Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Whew. That was my first reaction to G.I. Joe: Retaliation (opening today), the sequel/re-boot to the horrible, childhood-memory destroying, offensive 2009 crap-heap, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
Disclaimer: There is no bigger fan of G.I. Joe than this guy. I grew up (spoiled perhaps?) with every single G.I. Joe action figure, including those that you had to mail away for, like the hooded Cobra Commander, Super Trooper or Sgt. Slaughter. Heck, I even had the massive, 7-foot long U.S.S. Flagg in my basement, the toy battleship that sold about 10 units worldwide.
The G.I. Joe cartoon was my life. I remember racing home from school to watch it at 4 p.m. every day. When they began showing it before school, like super-early before school, it used to make me sleep at night knowing that I had motivation to arise. My first job was in a comic book store and even though I thought the G.I. Joe comics were lame, I followed the story-lines intensely. I'd perhaps rank the animated G.I. Joe: The Movie as one of the more influential films I saw growing up.
I even remember the last time I played with - at age 14 no less - my massive collection of figures. Imagine my complete horror when a nephew of mine, years later, found my collection and managed to pull apart every single man (and woman), snapping them all at the waste and collectively destroying my favorite childhood memories.
That's a lot of back-story, but necessary to set up what it meant when G.I. Joe was finally made into a feature film in 2009. Needless to say, that movie was like being forced to watch someone rip apart my figures again, limb by limb. Although it enjoyed a solid world-wide box office, it was critically panned as being a limp and lifeless action film. To me though, it was one of the most offensive films I had ever sat through. I vowed never to watch another G.I. Joe film.
But The Return of Cobra was released just prior to my film criticism career, a bittersweet yet joyous time where I could be selective as to what I saw.
When Retaliation was delayed - having originally been intended as a 2012 Summer blockbuster - I was a bit relieved, but I knew the day would come where I'd have to face my fears, do my job and sit through another mind-raping known as a Hollywood G.I. Joe film.
Within five minutes of the new G.I. Joe: Retaliation movie, I exhaled. Each character was introduced using an on-screen representation of the iconic identification file that could be found on the back of each action figure, detailing a bit of unique, personal back-story. By the time the end credits rolled, I was far from "won over," but I couldn't help but feel like G.I. Joe had redeemed itself: It had graduated from the gutters of film history to being at least a passable, if not flawed, action franchise.
Its as if the filmmakers, or producers, knew that The Rise of Cobra was terrible, and as they say, "knowing is half the battle." The story acknowledges the first film and on some level, picks up where it left off, with the villainous Dreadnock Zartan disguised as the President of the United States. A quick update lets us know that Cobra Commander and Destro are both being held captive, but that Storm Shadow and Zartan are still at large.
Duke (Channing Tatum) is back, but gone are most every other Joe from the first film, save everybody's silent hero, Snake Eyes. We instead are introduced to Roadblock (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), one of the better-known and popular Joe characters. We also get Flint (a lifeless D.J. Cotrona) and the super-sexy Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki, where have you been all my life?). G.I. Joe, America's elite task force, seems to be rolling on all cylinders.
But Zartan as the leader of the free world? Something's got to give. The G.I. Joe unit is double-crossed and totally destroyed. The film uses this occurrence to totally launch itself in a new direction. Surviving the attack, Roadblock, Jaye and Flint try to pick up the pieces and launch a counter-attack, to stop Cobra from their plan of world domination. They even go to recruit the "original" G.I. Joe himself, played by none other than Bruce Willis.
Where the first film had all of the components - Joes, Cobras, action, laughs and somebody uttering the phrase "knowing is half the battle" - it showed no respect for the spirit of the cartoon or comics. In Retaliation, much more of this spirit comes through. It's a non-stop, wildly entertaining action/adventure and the film's delay - purportedly to upgrade the film to 3D - was well worth the wait. In fact, the 3D had me jumping as bullets flew past my head and nameless ninjas were hurled directly in my face. Usually "upgrades" to 3D fall well short of films that are actually captured in 3D, but this one is a must-see in 3D, if you must see it at all.
If you aren't a big G.I. Joe fan, you may be happy leaving the film there: An entertaining action film that is a marked and definite improvement over the first film. But any fan of G.I. Joe will still see the lost potential in the series thus far.
My biggest gripe has to do with the choice of inclusion and exclusion of certain characters. You don't make a Smurfs movie, for example, and have it only be about Hefty. G.I. Joe is not a Duke story - or about any one person - and the amount of interesting characters at the disposal of the filmmakers is abundant. For every cool character they feature - like the Cobra saboteur Firefly (Ray Stevenson) who appears in this film - there are five classic Joes still waiting for their chance. Where is Gung-Ho? Bazooka? Shipwreck? Spirit? It would be like making a movie about The Beatles and then having to wait for the third film in the series before being introduced to Ringo.
Where the new film excels for G.I. Joe fans is the inclusion of some more familiar plots. There is an interesting development between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes - not to mention one of the coolest action-sequences I've seen in quite awhile as the two battle it out on a snowy mountain-side - that harkens back to a plot-line in Storm Shadow's comic book past. The idea that Cobra has a crazily ambitious plot to destroy the entire world, seems about right.
But again, for every step in the right direction, the new movie takes a sort-of side step. There is a reference in the film to Roadblock being a gumbo chef (true to the original character), but then we get Roadblock's entire back-story in the film and there is no mention of his past culinary experience. The character of Flint is reduced to some tag-along love interest for Lady Jaye, a far cry from the intelligent and fierce leader from the cartoons. There is some serious destruction (sorry London) that is glossed over in the too-happy ending sequence. Destro is conveniently left out of the loop. And when Bruce Willis recruits several soldiers for the film's pivotal battle, why not have them be a couple of known Joe characters?
There were literally squeals in the audience when Cobra Commander's iconic silver mask makes an appearance in the movie, could you imagine the thrills us old-school fans could have had just to know that a few of the other beloved characters made an appearance, albeit it briefly? They do give us Jinx, Firefly, Mouse (and according to the end credits, Grunt and Clutch, although I missed them on-screen) but would it have hurt to just refer to one of the background soldiers as Chuckles or Wild Bill?
But then we see the classic black Cobra chopper, the water moccasin, Storm Shadow's sai weapon and Roadblock's heavy artillery and we at least get the sense that this time around, they were really trying. Directed by Jon M. Chu, he infuses this sequel with the cheesy show-tactics of a music video. Fitting I guess, that this is the same guy who directed two of the Step Up films.
There is just so much source material in the comics and the cartoon, that it is a mind-bender to wonder why they haven't tapped into any of it. But on the flip-side, there is so much source material that one can only dream of this franchise's potential if it returns to its roots. Let's hope that the third G.I. Joe film is called "Rise, Serpentor, Rise!"
This new G.I. Joe film is by no means perfect, but for the non or casual fan, I'm thinking it will be a successful hit with The Rock at the helm. The best news of all is that this was a step in the right direction for the franchise, from the eyes of a real fan. It was at least 100 times better than the first G.I. Joe film, which raises it barely to the level of mediocrity. Now that they seem to know what their doing, perhaps future installments will (hopefully) continue to raise the bar. And knowing is....well, you know.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi
Run Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jonathan Pryce, Byung-hun Lee, Elodie Yung, Ray Stevenson, Channing Tatum, Adrianne Palicki, D.J. Cotrona, Ray Parks
Written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (the writing duo of Zombieland)
Directed by Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never)
Opens locally on Thursday, March 28, 2013
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