How do you praise a film so thoughtless? Better yet, how do you criticize a film so amusing?
That’s the issue at hand with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film that’s entertaining often in spite of itself. But Retaliation is truly a mixed bag; a film some critics will thumb their nose as “beneath them” while others will accept simply as a mindless distraction with decent visual flair.
Truthfully I’m in neither camp. Films like this are as easy to dismiss as they are to praise, depending on where your interests lie. Anyone deriding Retaliation for not being high art can have their concept of “high art” all to themselves, because director Jon Chu rises to the challenge in creating an intriguing visual style in this film, even if it’s placidly inconsistent throughout. And that’s where Retaliation really falters; it knows its dumb, but its willingness to acknowledge its shortcomings is never enough to make up for its failures
What’s funny, at least to me, is how if one were to edit out Retaliation’s bloat, you’d be left with an insanely kickass film. Now granted, that film would be roughly 25 minutes long and features less than half of the characters that make it into the final edit, but those would be some badass 25 minutes.
Everything that’s awesome about Retaliation has to do with Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), with perhaps a Ray Stevenson assist as Firefly. There’s a badass ninja movie happening concurrently with Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and his team’s (made up of DJ Cortuna as Flint and Adrienne Palicki as Lady Jaye) attempts to thwart a rejuvenated Cobra Commander and his minions. From a prison escape that takes place near the Earth’s core (with an appearance by Walton Goggins!) to that insanely hypnotic and beautifully composed mountain-side ninja battle, that’s the film you pay to see when you buy a ticket to G.I. Joe Retaliation. Most everything else is bunk.
Let’s start with the 3D, which, save for that mountain battle I just mentioned, is absolute crud from the outset. Objects fly off the screen that shouldn’t, character motions rarely appear fluid and the fast action is an eye sore more often than not. Which makes that scene with the ninjas all the more puzzling considering how immaculately composed and beautifully rendered it is. At least until you consider that that was the scene that Paramount has been playing to convention crowds and advance screening-goers for the past six months. But this one dazzling scene is sadly built on a foundation of wet mud.
If the film’s excitement is generated with Snake Eye’s side quest to find and capture Storm Shadow, Roadblock and his boring cronies temper that same excitement. Knowing so little of the character’s backstory, I’m surprised that Dwayne Johnson’s well-documented charisma is AWOL. It’s a structural flaw when the star character of your film is as big a cipher as Roadblock (and not intentionally like, say, Snake Eyes). But Johnson sleepwalks through his role as Gun-toting Man Mountain of Beef. We know he has two kids, we know he’s friends with Duke, but it’s all vague and tied to the notion that “Hey, its The Rock. You guys like The Rock don’t you? Let’s give him a gun and see what happens.” We know he raises his two kids alone. We also know they’re well behaved. He leaves them unattended at the beginning of the film and when he returns at the end they’re still sitting in the same place. That’s not an in-film joke; they’re just seriously still sitting there weeks, perhaps even months, later.
And that’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation in a nutshell, a film where all the world leaders keep suitcases with nuclear launch buttons that can fire at the drop of a hat. Green for “fire that shizz” and red for “whoops, my bad, cancel.” A film where Cobra Commander’s entire plan is to just fire giant metal rods into the Earth from space because he wants “all of it,” meaning world domination. To delve any deeper into that notion, will require…
London. Population: 8,174,100 (as of 2011). Leveled. Just fucking annihilated. And not in the beginning of the film. At the end. The fall of London comes as Cobra Commander reveals his grand weapon (a network of satellites that fire giant tungsten rods into the planet) to world leaders at a conference at Fort Sumter. To flex nuts, Commander puts one of his giant metal boom sticks into the UK’s capital, destroying every inch of the city and killing its inhabitants with the most extreme of prejudices.
This comes at a time when the Joes have already infiltrated Sumter. Storm Shadow, now fighting in secret with the Joes, is right next to Cobra Commander when this happens. Not a second after Commander space rapes London do the Joes scream “NOW!” and reign victorious. The entire team is awarded medals for their brave acts of valor and are played off by a throng of cheering admirers.
But wait a minute, what about London? The largest catastrophe in modern history, one that the Joes had no reason not to prevent; and everyone’s patting themselves on the back? The day has in no way been saved by these dolts. Who can celebrate at a time like this? James Bond just died.
What keeps Retaliation afloat, aside from the aforementioned ninja awesomeness, are a collection of fun turns from the few performers who know how to take material like this and run with it. Jonathan Pryce in the dual role of both the President and Cobra lackey Zartan is a treat to watch. His President Zartan chews every scene he’s in, which is appropriate if we’re to accept Zartan in his newfound position of power (my god, what a sentence). I already mentioned Goggins and Stevenson, who are both inspired, but I’d be remiss if I also didn’t call out Byung-hun’s Storm Shadow as both my favorite performance and character here. Aside from Lady Jaye, who spins some yarn about trying to make her dead dad proud, Storm Shadow is the only character with any real arc. To the point that I wish Chu and co. would have just made Snake Eyes & Storm Shadow: 120 Minute Sword Fight. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Bruce Willis, why bother when he clearly isn’t?
I get the sense Channing Tatum wants nothing more to do with the franchise, sad given he likely could’ve saved it. His limited existence in the film is reasonable connective tissue to Sommer’s crazed (and fun) original. But for reasons that I have to assume were beyond Paramount’s control, Tatum’s newfound screen presence benefits in the early going and overshadows later on when that same presence is sorely missed. Especially considering the action chemistry shared with Johnson in that actor’s only scenes of real substance in the movie.
In the end its all much ado about nothing, isn’t it? The people who pay to see a movie like G.I. Joe: Retaliation aren’t going to be deterred by a critic with caveats. In truth, I’m never not down for a film about giant metal rods fired from space. I know I’d have been there opening day had I not had the benefit of an advance screening. But let’s say, hypothetically, I hadn’t seen the film. Knowing the totality of what I now know, would I still buy a ticket?
I’m inclined to believe my money’s better spent towards London’s disaster relief.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars