History says there are two ways for Hollywood to handle something like a G.I. Joe movie: Take a completely straight-forward approach, or make fun of the franchise with tongue-in-cheek satire.
“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” instead goes for option three: The filmmakers appear to have handed a dozen or so G.I. Joe dolls to a 9-year-old, watched him play for 110 minutes and then shot a scene-for-scene remake.
How else to explain a motorcycle that fires machine guns, gets launched into the air and breaks apart into missiles while the driver parachutes to safety? How else to explain a Joe who finds a box of old computer parts in an abandoned community center and in a few hours starts hacking military databases? How else to explain 20 or so ninjas dressed in red leather catsuits fighting while rappelling on the side of an ice mountain?
Is “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” a bad movie? Not if you like bad guys who control swarms of exploding robotic fireflies – except, of course, for the ones shot down by bullets or ninja stars. This sequel makes the first “G.I. Joe” movie from 2009 look like “Platoon.” It’s algorithmically more ridiculous. But it’s not a failure. How can something fail when it appears to accomplish everything it sets out to do?
Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and Duke (Channing Tatum) are leaders in the elite G.I. Joe team, who carry out missions with a fourth-grader’s knowledge of world politics. After saving the world twice – from North Korea and Pakistan, naturally – the president (Jonathan Pryce) orders an ambush to frame the Joes, but it’s not really the president. It’s a shape-shifting master of disguise named Zartan, who works for Cobra. The Joes are on the run, hide in a ghetto, are helped by a turncoat Cobra operative, etc.
Director John M. Chu, who helmed the second and third “Step Up” movies, has varying success with the action. Close combat is often fogged by quick edits, while the big set pieces (including the aforementioned cliff) are more memorable. The 3D is nearly pointless.
But Chu got his money’s worth from the actors, who dive into their parts as if there’s an Academy Award for chewing scenery. This role, not “Brazil,” should be Pryce’s future “In Memoriam” Academy Awards clip. Good actors including Walton Goggins, Ray Stevenson and RZA (as a blind martial arts master, transported from a 1972 grindhouse flick) impress over the sound of their surroundings constantly blowing up.
Johnson and Tatum have excellent chemistry and strong comic timing – another filmmaker needs to sign this pair to a “La Cage aux Folles” remake. With their easy banter and self-deprecating charm, it doesn’t even seem weird hearing a man refer to another soldier as “Roadblock.”
It’s not surprising when the movie falters after the pair are separated late in the first act. That sense of fun returns in the last 40 minutes of the movie, with the arrival of a surprise A-lister playing the original G.I. Joe. (It’s Bruce Willis! What a shocker! He’s on the movie poster!)
Although much of this works on a lowbrow cinematic level, there are laughable failures as well. The helmeted all-black good guy Snake Eyes doesn’t make the transition from cartoon to live action movie, looking like someone walked on the set in a hastily assembled Power Rangers costume. And as much as the plot sticks to a 9-year-old’s logic, it’s too complicated and the ending is rushed, as if Mom suddenly called our little puppet master to dinner.
Still, we’d like to see what this kid does with a “Six Million Dollar Man” remake. Tatum would make a pretty good Steve Austin.