happened.  And Magic Mike.

Surprisingly, Tatum was not only watchable, he was entertaining.  Turns out the guy is really funny!  And on top of that, he's box office gold.  All of a sudden Tatum's early onscreen demise seemed like a terrible miscalculation.  So, at the last minute, the producers pushed the film's release back nine months, ostensibly for 3-D conversion but also to shoot extra scenes with Tatum to squeeze in before Duke's execution.

I'm certainly glad they did, as the first 15 minutes or so is mostly scenes with Duke and Roadblock (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) being hilarious.  This stuff engenders so much goodwill that it makes everything else feel like more fun than it really is.  In fact, I wish the whole rest of the movie was just the two of them shooting bad guys and making fun of each other.  (Seriously, someone put these two in a buddy cop movie STAT!)  Unfortunately, it's not meant to be, as Duke's death, along with the rest of the G.I. Joes, is unavoidable, the inciting incident that sets the rest of the scatter-brained story in motion.

I'm not gonna delve into the plot, as it's fairly simple: The three surviving Joes have to figure out who set them up and why in order to foil the plot of the evil Cobra Commander.  There are a few problems, the first one being that our heroes spend half the movie just catching up to what the audience knows before they walk into the theater, as the replacement of the U.S. President (Jonathan Pryce) by a Cobra agent is the only real thread picked up from the previous movie.  To make matters worse, our three surviving Joes are booooooring.  Roadblock is clearly upset about the slaughter of Duke and the other Joes, but there's no real exploration of his desire for revenge, which is an odd choice considering that the name of the movie is "Retaliation."  There are a few moments where we're reminded what's motivating Roadblock (including him dropping a huge pile of dogtags on a coffee table) but we never get a sense of real anger, righteous or otherwise, as if the producers were afraid of letting the film get too dark.  Once Tatum exits, so does Johnson's personality.  Adrienne Palicki is fine as Lady Jaye despite being given the bare minimum of dialogue that can be mistaken for character development.  Anyone who's familiar with her work from Friday Night Lights knows that Palicki's got chops and one of these days someone's gonna put her in a movie worthy of her talents.  This isn't it.  Last is Flint, played by D.J. Cotrona, who somehow manages to channel Tatum's anti-performance in the first film.  He is a non-entity, and he made me wish that Flint had died saving Duke instead of the other way around.

Oh yeah, there's also Snake Eyes, the faceless, black-clad ninja Joe.  His is the most clumsily handled story, but amazingly it ends up yielding my favorite two non-Tatum related things in the film.  Snake Eyes is MIA (but often referenced) for the first half hour or so of the movie.  While I'm sure it was meant to be mysterious, instead it just feels like they forgot about him, especially when it's revealed that he's really just training an inconsequential new apprentice named Jinx in the house of the Blind Master, played by RZA.  That's right, RZA plays a blind ninja master, complete with bleached out eyes and a complete lack of articulation.  It's fantastic, and you can tell he's just having gobs of fun with it.  Snake Eyes and Jinx eventually head up into the mountains to capture his nemesis Storm Shadow, leading to a really fun sequence that's been heavily featured in the trailers and TV spots, with the ninjas all fighting each other on zip lines, rappelling down the face of a cliff.  It's visually inventive while also being just plain cool.

Everything else is pretty uninspired.  Jonathan Pryce is clearly enjoying himself in dual roles as both the real and imposter President.  The scene in the bunker where he fucks with all the other world leaders is particularly great.  Casting Bruce Willis as the original G.I. Joe seemed like a great idea and he even wears the old school army greens of the early over-sized toys.  Unfortunately Willis looks beyond bored here, displaying little to no personality on screen.  This feels like the epitome of a paycheck performance.  The continuation of the Snakes Eyes/Storm Shadow storyline feels like a misfire, which is a shame as it was one of the more interesting aspects of the first film.  The villains are largely dull; there's a prison break sequence when they free Cobra Commander (captured in the last film), but abandon Destro, seemingly for no other reason than they couldn't get Christopher Eccleston back and they didn't want to animate his head for the whole movie.  Speaking of "not back for the sequel," Joseph Gordon-Levitt is understandably gone as Cobra Commander, replaced by up-and-comer Luke Bracey.  He's fine, spending all but seven seconds of the movie behind a much improved chrome mask.  He looks great, but I will admit that I miss the old screechy voice from the cartoon of my youth.  Despite some large scale destruction, the film's finale is practically paint-by-numbers.  What's worse, it feels cheap, with Roadblock driving around a very flimsy looking tank that's seemingly made out of PVC pipe, firing at unseen bad guys before finally engaging in the beyond-tired cliche fistfight for a remote control.

As much as I've shit on this movie, it's really not all that bad.  It's pretty inoffensive and fairly enjoyable while you're in it, there's just nothing really notable that stays with you after you've walked out of the theater.  The first movie is a mess, but it's a mess that really goes for something, with it's crazy accelerator suits, futuristic weapons and cool vehicles.  That's a perfectly reasonable approach when you're making a movie based on a line of toys, even if it ultimately doesn't pay off.  Instead, Retaliation just feels like a boilerplate military adventure flick that happens to be populated with familiar characters.  It's water off a duck's back, the kind of movie that you'll find playing on FX some Saturday afternoon 18 months from now and you'll leave it on in the background while you check your email and clean up around the house.  You'll look up for the mountain fight scene and anything with RZA, you'll be disappointed that you wandered in 40 minutes into the movie and missed all the Channing Tatum stuff, and then three hours later you'll go out to dinner and forget you were ever watching it in the first place.

Title: G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Director: John M. Chu
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Adrienne Palicki, D.J. Cotrona, Channing Tatum, Jonathan Pryce, Luke Bracey, Bruce Willis
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theater, Showcase Revere

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