G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Let’s get something straight: I love violence in movies. Sincerely. I won’t go on a pretentious "we live in a violent world, and movies should reflect that" speech, because God knows we’ve all heard the arguments pro-and-con before. But it’s an important tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal. So when I say that "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" is 110 minutes worth of mindless gun porn, aimed squarely at the lowest common denominator, trust me: that isn’t coming from some misplaced sense of kneejerk liberal reaction. It’s coming from a viewer who’s tired of having his intelligence insulted.
Every moment of director Jon M. Chu’s 3-D sequel oozes with cynicism. It’s so mechanical and vacuously mainstream that it feels like a parody of big-budget action clichés - the overblown life-or-death seriousness, the obsession with automatic weaponry, the nonsensical globetrotting (wait till RZA shows up as an abbot-esque spiritual guide in modern Tokyo;) even the hardly-acted cameos and the pointless nods to historical significance (the funniest part is the idea that most of the people paying to see it will know who George Patton was.) It’s a sincere, live action version of "Team America." And it’s probably going to make $100 million dollars.
Are we really this unquestioning in gobbling up our monthly blockbuster meals? There’s no way "Retaliation" will make sense to anyone who isn’t well-versed in either the mythology of the action figures (I can’t believe I just typed that) or the original film, "The Rise of Cobra." Are those fan bases a lot bigger than I imagine, or will we just show up for any movie where The Rock and Bruce Willis hold up big guns? Our collective national crush on Channing Tatum is well documented, but I don’t think anyone was really wondering what his character Duke has been up to these past few years.
But in case you have been wondering: he’s been making new friends. The first scene - which amounts to some kind of in-joke regarding the Joe’s invading an already invaded something or other - introduces Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson; yet again called into action to revive a fading franchise. He’s Roadblock, and he’s exactly what you’d expect from a GI Joe character played by The Rock (although for once, his inability to play any role without total sincerity hurts him - he prevents the film from becoming the knowing self-parody it could have been.) For a moment, the buddy-fascist-soldier concept shows promise: an early sequence of Tatum and Johnson, arguing over a game of "Call of Duty" while the former wrestles around with the latter’s two kids, almost feels human. And then Channing Tatum dies.
Well, probably not: we never actually see a corpse, and in the world of franchise filmmaking, that’s as good as a shot of him getting up and walking away from the rubble. But as far as "Retaliation" goes, he’s gone by the end of a very quick first act, leaving Roadblock and a scant few other remaining Joes to hunt down the evil shape-shifting mercenary Zartan, who’s impersonating the President and has used his position to try to wipe out all of his mortal enemies (I assure you, the movie’s way of explaining it is even more convoluted.)
From there we move onto dueling ninjas, incarcerated war gods, and Walton Goggins as a sleazy underground prison warden. The title credits are placed over still photographs of the characters that fly past the screen with lightning speed; it’s an exposition dump that’s meant to illuminate but does more to confuse. It also feels like the character-select screen from a fighting video game. And that’s telling: Chu does little more than cycle through the potential combat combinations, filming each in the same spatially incoherent close-up style (only during a single one-on-one ninja fight did I actually understand where any of the characters were standing.) At least the fight scene where two warring clans bound at each other from one cliff to the other, swords drawn, feels authentic to the source: it’s really little more than the big budget version of an 8-year old kid holding one action figure in each hand and clashing them together, over and over, in the same monotonous motion.
And for all the money that must have gone into the special effects, the glum 3-D post conversion (I honestly thought the climax was taking place at dusk, and then I took my glasses off and realized it was morning) and the acting salaries; no one - save Johnson, admittedly - seems to even be trying. Unsurprisingly, Willis is the worst. Like his turns in direct-to-video 50 Cent action movies, he’s here for exactly three scenes, two of which take place on the same set.
The Joes come to him for advice, but really, all he does is walk them through his gun palace. He lives in a suburban home where fridges, bedrooms, and couches all act as facades for high tech weaponry. It’s all about ’cool’ - Chu hangs on the allure of the steel the way Justin Lin uses his "Fast & Furious" cameras to leer on women’s asses. And of course, this is PG-13, and aimed at people younger than that rating suggests, so there are never any consequences. The violence is bloodless, clean, morally justified, and "sexy". I won’t politicize that. But I will say that it’s boring.
Do we really need another movie that spends an hour and a half building to a point where the main characters walk, in slow motion, to rock music, while triumphantly presenting their government-issue guns to the camera? Where the lead female warrior has to fight to earn the privilege of having her superior officer remember her name (it’s Sorkin-esque,) and then treats it as a true victory when he finally does? Where the bad guy gets away at the end, because there needs to be a "G.I. Joe 3: Retaliation II" in theaters a few years from now? I think not. But I suppose we’ll all go to see it anyway.