New G.I. Joe movie shatters most pessimistic expectations

[pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”center”]While it will not win any awards, strong characters, explosive action create memorable film[/pullquote1]

BY JUSTIN HOPKINS ’06
Assistant Director of Writing Center

G.I. Joe just keeps going. I don’t mean the character only — the franchise seems unstoppable. Not that I’m complaining. The more material, the merrier I am. I teach Joe in my class, “Heroes through the Ages;” he provides a neat segue from literature (e.g., Beowulf) to pop culture (e.g., Batman). When I bought a ticket for the new movie, it was more from a sense of scholarly duty than fan anticipation. After 2009’s execrable Rise of Cobra, I expected the worst. Happily, I was wrong.

Shorter, sharper, and more real (if not exactly realistic), Retaliation proves a far superior sequel. Actually, it’s barely even a sequel. Producers Lorenzo de Bonaventura and Brian Goldner wisely abandoned almost all of their first fiascoes — I mean, films — material (apart from a handful of characters) and basically started over fresh — and successfully so.

Now, not everyone agrees with me. Most of the critics posted on Rottentomatoes.com call Retaliation cleverly nasty names. The consensus: it’s dreck.

Let me defend the dreck.

For anyone wanting anything other than standard Hollywood action-movie fare, remember, Oscar season ended a while ago, Joe’s major box office competitors last weekend were The Croods and Tyler Perry’s Temptation, not Lincoln or Django Unchained. Still, while Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay won’t win any awards, it requires no more suspension of disbelief than your average blockbusting spectacle.

Here’s the skinny. Cobra master-of-disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has infiltrated the White House, impersonating the President (Jonathan Pryce) and ordering the G.I. Joe team terminated. Only a handful survive, and they must work together to prevent Zartan and Cobra Commander from unleashing the devastating power of the Zeus device. Are your eyebrows incredulously arched yet?

Fair enough, but the movie simply and sincerely sticks to its guns and its nature (which are pretty much the same, actually). And it does so with some substantial style. Surprisingly well-helmed by John M. Chu (previous directorial credits include Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, and Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never), the movie finds a predictable but pleasant rhythm, alternating between slick dialogue and sensational, special effects-packed set pieces, while still leaving room for some genuine character development.

Explosions are covered, courtesy of Cobra agent Firefly, jauntily portrayed by Ray Stevenson as a tall Texan who loves his incendiary toys, especially the clever devices for which he’s apparently code-named. If you want ninja swordplay, Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), and Jinx (Elodie Yung) deliver, dangling from the side of a mountain, no less. If you want good old-fashioned machine-gunning, look no further than General Joe Colton, knowingly embodied by Bruce Willis, as much a blast from the action-packed past as the title.

But it’s the softer scenes I enjoy most. Take the early exchanges, in which Captain Duke (Channing Tatum) and heavy gunner Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) demonstrate their strong, brothers-in-arms bond, playing video games (badly, by the way) and betting on who can blow away a birthday-candled cupcake with a single round of ammo. Unessential to the plot (such as it is), these must be the added scenes that delayed the film’s release by nine months. The studio said the delay was due to fine-tuning for 3D, but (more reliable) rumors reveal they really wanted more of Tatum, who was just hitting the A(ish) list last summer. In any case, these scenes were worth the wait: Tatum and Johnson capture a powerful sense of camaraderie, nicely humanizing a potentially plastic relationship.

Then there’s the later moment shared by Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki). More than merely foreshadowing the romance that will undoubtedly bud if the series continues, it portrays Jaye as a frustrated woman who enlisted to prove to her dismissive soldier father that she could not only match his martial record, she could surpass it. (Sadly, he died before she could make him salute her.) Did Silver Linings Playbook do a better job exploring interpersonal dynamics overshadowed by issues with obsession caused by poor parenting? Sure, but what more can you expect from the makers of Transformers? I’m truly impressed they managed this much.

(Note: I have my limits, and even I can’t handle RZA’s raspy Blind Master monotonically narrating the backstory behind Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s rivalry. I suggest taking a leisurely bathroom break. Maybe refill your bucket of high fructose corn syrup — it’s better for you and more fun than the rapper’s crappy acting.)
The solid character work, however, brings me back to the reasons I teach G.I. Joe (not including nostalgia). First, I genuinely respect the writing of Larry Hama, author of all but a handful of the 155 issues in the original run of Marvel comics from 1982 to 1994. Hama turned a toy-tie-in into a serious series with compelling characters and plots. Don’t believe me? Read them, and tell me I’m wrong.

Second, Joe represents an important part of our cultural landscape for almost 60 years now. For each generation of children — and Joe has influenced many, from the Baby Boomers to the Millennials — how we imagine our ideal soldiers both reflects and shapes our beliefs about heroism and humanity.

[three_fourth]And villainy, for that matter. Because while Cobra has long served as Joe’s nemesis, other threats have surfaced from time to time, too. One of the most striking images in Retaliation is the North Korean flag, waving over a camp the Joes must infiltrate. Given recent headlines, how much suspension of disbelief does that require?
I’d like to dedicate this review to Roger Ebert, who died this Thursday. Ebert, a famous film-review, helped me, and many others, experience movies more fully. We will miss him.[/three_fourth]
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Review Rating:
B
The cast and action in Retaliation supercede low expectations.

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Questions? Email Justin at jhopkins@fandm.edu..

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