G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a fun movie and a good adaptation of the Hasbro brand, capturing both the spirit of the Sunbow cartoons and the Marvel comic book. It has solid performances, convincing visual effects, and manages to both act as a sequel to Paramount’s hugely flawed 2009 G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, while also somewhat ignoring that and rebooting the franchise as a new first installment. Much credit goes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who’s great as Roadblock, the film’s heart, and director Jon M. Chu, for exciting action sequences and properly mining G.I. Joe for many of the things we’ve always wanted to see onscreen. I certainly raised my eyebrow when Chu was announced for the director’s chair based on his previous filmography, but I recognize that professionals have skills that don’t always correspond to past work. The man who directed one of my favorite commercials went on to direct three of my least favorite films, so it can easily go the other way. (That would be Michael Bay, the Aaron Burr/Got Milk? spot, and Transformers.) Don Jurwich, who directed the animated G.I. Joe, had previously worked on Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo. If there had been an internet in 1983, would we have reacted poorly after seeing Jurwich’s name in the Joe TV credits reel? Some additional credit goes to writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (both of Zombieland), who turned in a decent action script that needed to serve several masters. There are story problems, but the bar was set low by The Rise of Cobra.
Spoilers abound, the long review:
It’s difficult to discuss G.I. Joe: Retaliation without repeatedly mentioning the 2009 G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I’ll try.
Let’s start by acknowledging what Retaliation got right, and what it fixed that had been broken. The Baroness can no longer work in the G.I. Joe film universe, so she’s out, and it’s unfortunate, but it’s the right call. The actors who didn’t pull their weight in ROC are gone. I want to make a special mention of Marlon Wayons, who showed great skill in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Mis-cast, given poor direction, and terrible dialogue in G.I. Joe (“Damn, we look good!“), Wayons stuck out. I kinda wish he’d been around just to quickly exit stage left via Cobra’s sneak attack at the start of Retaliation since ROC spent so much time building up his and Duke’s friendship, and had to rush through Duke’s time with Roadblock, but I understand the prohibitive mechanics of film budgets, actor schedules, and screenplay templates. Retaliation already had too many characters, so if we’re going to balance introducing new ones, let’s jettison all non-essentials. With Channing Tatum’s star on the rise and stabilizing position as the center of the franchise, bringing back Duke is the right call. But I do pretend that Scarlett and Heavy Duty and the rest were somewhere in the background this time around, getting blown up by Firefly, or on the other end of Lady Jaye’s SOS, unable to respond, off-camera saying “I’ll be back for number 3!”
Also thankfully gone are those bothersome Iron Man suits, Cobra Commander’s weird face and stupid origin, the laughably unrealistic Pitt, the Joes’ excessive collateral damage, sore-thumb flashbacks, handheld energy weapons, and overly convenient family trees. In The Rise of Cobra‘s failed attempt to make palatable a G.I. Joe film with its down-toning of guns and violence, it actually primed the audience for a proper G.I. Joe flick — guns, ammo, killing, and all. And all we had to do was sacrifice an entire film.
Retaliation also got right the scope and scale of Cobra. It’s national and international — armies and tanks here, rockets up there (I’m pointing to space). And Cobra Commander efficiently reclaimed his mantle and started causing trouble. Also, the Zartan/President subplot was too good to give up, and this film summarized it, forwarded it, and resolved it all in a satisfactory manner. Jonathan Price did not work for me in “The Rise of Cobra.” My friends think I overdo it when I point out that Samuel L. Jackson, though stunning in Pulp Fiction, was pretty terrible in Iron Man 2. He had only a few tiny scenes, but he played the role too broadly, and was not tough. But Jackson is great in Jurassic Park, another film where he does very little. So I’ve gotten sensitive to great actors not fitting small roles, and Pryce was soft as The President in the 2009 G.I. Joe flick. I was concerned he’d look similarly lost this time around, and with more of the story revolving around him, that could be the end of the film. To my relief, he’s very good, both as The Actual President, scared and stuck in a jail cell, and The Fake President, a villain playing pretend.
Other actors fared similarly well. Adrianne Palicki is very good. She alternates between strong and vulnerable, and looks like a Lady Jaye. Rachel Nichols did not look like Scarlett. She wasn’t tough. And D.J. Cotrona is good. He doesn’t have as must to work with as Dwayne Johnson, and Flint is a one-note character. Flint takes risks (not followed through plot-wise), and he’s not optimistic about the unit’s chances. His two character scenes worked well, and action-wise, Cotrona did great work. From the behind-the-scenes footage I’ve seen he did many of Flint’s stunts.
The ninja action scene in the mountains is fun. Great sense of scale and the visceral thrill of zip-lining, swinging, kicking, and slashing. Storm Shadow and Snake-Eye’s hand-to-hand fight in the hallway and then out the window is satisfying.
I’d also like to nod to Henry Jackman’s score. Alan Silvestri’s music for Rise of Cobra was perfunctory, a disappointment since past work by him (Back to the Future) is so iconic. Jackman’s music didn’t make much of an impression when I saw the film (save for the aforementioned ninja set piece, a good use of breathing room), but I’ve listened to it in isolation recently and there’s much to like. Variety, mood, and a central theme.
Retaliation‘s editing was a mixed bag. The crosscutting between the President’s press conference announcing the end of the Joes and Roadblock/Flint/Jaye escaping is great. The big ninja fight is clear. But some scenes are rushed, or feel like they’re missing a shot. I’m thinking particularly of Duke’s death. Am I the only person who was a little confused about the moment that his vehicle was hit? Like there’s something we didn’t see? I’m referring to the continuity of shots here, like we needed one more close-up of Duke under that vehicle as it explodes. Not to be gratuitous, but because otherwise the scene lacks closure, like I’m not certain he’s still there. (Note: The extended cut Blu-ray includes an additional shot that precisely addresses this concern, so no, I’m not crazy.)
Much else about Retaliation does work on the surface, but falls apart upon any kind of inspection.
A few story threads are underdeveloped to the point of distraction. I love that Firefly and Storm Shadow had plotted to rescue Cobra Commander from prison. But I’m not sure why CC says to Firefly “Take him to the mountains to heal. I’ll need him for the war that’s about to start” after Storm Shadow is injured. This all looks very device-y. Storm Shadow got burned because his shirt was off. His shirt was off because a film like this needs some sex appeal, so Lee Byung Hee’s shirt had to come off. (As it did in The Rise of Cobra.) I’m not kidding here — filmaking is male dominated and women are often objectified (Lady Jaye’s red gown, her jogging outfit), but Hollywood knows about eye candy for women, too, like shirtless Hugh Jackman in both Wolverine films, and his small, tight shirt in the posters for both.) So Storm Shadow is injured, and Cobra Commander has him sent “to the mountains,” which is so that Snake-Eyes can fight Storm Shadow in a mountain-top ninja strong hold. Cobra has nanites, and can launch rockets into space, but doesn’t have medics? Storm Shadow has to go to the highest place on Earth? Where a mysterious old lady needs to apply salve to that burn wound? I’m not saying I want Storm Shadow to avoid returning to Unnamed Arashikage Mountain Base, but I want his reason to make more sense. Or I want him to say something to that old lady, or have some relationship with that place and the red ninja there. Is it his home? Is it his retreat? Are those red ninja his trainees?
Part of my problem with Retaliation is that a lot of the environments are interchangeable. Where’s Cobra’s base? The one with the HISS tanks and the rockets? I don’t know, because they don’t tell us. Where is Roadblock’s hometown? Is it Biloxi, Marvin Hinton’s hometown as per the 1984 action figure? Is it Generic American City? Is it near Washington, D.C.? I guess so, because the Joes are investigating the President. (Maybe I missed an establishing shot with the Washington Monument and the National Mall.) This is not a fair comparison, but I always go back to how much New York City is a character is Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. But G.I. Joe: Retaliation is inconsistent about naming places, and keeps us at arm’s length from them. We get the DMZ along North Korea. Okay, good. We get what I think is the Indus Valley Desert, wherever that is. (The internet tells me it’s in Pakistan, but I’d prefer someone say it aloud or the film to show a map.) Then we get great stuff in Roadblock’s hometown — his old buddy, the mean streets, the gym. But then right into another Generic Location, when Roadblock, Lady Jaye and Flint go Somewhere (nearby? Not nearby?) to enlist Joe Colton. I get the joke that Bruce Willis’ character lives in an unassuming suburbia, but because of underwriting, undershooting, or overediting, our trio-on-the-run seem to walk out of the gym, cross the street, and enter Colton’s kitchen. How great would it have been to get a scene of them sneaking across city lines? Or state lines? Flint didn’t have much to do, so this scene could have been all him, hotwiring a car or jumping across rooftops to avoid street level security cameras.
Something else that was missing was a certain specificity in character tropes and visuals. I don’t need Lady Jaye to wear a baseball cap and green button-down shirt. And I get that when on the run, wanted men and women would try and blend in with black tops and blue jeans. But would it kill the filmmakers to in just one scene give our characters something resembling their toy costumes? Can’t Duke wear a mustard shirt once? If this sounds nitpicky, I don’t think it is. Part of the power of G.I. Joe, or any brand, is the iconic nature of the characters. The toy and the comics and the cartoons were a hit partly because of the visual designs, not in spite of them. I’m all for updating and adapting, and I get that Wolverine would look silly in yellow spandex in “real life,” but Flint isn’t just a tough guy with short, black hair. He wears a black shirt and camo pants. If you didn’t tell me DJ Cotrona was playing Flint, and no one said his name, I wouldn’t know for sure it’s him. Part of what makes him Flint is Flint’s costume, his gun, and yes, his beret. “Gumbo” gets a reference in Retaliation, but nothing is said of Roadblock’s culinary skills. Amazingly, there’s a scene with Roadblock, Flint, and Lady Jaye that takes place at the end of a meal! But the film cuts around it, and we barely see the food. What a great opportunity for a little fan garnish (ha!) — Lady Jaye could say something small like “even in a dump like this, you manage to make a fine meal, Roadblock.” Innocuous to most of the audience, but the Joe fans would applaud.
That leads me to the javelin thing. Lady Jaye, or Jaye, as she’s called here, has that name because it’s a re-spelling of “Lady J.” J for javelin. Because Lady Jaye throws javelins in the cartoon and her toy comes with one. It’s her schtick. I’m fine with the new film losing “Lady,” as it’s sexist and doesn’t add anything. But she needs a javelin, or at least a prop to throw, otherwise she’s just one more Joe. You know, Roadblock is called Roadblock because he’s big and can stop things with his heavy machine gun. What Rise of Cobra got better than Retaliation, surprisingly, are these character ticks. Ripcord wants to be a pilot, Scarlet has that signature crossbow. The names mean something, and that needs follow-through.
Also not followed up on were Joe Colton’s “Arch Angel Joes,” as the IMDB calls them. This was terrible and unclear filmmaking. Yes, taking down Cobra and rescuing the President with five Joes, an evil ninja, and Colton himself is impossible. So calling in five or so more people, presumably retired soldiers, will help. But these guys aren’t named, they’re not shown in close-up, and they disappear from the film once Roadblock takes out Firefly and does his slow-motion marquee walking shot. I’m guessing those older guys are a nod to the ’60s G.I. Joe, since Colton is a 1993 invention that links back to 1963. Or that those older guys are a wink to the Adventure Team from the ’70s, but I shouldn’t have to work out who they are after seeing the film.
More on names: Everyone calls them “the Joes” or “G.I. Joes.” No one called them “G.I. Joe.” No one called it “G.I. Joe.” It is a team. And strangely, you say it both like you’d refer to the Green Berets (though one doesn’t join Green Beret) and also how you’d refer to Delta Force (though one isn’t a Delta Force). One is a G.I. Joe and is in G.I. Joe. So I’ve always heard the team name as the collective “G.I. Joe” — I joined G.I. Joe, G.I. Joe is a top-secret team, G.I. Joe will save us from Cobra. Then “the Joes” is an informal abbreviation — The Joes are attacking us, Did you hear about the Joes’ new tank, Lt. Falcon might get kicked out of the Joes. And lastly, “the G.I. Joes” is something only members of Cobra would say who did not have an emotional familiarity with the team, Your precious G.I. Joes can’t save you from the Arena of Sport! Nitpicking? Maybe, but President Zartan says he terminated the G.I. Joes and it sounds all wrong. By contrast, in the 1987 animated “G.I. Joe: The Movie,” when Falcon talks back to Hawk, and the General yells “What you have is an order, G.I. Joe!” it sounds perfect.
But that’s a lot of negatives, and I do want to reiterate that I enjoyed this film. It didn’t stay with me, as it was pop entertainment without a lasting emotional core, but it was an enjoyable film, and probably the best G.I. Joe film we can hope for in the real world. I’m not expecting Batman Begins-styled grounded realism or a stripping down as in Casino Royale. And I’m not expecting Hollywood to ask Buzz Dixon or Larry Hama to handle the screenplay. And as much as I want only the “real” stuff from the comic and a careful reigning in of the wacky stuff from the show, audiences at large know the property from animation. That means PSAs, outlandish Cobra plots, and a certain, well, cartooniness.
Speaking of cartooniness, what was up with the Blind Master? RZA was a bit of fun casting, but ultimately this did not work. This really took me out of the story. RZA’s three scenes helped unify the story of the film, and called back to The Rise of Cobra, but I just didn’t buy him as an aged martial arts head of a ninja clan. Bringing in his character (The Blind Master, though he’s not named in the film — an unfortunate oversight) from the comics to make up for the lack of a Hard Master and Soft Master is good plotting, but he didn’t have any gravitas. That he just directed, co-wrote, and starred in The Man With The Iron Fists should have helped, and if there’s something B-film and ’70s-cinema about G.I. Joe movies (kicking, mayhem, simple morals and worldview) then such a connection is a boon. But as is, during his scenes I thought “I’d like to go see his film and remove him from this one.” If nothing else, he brings diversity to a mostly white flick.
Let’s end this with something nice. Jaye’s arc with Colton and the specter of her father is strong, and their wrap-up at the award ceremony is great. G.I. Joe: Retaliation looks and feels like a G.I. Joe film, treating the characters and relationships with respect, and offering thrills along the way. Dwayne Johnson’s charisma is the real star here, as is his gravitas and physicality. Hooray for Jon M. Chu, who did a great job fixing this franchise. I’m glad he’s involved with the third film.
What did you think?
See you back here soon for a podcast on the extended cut of Retaliation.