Remember last year? In retrospect, we were absolutely spoiled for great movies. 2013 has done everything in its power to fix that. Another week of atrocious releases is upon us, bearing G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Host. By this time last year, we'd already had the likes of Coriolanus, The Grey and 21 Jump Street. Just bear that in mind.
EXPECTATIONS: While last year's Battleship gives me a glimmer of hope for the latest in Hasbro's cinematic outings, it is important to remember that Battleship was an anomaly in an otherwise terrible selection of extended toy adverts. What we really should be looking at is this film's predecessor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which tried so hard to replicate the essence of mindless Saturday morning cartoons that it did the worst thing it possibly could: It succeeded. It was bad, very bad, and the marketing for this ill-advised sequel seems to take an apologetic tone. "We know we can do better," they plead. Yeah, that must be why they held this one back a year for extensive reshoots and post-conversion into 3D! Let's face it: None of this bodes well for Retaliation.
Don't shoot, Bruce! I liked Die Hard 5 at least!
REALITY: G.I. Joe: Retaliation doesn't start well, but it pulls off the amazing feat of getting progressively worse as it goes on. How does this happen? Well, it's a total piecemeal production, thrown together from randomly gathered ideas. It often contradicts itself, wastes its own screen time and makes very little sense. Good thing they did those extensive reshoots, or else this might have turned out to be just an incoherent shambles rather than a backward, dishonest, ugly, incoherent shambles. I should warn you now: This review is loaded with spoilers. It is the only way.
Now pay attention (or don't, it makes little difference), because this plot is really unnecessarily elaborate. After a bunch of stuff happened off screen between the first film and this one, Duke (Channing Tatum) and his best buddy Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) are sent to a nonspecific Middle-Eastern country to retrieve nuclear warheads. They are then betrayed by the President (Jonathan Pryce) - who is really ZARTAN: MASTER OF DISGUISE (Arnold Vosloo) - and Duke is killed unceremoniously by Firefly (Ray Stevenson), leaving only Roadblock, Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) to perform the titular retaliation.
Meanwhile, in what might as well be a completely separate film, bad ninja Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) mounts a ridiculous escape plan to free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey; I guess Joseph Gordon Levitt wasn't available) from an overacting Walton Goggins. For some reason, they leave Destro behind (I guess Christopher Ecclestone wasn't available) and split up. Storm Shadow returns to his mountain home, but is pursued by good ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and his sidekick Jinx (Elodie Yung). Back in the first plot, the remaining Joes seek out their namesake General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis) in order to get close to the imposter president and save America.
Did you get all that? Do you care? I can't imagine the thought process that leads the writing team on a G.I. Joe movie to decide that what they really need is a stupidly convoluted plot. I guess it worked for Batman, right? The real problem here is that there's so much stuff set up in the first act that leads nowhere. We are introduced to the Joes as they rescue an unnamed person from unspecified enemy forces. During this operation, Roadblock reacts negatively to a flag. Why? I have no idea.
Storm Shadow's rescue plan involves disguising himself as Snake Eyes, assassinating the Pakistani Prime Minister and getting locked up in Walton Goggins' pickle-jar prison. He then stops his heartbeat with ninja powers to distract the guards so Firefly can walk in the front door and blow everything up. I have to wonder at the efficiency of any plan that involves the assassination of the Pakistani Prime Minister as an incidental preparatory step.
There's an entire scene dedicated to Joseph Mazzello (of Jurassic Park fame) explaining his new smart bullets that he can control in the air remotely. In the following scene, he uses one to kill an unnamed enemy soldier. Mazzello then goes on to die off screen and neither he nor the smart bullets are referred to again. At one point in the third act we think "Oh, they're going to use that smart bullet thingy," but they don't; they do something dumb instead. That's valuable screen time you're wasting.
Yeah, you'd look like that too if you were in this movie.
The whole film is loaded with loose ends like that. In a climactic scene, for example, the good ninjas are poised in a doorway to stop ZARTAN: MASTER OF DISGUISE and Cobra Commander during their ridiculous world-domination gamble. The scene itself is a ludicrous series of double-bluffs where the imposter president launches all of his nukes, causing the rest of the world to retaliate, only to then self-destruct them all, causing the rest of the world to follow suit. Now there are no nukes left in the world! But wait, there are! Yes, of course Cobra had a bunch of nukes left over because why the hell wouldn't they?
For some reason, the ninjas decide to just wait and see how this pans out and only act after ZARTAN: MASTER OF DISGUISE has obliterated London. Maybe that was part of the plan? Save the world apart from London, why not? London is a shithole. Mass death is treated with such dismissive flippancy in this film, much like in the works of Roland Emmerich: The more people you kill at once, the less it matters. From a distance, it just looks like massive property damage anyway.
All of this could be forgiven if the film were in any way compelling. An entertaining group of protagonists banding together to stop a scenery-chewing villain would have been a good starting point. Instead we get The Rock with the two blandest sidekicks you've ever seen facing off against a mostly non-present Australian soap actor in a mask. Johnson has charisma to spare, but he has absolutely no chemistry with Cotrona and Palicki. Cotrona is the worst presence in this film. As Flint, he's basically the blandest stand-in everyman soldier you could find. There's absolutely no life to the character, and Cotrona has nothing to do but stand around and stare into space most of the time. Channing Tatum, who has gone from an actor nobody cares about to a genuine crowd-pleaser in a fairly short time, had to die to make way for this placeholder character? I can't imagine Cotrona going through the same career transformation only to be killed off in G.I. Joe 3.
Oh no! A Woman! Don't let her in.As for Adrianne Palicki as Lady Jaye, well... this is where the film gets really troublesome. Now, it would be easy to get lost on a tangent about women in the military here, but let's leave that can of worms for another day and focus on what G.I. Joe: Retaliation has to say on the matter. The truth is, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a damned idiot on the subject. Its contradictory stance can best be summed up with a scene in which Lady Jaye - who literally has the codename "Lady" - stands in front of a mirror in a cocktail dress and says "If only my dad could see me now."
"Buh?" inquires boring Flint.
"He said women shouldn't serve in the military. He said he could never trust his life to a woman." She explains as she gets undressed. Boring Flint looks at her arse and drools slightly. "I enlisted the very next day and spent the next seven years trying to outrank him so he'd have to salute me."
"You look real pretty." replies Flint, shyly.
Bear in mind this takes place after the second instance of Jaye using her body to get the better of her enemies. The first time, she gets into her workout gear and bends over in front of a Secret Service agent so he can enjoy her buttocks in jogging shorts. Powerless to resist a butt, he is immediately ensnared into the Joe's clever plan to get close to the president. The second time, she stuffs herself into a tight cocktail dress and uses her cleavage to worm her way past White House security. Good thing the president employs only straight men. You see, women should be allowed to serve in the military, claims G.I. Joe: Retaliation, BECAUSE BOOB AND BUTT IS POWERFUL WEAPON IN FIGHT AGAINST TERRORISM DUHHHHHHH!
Oh, and here's something else that you may have noticed yourself just from the plot synopsis: Yes, this is a film in which the U.S. President is not what he seems and is really an African who has ulterior motives in disarming his citizens. He can only be defeated by an old man's massive stockpile of automatic weapons hidden in secret compartments in his kitchen cabinets, because the value of a true American is measured in lead! Considering the impressionable age of the target audience, this all starts to feel very insidious after a while.
You don't have to agree with a film's politics to like it, though (and you may well agree with the film's politics and still not like it). G.I. Joe: Retaliation makes damn sure you won't enjoy any of it by being as ugly as possible; that post-conversion to 3D is one of the worst I've seen to date. One particularly egregious sequence has Snake Eyes and Jinx in a zipline chase with a bunch of bad ninjas. As the bad ninjas swing around and fall at random (I'm absolutely certain the same CGI animation of a falling ninja was reused twice in one shot) they hurtle toward the audience. Nothing new there, but it's fascinating how they seem to shrink as they get closer, leaving you with the instinctive desire to pick tiny ninjas out of your eyes. Every action sequence is the same, with no sense of geography at all, leaving you confused and bored as the heroes bang their guns at bad guys from indiscernible directions. Eventually it just stops, though, so that's okay.
Don't get too attached, he dies in the very next scene.
This shoddy, slapdash attempt at filmmaking does have one redeeming feature, though: Jonathan Pryce is absolutely brilliant in it. He plays both ZARTAN: MASTER OF DISGUISE and the captured president at the same time, often in the same scenes, and it's a testament to his talent and professionalism that he can deliver lines like "They call it waterboarding, but I never get bored" without a hint of contempt or suicidal depression. I just wish he had a better film around him. Of course, this means that Arnold Vosloo isn't really in this film beyond a single flashback scene and a few photographs that pop up after a DNA test. Why a MASTER OF DISGUISE would allow himself to be photographed and have his DNA on file is beyond me, but hey, it's G.I. Joe: Retaliation, nobody gave a shit. This is a film in which an imposter president makes his Secret Service agents wear pin badges bearing the emblem of a known terrorist organisation, so we can't expect intelligent characterisation here.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the kind of film that happens only by brute force. All the forces of God, man and nature - all the better judgment in the universe -- conspired against this thing, but they released it anyway. The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now" plays over the end credits, a clear indication that the filmmakers think this will shut the smug critics up once and for all.
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MINORITY REPORT: I said it last year when Magic Mike came out and I'll say it again: Hollywood chose the wrong Channing Tatum film to delay for a 3D conversion. They had the opportunity to print money, and instead they chose to punch themselves in the face. - Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade
Yes, it's the perfect form for surviving a car crash. But it's also the perfect form for so much more, like surviving the trauma of reading any news headline in 2016.
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