For the Game Show Network fans out there, you may remember a Jerry Springer-hosted program from not too long ago called Baggage. On this show – which was really just a slight reworking of The Dating Game – contestants vying for the eyes of the prospective dater must admit, over the course of the program, three different ‘baggages’ that they carry along with them as a person. There is small, medium, and large baggage and the bigger the baggage size, the bigger and probably more embarrassing the secret. If I were to choose a small baggage, it would be that I still play with action figures. There’s no shame in it, it’s just a phase that I have never grown out of. That being said, while action figures are still little plastic parts of my life, I oddly enough never indulged in the mythos of one of the biggest action figure franchises ever: G.I. Joe.
Despite owning a few G.I. Joe’s myself, I never watched any of the animated series’ or knew much of the characters’ backstories. My G.I. Joe’s were really just stand-ins for whatever characters were actually participating in my action figure fantasy. Basically, if you have a question regarding G.I. Joe, I am the wrong person to bring them to. That being said, there has been two G.I. Joe movies brought to the big screen, taking bits and pieces from some of these storylines that I am unfamiliar with, each generating massive, CGI-heavy action films with larger than life stars and a disregard for the boundaries of reality. These kinds of action films tend to be a lot of fun and exemplify the idea of going to the movies to be entertained rather than being sucked into turmoil-filled, heart wrenching drama. Weirdly enough, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Jon M. Chu’s sequel to Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, is an insipid and bland action vehicle that features a lot of stunt casting and a heavy amount of tonal confusion. Though the action scenes keep the eyes open, the in between consists of dialogue that would sound more appropriate coming out the mouth of a six-year-old action figure junkie than grown actors in a Hollywood production.
This vengeance-centered pic follows three Joe’s – Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (the far-too-sexy Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) – and their road to retaliation against Cobra operatives who have infiltrated the government. More specifically, the nefarious Zartan (Arnold Voosloo) who is utilizing a Mission: Impossible-like mask to disguise himself as the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce). After commencing a surprise attack on the Joe’s and freeing Cobra Commander from his imprisonment, Cobra is looking to do as all classic villains do: Take over the entire world. Unfortunately for Cobra, these three Joe’s are incredibly persistent and with the assistance of G.I. Joe loner, Snake Eyes (Ray Park), and a veteran Joe (Bruce Willis), they intend to save the world and revise the stability within their own government.
I’m all for a bombastic actioner now and again. Many times, their balls-to-the-wall testosterone-infused DNA provides the right amount of entertainment and enjoyment, especially when presented in a dark theater on a big screen and in 3D, to boot. G.I. Joe: Retaliation only reaches that level of wild spectacle a few times. Director Jon M. Chu (the Justin Beiber concert movie, Never Say Never) comes from a filmic background of choreographed action like stage performing and dancing. I thought that this would translate over to the choreographed action in this film, and while he does an admirable job with the hand-to-hand action, specifically between ninja nemeses Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), the gun heavy and explosive combat sequences possess a strange lifelessness. Nothing really pops as it should, putting aside the fact that it’s pointlessly post-converted into a new dimension, and with action honchos like Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis on screen, it’s really disappointing to see them not being benefited by the flow of the action. There is one absolutely phenomenal sequence involving ninjas and aerial combat within a mountain set piece, but that’s the best that this film ever provides and a lot of this sequence’s clips were already peeked at in the trailer.
The film’s biggest problem lies in its abysmal screenplay, which jumbles the film’s tone and also gives it an intelligence level of early elementary school. To digress momentarily, there is this hilarious online video I saw years ago where these talk show hosts had Fast Five screenwriter Chris Morgan as a special guest, and the ongoing joke was that Chris Morgan was actually a five-year-old kid. The gist was that the Fast and the Furious franchise has this low IQ-type entertainment with a sugar coating of large-scale pyrotechnics. While the sketch was hilarious, it would be better suited to theorize that Retaliation’s writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, are actually kindergarteners who play with action figures in between snack time and nap time. The dialogue is so witless, so uninspired and choppy that the best thing some of the actors can do is ham it up on screen to make the talky non-action scenes worth watching. An eccentric Walton Goggins cameo is welcomed and Ray Stevenson is a highlight as Cobra operative Firefly, as is Jonathan Pryce when under Zartan’s influence. One scene that takes place in a Dr. Strangelove-like war room setting is pretty riotous because of Pryce’s scene-chewing. Channing Tatum, with his twelve minute of screen-time, provides some winning humor too, but the movie rids itself of Tatum’s charisma rather quickly. Johnson and Willis are given little to work with other than endless swarms of CGI villains. In that department they are expected to thrive but a little more substance tossed their way would have been lovely.
Regarding tone, the film seems to be forcing this nostalgia on the audience hoping that this big screen revamp of the Hasbro franchise provides enough reverb to get people excited about the property again. Unfortunately, the screenplay forgets to still make it a standalone production worthy of inviting G.I. Joe novices, like myself, into its world. From my perspective, it has the makings of a high-octane action flick, like a PG-13 Expendables, but it becomes unbalanced when the cheesy Cobra Commander walks around in a visored gas mask and caped, leather getup or flies around in a Cobra Copter. It doesn’t skillfully balance the camp with the realism and probably would have fared better by settling on one side of that divide instead of even attempting to weigh them evenly.
There’s a small level of self-awareness that would have been better utilized in this balancing act, but the film only dabbles in placing the tongue firmly in cheek. The best use of this comes with a hilarious bit of stunt casting: Rapper and Wu-Tang Clan frontman, RZA, appears as a blind samurai master. The movie understands why this is funny and its well-received – I thought it was particularly hysterical – but this laughing-at-itself mentality is not filtered through the entire picture. Maybe in the hands of writers Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl, who crafted the morally fragmented and over-the-top albeit wonderfully enjoyable and ceaselessly entertaining Michael Bay film, Bad Boys II, G.I. Joe: Retaliation would have found a tonal foundation and worked better from beginning to end. Apparently, Reese and Wernick have a tabled script for the Deadpool spinoff that has been stuck in development hell and if it’s anything like their work on display here, let the process of lowering my expectations begin now.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation should be a pulpy thrilling action extravaganza with all the components to wake you up, like before-school cereal with heaps of sugar on top, sadly it’s just not up to standard. It needs more pulp, more thrills, more sugar…it’s just a lacking action movie that needed more expertise in its craftsmanship. I’m no G.I. Joe aficionado, but making a movie that feels like a bloodless Sylvester Stallone heavy-hitter with Tim Burton-esque cheese popping up in spots takes effort and Reese, Wernick, and Jon M. Chu are just not ready for that kind of an undertaking. For the inevitable third film, I hope they seek new writing talent and look for a genre director like Joe Carnahan (say what you will about The A-Team, you will not stop me from liking it!). Even a Michael Bay-directed G.I. Joe film…that sounds like a flashy good time at the movies.
Review by Mike Murphy