G.I. JOE: RETALIATION is the kind of bad that not only makes me annoyed at the people who made it, but at every last person who has something even mildly nice to say about it. We like to say that moviegoing is a subjective experience, that there is room for friendly disagreement, that everyone’s opinion counts, but that’s just being nice: Sometimes you encounter a case where two plus two equals four, and if you say it equals five, you’re just straight-up wrong.
I’m opening myself up for charges of hypocrisy here, because I am on record as having enjoyed the previous G.I. JOE adventure, 2009’s G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA, regardless of how blazingly moronic it very clearly was. (Read just how moronic here.) My answer to those potential charges is two-fold: 1) We’re entering into an admittedly murky territory of defending what I’d call an entertainingly-bad movie versus attacking what I promise is a dull, inept bad movie, and 2) I never once claimed that G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA was well-directed, whereas I have already seen several critics singling out the direction of G.I. JOE: RETALIATION for praise. Neither movie is well-directed, but this newer movie is badly-directed in a way that is almost shocking. The action scenes are uniformly unclear, disorienting, and poorly-choreographed, and anyone who tells you otherwise needs to reconsider whether or not they should be writing about movies in a public forum. Does your favorite critic know what he’s talking about, or is he just some guy who really, really likes movies? More than ever, we are reading critics who fall into the latter category.
The credited writers of G.I. JOE: RETALIATION are Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, which I was frankly shocked to discover, because unlike their best-known credit, ZOMBIELAND, the final product here is almost entirely lacking the tiniest shred of wit. My guess is that these guys delivered a script that was ripped to pieces along the way. That’s usually how it happens. So again, when a critic tells you that a movie’s script is bad, they’re telling you they don’t know what they’re talking about. Critics don’t get to read the script. They only see the finished movie. Most often, the script is originally very good, because why else would a studio commit $135 million dollars to making it?
The director is Jon M. Chu, an off-kilter choice who made two STEP UP movies and a Justin Bieber documentary. I usually applaud unconventional hiring in big-budget movies, since it often results in refreshing riches such as a Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN or a Joss Whedon AVENGERS, but in this case, clearly on the basis of this evidence, hiring a dance-movie guy did not result in sparkly magic. It resulted in absolute dogshit. The action scenes in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION are colossally disappointing. Quite frankly, it feels as if connective footage is missing, as if director Chu didn’t get enough coverage, as if he went into these scenes without a plan of attack. This is hard to explain on paper without going shot-by-shot for a film analysis, but what I’m talking about is grounding the action in clarity and geography. The best action filmmaking always makes clear where characters are standing, and keeps track of their movements. You never ask “Where did that guy come from?” unless the director meant for you to be asking that question – but even then, the director has an answer in his own mind. He’s mapped it out in advance with his fight choreographers and his director of photography.
I could shame a whole lot of better-known critics than me by showing them action scenes from, to name a couple recent examples, Gareth Evans’ work on THE RAID: REDEMPTION, Brad Bird’s work on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, Joe Carnahan’s work on THE GREY, and John Hyams’ work on UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, putting those scenes next to any action scene from G.I. JOE: RETALIATION – especially its most-praised scene, the cliff-scaling ninja fight – and then asking if any compliments for Jon Chu’s patchy camera work remains. I’m sorry if that sounds mean. I’m just tired of reading clueless opinions passed off in definitive tones as if they’re more educated and informed than they are. I’m no Scorsese or Spielberg, or even a Kael or an Ebert, but when I say nice things about a poorly-made movie, it’s because I enjoyed it in spite of its flaws – I don’t go looking to wrongly praise the very things that mark it as inferior.
Am I taking this too seriously? We all know that these movies are Hasbro-approved toy commercials. The G.I. Joe property began as a toy line. The cartoons and comics which made the toys a household name in the 1980s were essentially ancillary revenue – in other words; toys first, story second. A man named Larry Hama, who wrote the G.I. Joe comic book, doesn’t get nearly enough credit for supplying nearly everything that gave the property any personality it had. G.I. Joe is campy and silly – kids’ stuff, really – but Larry Hama approached it with sincerity, attention to detail, genuine storytelling instincts and world-building ability. Kids’ stuff doesn’t have to be absolute garbage. Lend it enough inventiveness, or failing that, goofiness, and it can still catch the interest of the over-grown kids in the audience. That’s why I liked the previous G.I. JOE movie. It had a ninja on a jetpack. This new one carries itself much more gravely.
The plot of G.I. JOE: RETALIATION is a patchwork of under-developed story strands. It starts with an action scene meant to introduce the team, although franchise superstar Snake-Eyes is conspicuously absent. Team leader Duke (Channing Tatum) and his best buddy Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) are re-introduced and introduced for the first time, respectively – Duke was the star of the previous movie, basically, but his best buddy in that movie was Marlon Wayans, who gets no mention here. We also meet Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), whose main character trait is that she’s a lady, Flint (D.J. Cotrona), whose main character trait was apparently still being decided at the time the movie started rolling, and Mouse (Joseph Mazzello), whose main character trait is ‘cannon fodder.’ It must really suck to be the G.I. Joe codenamed Mouse. You’re hanging out with guys like Roadblock and Snake-Eyes, and your name is Mouse. It must be like ending up with the short-straw, like the guy in KISS who got stuck wearing the cat makeup.
Anyway, this movie picks up at the end of the last movie, as if it were THE LORD OF THE RINGS or something, and we are all expected to have seen the first one. The villainous Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), master of disguise, is unbeknownst to the American people posing as the President (the very British Jonathan Pryce, who gets a surprising amount of screen time), and orders the G.I. Joes executed. In a nighttime raid, the entire Joe team is wiped out, including Duke. Only Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint survive. As mentioned earlier, the action is incompetently filmed and you’d have to crane your head uncomfortably in order to confirm that Channing Tatum was among the casualties. Another reason that this is crushingly stupid and lacks any drama at all is that, if we saw the last movie, we know that there are a ton of Joes this movie hasn’t accounted for. For all we know, Rachel Nichols and Dennis Quaid and Marlon Wayans and Sienna Miller and Brendan Fraser and all of our other pals from the 2009 outing are still out there somewhere, but this dumb movie just forgot to mention them.
The one guy who IS mentioned is Snake-Eyes, who the Rock tells us must have had a very good reason not to be there. I must have missed that part. The next time we see Snake-Eyes, he is being police-escorted in chains to a high-security military prison, since the surviving Joes are now public enemy number one. The warden is Walton Goggins, the wild-eyed character actor who is so good on The Shield and Justified and in DJANGO UNCHAINED, and who does manage to somehow provide this dumb movie with a couple signs of life, even if all he’s doing is taunting a mute ninja in shackles (and what looks like Charlie Sheen’s motorcycle helmet from THE WRAITH). Snake-Eyes is actually Snake-Eyes nemesis Storm Shadow (Byung Hun-Lee from I SAW THE DEVIL), pretending to be captured so he can rescue the imprisoned Cobra Commander (used to be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, now is played exactly like Darth Vader – one guy’s in the suit, another guy does the voice.) Christopher Eccleston’s Destro is written out of the movie with a quick “You’re out of the band”, and then Storm Shadow and Cobra Commander join President Zartan and a new character, Firefly (Ray Stevenson), in planning to overthrow the entire country. Maybe we deserve it. I mean, is this the best we can do for Ray Stevenson, America? Is this the best we can do for Byung Hun-Lee? Ireland’s Ray Stevenson is the kind of manly badass shitkicker that action movies need desperately, yet our national cinema sidelines him in henchman roles. Korea’s Byung Hun-Lee is another tremendous import, convincingly stoic and lethal yet the kind of man-pretty where even straight dudes gotta shout. Both of these guys deserve franchise roles, not poorly-written dialogue and awfully-directed action showcases that hide their compelling mugs behind balaclavas and CGI.
So where’s Snake-Eye in all this mess?
Snake-Eyes (acted again from behind a full-body ninja shroud by Ray Park) is hanging out in a monastery with a harsh-featured, charisma-free new ninja character named Jinx (Elodie Yung) and a blind kung fu master named Blind Master, who is played by The RZA if you can believe it. It’s a crossover with THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS! Completely unconcerned with the A-plot of the murdered Joe team, Blind Master send Snake-Eyes and Jinx to capture Storm Shadow for killing another of their clan named Hard Master (Gerald Okamura from SAMURAI COP) twenty years ago.
Anyone giving a shit so far?
Snake-Eyes is the main reason a guy like me comes to a movie like this. He’s a ninja commando who never once speaks but pulls all the best-looking babes (yet not at all in this installment.) Jon Chu and his team neglected to handle the character properly. They wasted him. The one scene anyone will remember from G.I. JOE: RETALIATION is that battle with an army of ninjas up the face of a snowy cliff, because in theory the scene is a good idea. (I would bet money on the concept having been lifted from a Larry Hama comic.) But it’s not carried off well, and it isn’t particularly focused on highlighting Snake-Eyes. It could have been any character, really. Making a G.I. JOE movie that skimps on Snake-Eyes is like taking out a Ferrari for a test drive and going five miles an hour.
Instead, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION fixates on the trio of Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint, which is a minor-key disaster. As much as Dwayne Johnson seems to be having a good time in his early scenes with Channing Tatum, that’s how little fun he has with Adrianne Palicki and D.J. Cotrona. These two were cast for prettiness, not character, and prettiness is all they deliver. It’s actually offensive in her case, since, while the other guys get to fight, she drives the cars for them and wears sexy dresses to distract the bad guys. I would call it misogynistic and adolescent if this D.J. Cotrona didn’t have even less to do. These two have so little charisma that the Rock has to go all the way to Bruce Willis for his supply.
Bruce plays General Joe Colton, the original G.I. Joe. The Rock tells us that the team was named for him, without ever explaining why. Maybe that would have been too interesting a story for this movie. Maybe it would have taken more Bruce Willis screen time than the budget could handle. You see, the production clearly only had Bruce for two days. The filmmakers try as best they can to spread the Bruce scenes across the movie, but there just aren’t that many to go around. A movie’s production limitations have rarely been more blatant onscreen than they are here. Bruce ducks in and out of the movie at inopportune times – there’s no reason other than what I presume, which is that they only had a couple locations to shoot him in. Why else is he not with the other guys at the climactic battle, only to appear (in a conspicuously different setting) at the very end to award medals? Bruce also very visibly appears to be aware of the piece of shit he’s appearing in, as he does in the EXPENDABLES movies. You’ve got to respect a guy like the Rock, who gives 110% no matter what junk surrounds him, but it’s also funny to notice how Bruce doesn’t even try when the material is such weak sauce. He knows he was cast because his name and face bring in a few more million at the box office, not because it makes any sense in the story, so he gives the movie all the attention it deserves. Of course, this would be a lot less charming if he weren’t still so good in better movies like LOOPER and MOONRISE KINGDOM.
I’m starting to feel like I should take Bruce’s example. I feel myself putting too much effort into writing about this movie, when it’s a movie that clearly doesn’t value the written word. There’s just so much dumb crammed into this flick, and not in a fun way. The way Lady Jaye walks right up to the President, only because she’s wearing a do-me dress, despite being on every most-wanted list in the country. The way Snake-Eyes and Jinx wrap the master-killer Storm Shadow up in a little sleeping-bag cocoon. The way Zartan turns out to be the movie’s ultimate villain and the way the guy named COBRA COMMANDER just sneaks out the back entrance, exclusively to leave the door open for a sequel. The way the Joes wait to enact their master plan against Cobra until the exact moment AFTER they’ve destroyed the entire city of London.
This is a sloppy, stupid movie. It’s slack and charmless. Without question it’s the most incompetent studio picture yet to be released in 2013 – no matter what anyone else writing about it would say to the contrary. Here is a complete and total waste of a lot of people’s time, energy, and money. Don’t volunteer yourself to be counted among that number.
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