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Entries in G.I. Joe: Retaliation [2013] (1)

Saturday
Mar302013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

Daze in the Military

You don't need to have seen G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in order to understand its sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I saw the original in 2009, and it wasn't until a few minutes ago (following a quick scan of IMDb for research) that I remembered Dennis Quaid, Sienna Miller, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt starring in that film. I paid to see Rise of Cobra in a theatre, and had some definite, not-so-nice opinions of it. But I went into the sequel recalling only three things: Channing Tatum's involvement; Cobra Commander's (Luke Bracey) voice sounding nothing like it did in the animated 1980s series on which the movies are based; and Christopher Eccleston's ridiculously fun performance as metal-faced supervillain, Destro.

You may have guessed by the scarcity of bold highlights that most of the original cast (and the characters they played) don't return for part two. Like a new product line rolling off the mega-blockbuster conveyor belt, Retaliation banks on the audience's bad memory/lack of interest to essentially re-start the franchise's story. In this way (and many, many others), the movie is like a compilation of TV show episodes. If you were a fan of the cartoons, there's no excuse for not loving the movies: both are colorful, loud, boring, and best appreciated by children.*

Having said that, I recommend checking this one out--probably not in 3D, and likely only when it hits Netflix. It's not what you'd call a "good movie", but a few legitimately great performances and a solid lesson in killing off characters (actually, a solid lesson in how notto do so) are reason enough to give this thing a go. The plot is definitely not the selling point here, centering on a master of disguise named Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) assuming the identity of the U.S. President (Jonathan Pryce) in order to wipe out America's elite special forces branch and take over the world (Spoiler?). And that's okay: looking for story in G.I. Joe: Retaliation is like looking for nutrition at Stake 'n Shake.

Let's begin with those awesome performances. Pryce; barely a presence in the first movie, is a full-on star in Retaliation. In his dual role as homicidal egomaniac and leader of the free world,** he walks a fine line of hamming it up and forgetting that he's not in a serious movie. In a climactic scene that will evoke both Dr. Strangelove and your gag reflex, he toys with world leaders by launching the entirety of the United States' nuclear arsenal--all the while playing Angry Birds on his phone. He's a Bond villain playing President, and Pryce acts as if that's been his career objective all along.

Next up is Dwayne Johnson, an actor who makes me smile no matter how high-brow or low-brow the projects he appears in. Like Nicholson, Pacino, DeNiro, and Cruise, I have a feeling Johnson will be canonized someday for his inexplicable talent for playing a version of himself in every film--while also appearing to bring something new to the table. When his character, Roadblock, shares macho banter with Tatum's Duke, he might as well be delivering lines from Fast Five or Faster. But he's so damned good at playing the jovial brick shithouse that it's impossible not to fall in love (and yes, I mean that kind of love).

The last, best mention in Retaliation's surprisingly awesome acting stable is Walton Goggins. He plays the head of what amounts to the CIA black site in which Cobra Commander and Destro were detained following the events of the last movie. He greets his newest inmate (whose identity I won't divulge--not so much out of concern for spoilers, but because it's too complicated and uninteresting to mention) with a boisterous, devilish sales pitch for his facility of doom. He's a classic Lovable Prick who, thanks to some uncharacteristically clever writing by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, gets to play both sides of the audience's sympathy. Goggins deserves his own spin-off. And probably an Oscar.

The rest of the cast isn't worth mentioning. Bruce Willis, who's turned his tough-guy smirk into the equivalent of Derek Zoolander's "Blue Steel", shows up as the original G.I. Joe. He manages to stay awake long enough to deliver his lines, but just barely. Hey, at least he's a discernable personality. Between Abercrombie Model with Daddy Issues, Ninja Man, Ninja Girl, and Not John Stamos (sorry, the actual code names escape me), Retaliation overflows with characters I couldn't care less about, going on missions that make moderate to zero sense, and blowing up three times the national debt in property in the process. They are Team America: World Police, complete with visible strings and wooden delivery.

And don't get me started on RZA as Ninja Man's rival. Jesus fucking Christ...

Sorry.

Earlier, I alluded to a poorly executed character death. Turn back now if you don't want to know that Channing Tatum's character dies ten minutes in. Ha! See what I did there?*** Anyway, in a better film, offing the previous movie's hero would be a really big deal. Unfortunately, when Duke bites it in a fire fight, Retaliation's audience instinctively goes into "Comic-Book-Movie Mode" (I realize we're technically talking about an Action-Figure Movie, but the same rules apply).

The logic of these movies dictates a false death, followed by a reprise during the final moments of the climax--wherein the supposedly fallen hero swoops in to save our heroes in their darkest hour. You won't find that here. Duke is as dead as Dahmer before the plot fully kicks in, and I can thank the boldness of the script and the clumsiness of John M. Chu's direction for giving me..."hope" is a weird word to use in describing the return of Tanning Channing, but I guess it works.

For as much railing against vapidity as I do on this site, you're fully within your rights to call me a hypocrite. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is patriotic, 3D machismo that's too dull to make it even as a summer blockbuster. But the handful of oddities I've described in annoying detail are enough for me to highly recommend it--but not in the way Chu and company would likely prefer. This is high trash, a glossy distraction that will never be anyone's favorite movie. It exists to fill a calendar slot in a release slate, and to keep a revered toy brand relevant with new tie-in figures.

I can't wait for part three.

*I feel the same way about Michael Bay's Transformers franchise, which, for some reason, is still maligned as an empty, over-long effects spectacle--almost like it was rooted in thinly plotted, poorly disguised toy commercials or something.

**It's a cartoon movie, so I'll allow the fanciful distinction.

***Yeah, I hate that cutesy cliche, too.