So. G.I. Joe.
I think I made my thoughts on “turn off your brain” movies clear when I reviewed Battleship last year. For me, if a film has a budget near or exceeding 100 million US dollars, it doesn’t get a pass when it comes to bad plot or acting.
That being said, it is impossible not to understand the appeal of these movies. I think there are two key barometers, for me anyway, when it comes to giving an overall rating for a movie which are:
1. Was I entertained?
2. Was I engaged?
Battleship fell, spectacularly, at both hurdles, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation actually passed one of them, that being #1. Battleship was legendarily poor, but G.I. Joe gets just a little bit more praise from me, for a number of reasons that I will go into.
That’s not to say it’s a good movie of course.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the (sort-of) sequel to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which sees the titular special forces unit (I think that’s what they are anyway) take on the might of evil terrorist organisation Cobra. When Cobra manage to get a duplicate President in place (Jonathan Pryce) they’re able to pretty much wipe the “Joes” out, except for a few survivors. Led by Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the remaining Joes – Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and General Colton (Bruce Willis) must find a way to stop the maniacal world domination schemes of Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey/Robert Baker), Firefly (Ray Stephenson), Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Zartan (Arnold Vosloo).
Right, so it is entertaining. It’s over the top, silly, action-packed but it is entertaining. It’s fun, an acceptable thrill ride. The plot is actually a bit of a step up from The Rise of Cobra, insofar as it maintains a coherence and manageability that its predecessor lacks. No underwater ice fortresses in this one, no Eiffel-Tower eating nanites. The actual deadly MacGuffin, tungsten rods used as space-based weapons, is based on real science and theoretical applications. Aside from one big CGI-heavy moment late on, Retaliation never actually gets too bad on that score.
It’s well paced. I think the production team knew that dialogue was not their focus or strongpoint, so exposition and character development is kept contained enough to still be somewhat relevant, but is broken up by numerous entertaining action sequences. That being said, the pacing does take a bit of a hit at times. The opening sequence of a defector extraction in North Korea was bizarrely low-key and slow as an introduction to a movie of this type. The action flips awkwardly between plots (especially between the Roadblock parts and the Snake Eyes parts in the first half of the movie). Just seemed odd to jump back and forth between the two, with limited time given to each in each segment. There was also a few sequences that went on way too long, like the prison escape in East Germany, which could have been handled in a much simpler fashion, without the complex set-up of the situation, for much the same pay-off. Then there is the laughable stuff, like Roadblaock meeting up with his “ghetto” buddies in America. It all smoothed out in the latter half of the movie though.
I mean, more than the first one, Retaliation gets the basics in and does them competently, even if there are tears at the seams. Storm Shadow has a little redemption/revenge arc on Zartan, that’s all good. Roadblock has some of his own vengeance to get, and they set up the duel between him and Firefly very nicely, so it actually had some resonance in the final encounter. It fails to land in other places, like with Lady Jaye and this very rushed father figure thing she has with Colton. This is all basic storytelling, and Retaliation can at least say that it gets it right some of the time.
As you might expect, there is bad logic and gaping plot holes all over the place, which detract from the overall experience. They’re scattered about the running time, but really start to pile up during the last half hour, which can be viewed as a bit of an immersion dealbreaker. Retaliation depicts a world where every nuclear power on earth can have all of their nuclear missiles in the air in seconds thanks to the orders of a single man, and that this same person can self-destruct them all in mid air (which doesn’t create any fallout problems, no sir). The race against time in the finale is to stop the tungsten rods from being released over major capitals, but this takes the form of detonating the satellites holding them – which should send the tungsten rods into freefall right? Cobra are a terrorist organisation that have been involved in numerous large scale atrocities, but no one bats an eyelid when the President makes them his new special forces team. The United States somehow operates a prison in East Germany so far underground that it goes beyond national sovereignty (what?) and is more than happy to keep Cobra Commander and Destro in barbaric conditions for…some reason. London gets wiped out but after the neat visual effect, it actually doesn’t get a single reference (not even a reaction shot from the British Prime Minister). Someone says they will “cyberblast” an “encrypted message” at one point. And right at the end, for some reason, Roadblock lets off a pistol at a military ceremony.
I went into this movie knowing that I would encounter such problems, they seem to be an inherent part of the modern action movie. The key is whether they pass the “Inception test”, of being present in an otherwise fine production. G.I. Joe gets middling marks on that score, especially in the final 30 minutes. The whole situation with the nukes especially, is totally laughable.
The acting talent on display is a very mixed variety. There are only three real standouts of a very large cast. Dwayne Johnson is actually a better actor than people give him credit for (I think anyway) even if he has been largely relegated to action roles. He gets to have some good moments with Channing Tatum here, and displays an intensity that drives the “retribution” part of the plot forward well enough in the latter half of proceedings. He isn’t spectacular by any means, and does get a little cliché ridden, but as the main star of an action movie, he does his job.
Jonathan Pryce, as both the real and the fake President, gets the best of both worlds. He hams it up as the bad guy, in a delightful scenery chewing sort of way, and I think he is a compelling and interesting villain, a charming, devil-may-care attitude surrounding everything that he does.
Lee is probably the best bad guy through. Storm Shadow has the only thing resembling an effective backstory and probably has the most emotional range to show off, from breaking Cobra Commander out of prison, to getting captured, to going after Zartan at the conclusion. It’s mostly stoic of course, but, like with The Rise of Cobra, the producers knew that Storm Shadow was someone to focus on, not just for his rivalry with Snake Eyes, but because they could get some half-decent plot out of him. Lee provides that.
Unfortunately, just about everyone else is some kind of awful. Ray Park is both mute, and completely covered as Snake Eyes, so despite his substantial chunk of the running time, I can’t really rate him. Elodie Yung as Joe member Jinx…I’m not even sure she got more than two lines. She was just sort of there. Ray Stevenson is an actor I really like, but man was he phoning it in big time here. He was “Evil Tough Guy”, only with a slight accent. His fight scenes with Johnson were good, but he was thoroughly unmemorable in terms of actual acting ability.
D.J. Controna, as Flint, appears at first to be an important part of the cast, but upon reflection I cannot remember a single thing of any impact that he did, or any effect that he had on the plot in general. He was just there, in lots of scenes and with lines of dialogue, but not actually contributing anything worthwhile. Bizarre. Palicki seems to just be the obligatory female character, and she isn’t a great actress. I could buy her as a soldier in the first half of the movie, but then suddenly it was all so much eye-rolling body image exploitation stuff. The father figure angle with Willis falls flat because she didn’t get time to do anything with it, not that I have much faith that she could have.
Channing Tatum returns, briefly, as Duke, I think one of only three hold overs from the last movie. He does fine, especially in the scenes with Johnson, but he exists in this movie to be just a motivator in death. Bracey/Baker is pretty sinister as the Cobra Commander, but he’s a such an OTT villain character, that it is hard to really evaluate his acting chops. He certainly comes off as evil anyway, so I suppose it was a success. Walton Goggins, last seen in a pretty comedic role in Lincoln, is the prison warden here, a really strange role where he is portrayed as this gleefully sadistic type, but still sort of a hero. Such a bizarre way to play such a character, and it was one of the big problems with that whole convoluted sequence.
Arnold Vosloo is apparently in the movie, but I suspect he was never actually on set, since he has no lines and might just have been CGI-ed in. Joseph Mazzello, whom I last saw staring around him a lot in The Pacific, is the stereotypical “FNG” here, who gets just enough time to be youthful before he’s killed off. RZA is the “Blind Master”, heavily make-uped, in a really strange part that seems built for a celebrity cameo (kind of like how Brendan Frasier turned up in the first one for some reason). He’s pretty bland.
And lastly there is Bruce Willis, who does an awful job. He really, really doesn’t care about this movie, with stunted dialogue and a total lack of believable interaction. He appears to be in this movie because he was available, and it’s always nice to have a big name to supplement the cast. Just awful, from the way he kept calling Jaye “Brenda” (seriously, what was that?) to his casual revealing of the mountain of guns in his house, to his limited role in the finale. What was he doing in this movie? A performance to match Liam Neeson in Battleship, that’s for damn sure.
It’s OK script work, for the most part, a little unnatural at times, especially when it comes to any of the plothole moments I’ve mentioned above. There is a lot of stuff thrown in that seems to be the beginning of something meaningful, only to get cast to the wayside. There are references to some pearl-handled pistols as important, but we never really see why. A throwaway line tells us that Jinx is Storm Shadows sister, but this apparently important bit of information doesn’t really seem to matter for the rest of the movie. Just a lot of stuff like that.
Obviously wordplay isn’t going to be the key strength in an action movie, but Retaliation is trying at the very least, so I have to give it some credit. I liked the camaraderie between Duke and Roadblock in the early part of the movie, which was funny and indicative of a close relationship, which helped to set up the revenge quest later on. I liked the bad guys dialogue, if only because I’m a sucker for anything megalomaniacal and over the top for the get go.
And there’s the smaller things. When the Warden mentions the cooling agents they use to keep the prison from roasting, and these (flammable) agents are used as a weapon later, that’s good foreshadowing. When Roadblock talks about his past life its cliché as hell but fits the character nicely. Just little things like that are able to elevate Retaliation above the more easily dismissible garbage you see from the genre.
The characterization element is frequently hamfisted and ineffective – how Lady Jaye waxes about how hard it is to be a women in the military while she undresses to reveal a sexy thong comes to mind – but at least it is there, to a greater extent than it was in the first movie. The shallowness brings it all down off course, along with the mediocre acting performances.
Visually, I think it does a good job. The scale of CGI use is way down from the last one, with Retaliation opting for more up close action stuff and limited set-pieces. The big exception is the destruction of London, which is depicted rather well, but it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before from any number of disaster movies. Everything else is much smaller in scale, and used as an addendum to other stuff, like Firefly’s rocket bike or the escape from the mountain top monastery.
There’s decent camerawork, lots of colours. There’s a pretty seamless blend of really nice-looking locales, from deserts to mountains to the odd but somewhat endearing choice of Fort Sumter as the finale spot.
The action scenes are quite good. The assault in Pakistan is breakneck, the helicopter attacks is a good combination of bright flashes against black sky, the fight scenes between Roadblock and Firefly are “slobberknockers” and the finale, in general is a good way to close it all off, with minor duels and larger explosions. The best of the lot is the Ninja combat in the mountains, which included a neat back and forth as the two opposing groups swayed on climbing ropes while swinging swords. Retaliation is the kind of movie that sets out to entertain with good reaction, and I think that it succeeds in doing that.
Musically, it’s a symphonic assault on Dunkirk, with the expected mix of techno/rap music you see in anything even vaguely devoted to the United States military. Nothing too memorable here, but it does the right job in getting the tension up and the pulse pounding. Don’t remember a note of it now though.
So, themes. Obviously, this is a shallow enough production, relatively speaking, so there really aren’t a whole lot of themes to be discussing. With that being said, I’ll give it a shot with the one theme you can really see, which is the very title.
It’s nothing but retribution and revenge here. The overall plot is Cobra seeking revenge for their failure to take over the world in the first film. Storm Shadow seeks revenge on Zartan for killing his master, just as Snake Eyes seeks revenge for the same crime. Roadblock wants to avenge Duke’s death, Lady Jaye wants to stick it to her father. And around and around we go.
It’s basic, basic stuff, and not all of it lands very well, but it is present, adding just a little depth to the production. The Storm Shadow/Zartan one probably has the best potential to be something better (how often do you see a story about a bad guy justifiably seeking revenge?) but only gets introduced past the half way point and seems to have retconned significant parts of the first movie. The Lady Jaye stuff is the very definition of “rushed”, so that’s no good. The Roadblock one is pretty light on substance in many respects, but improves the fight scenes between him and Firefly (why not have Firefly at the massacre where Duke dies though?) to a degree.
Overall, I cannot say that G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a good movie. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, it ranks quite low. But it isn’t that bad, not really. It has good action, nice use of CGI, a coherent plot and some half-decent performances from the better actors. But, it also has a lackadaisical script, a whole load of mediocre cast members, plenty of plot holes and lots of random, unappealing elements. Retaliation is never going to be viewed as a classic anything.
But I would still commend it, for the reason that I left the cinema entertained. I didn’t turn off my brain and I recognise the flaws, but it’s a fun movie, that should make you laugh on occasion and enjoy some really good action on others. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).