G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/27/13 16:36:29

"Don't Ask. . .Just Don't Ask"
1 stars (Sucks)

Before sitting down to review "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," the latest big-screen incarnation of the long-running Hasbro toy line, I went back into the archives to look up my review of the previous entry in the franchise, "G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra" because outside of a couple of stray elements--largely the constant scowl of Dennis Quaid and the sight of Sienna Miller and the faux-Sydney Bristow in borderline kinky outfits--I had virtually no memory of what it actually entailed other than the sight of lots of stuff exploding. As it turns out, I wasn't much of a fan and at one point, if I may quote myself, I claimed that "Watching “G.I. Joe” is like being slapped across the face with utility-grade meat for two hours." Unfortunately, "Retaliation" never comes close to living up to the high ideals or artistic ambitions of its predecessor and the experience of watching it is more like being physically violated by a pinball machine wielded by the guy in charge of quality control at you local meth lab for 112 minutes. That might sound a little better to some people since the experience is eight minutes shorter but since nearly all of that time will be eaten up by the struggle to regain enough of your senses to make it out of the theater afterwards, the net gain in that respect is pretty much nil.

If you were one of those who considered the first film to be one of your cherished moviegoing experiences and have been champing at the bit to see the latest adventures of its rag-tag bunch of high-tech heroes, you will be disappointed to discover that most of them are nowhere to be seen this time around save for Channing Tatum and he only appears long enough to presumably satisfy contractual obligations before disappearing from the proceedings. This time around, the entire G.I. Joe force is ambushed following a mission to liberate nuclear warheads in Pakistan by the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce) and the only survivors are Roadblock (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, joining yet another franchise already in progress), Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki).

After returning to America (don't ask) and holing up in an old neighborhood rec center from Roadblock's hardscrabble youth (again, don't ask), the three determine that the President has been kidnapped and replaced by a disguised Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) as part of a diabolical plot for his evil organization Cobra to rule the world. Even though Zartan and his men are not the most discreet individuals--all of his fake Secret Service men wear Cobra insignias on their lapels and hang banners with the same outside the White House--the world appears to be fooled and it is up to the Joes, with the help of a sexy red dress, several ninja types with interchangeable costumes and murky motives and the original Joe himself (Bruce Willis), to save both the day and the world--saving the day and the world not applicable in London.

This film really is something and in a weird way, I almost want to recommend that you go out and see it just so that you can get a full-on glimpse of the near-complete devolution from American cinema from an artistic format that used a combination of sound and image to tell stories and convey emotions to a shock chamber that uses those elements to simply bludgeon viewers into submission. There are tons of explosions, thousands of rounds of ammunition fired, endless body blows and all the other things that one comes to expect in this type of filmmaking but none of it has any impact. The fight scenes are cut together at such a rapid pace that it is usually impossible to determine what is going on at any given moment and since they are in the service of a storyline that is somehow both insultingly simplistic and maddeningly confusing, it is impossible to give a damn about anything that is happening.

Even more confusing is the weird blend of clashing tones that director Jon Chu--yes, the auteur of the middle chapters of the "Step Up" quadrilogy--employs in a desperate attempt to serve his corporate masters and score box-office gold. On the one hand, it wants to be a live-action cartoon that will drive little kids into toy stores to pick up a new run of action figures (not to mention some dads as well if Hasbro puts out and Adrienne Palicki figure complete with kung-fu grip). On the other hand, it also wants to be a full-out action-packed extravaganza with enough violence to lure in the all-important teen demographic (though not so much as to threaten the equally all-important PG-13 rating) as well. Instead on settling on one, Chu tries to use both approaches and the resulting combination is more inexplicable than anything else--too brutal for little kids and too bloodless for older viewers. The only time that the mix comes close to working is during a hallucinatory set-piece involving ninjas doing battle while swinging from and slamming into a series of mountain peaks--it contains the necessary breathless energy but even that doesn't quite work because it is impossible to know what is going on or where the fighters are in relation to each other.

The film is pornographically violent, of course, but while tens of thousands of people are killed off during its running time, none of the deaths have any particular importance to the proceeding, even on the most simplistic comic-book level. You may recall--and I didn't until I reread my review--that one of the key moments in the first film involved the Eiffel Tower being destroyed for some reason of another. If there were any objections to the sight of a international landmark being razed, even cinematically, in the service of a film--especially in the service of something as bubble-headed as that--they weren't loud enough to prevent the producers from trying to top themselves with something along those lines. This time around, for reasons that now escape my mind, the entire city of London is reduced to rubble at one point. Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, Pippa--all of it transformed into a smoking ruin. That is bad enough on the surface but what makes it particularly off-putting is the fact that after we see this massive destruction (but none of what might be referred to as "the human element"), it is never once referred to again by another character for the rest of the film. Maybe I am just being sensitive but if you are going to destroy a major world city, even in this context, shouldn't it be done as something other than a mere throwaway?

The only thing about "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" that I sort of like, albeit for the most perverse reasons imaginable, is Bruce Willis' turn as the uber-Joe and that is only because he doesn't even try to pretend that it is anything other than a quick paycheck gig that he presumably knocked off in a week or two. While his co-stars go through their paces with as much conviction as they can possibly muster for a screenplay where the best writing turns out to be a few Jay-Z lyrics, Willis coasts his way through the proceedings in such a blatantly lackadaisical that it makes Frank Sinatra's acting in all those Rat Pack epics seem focused and committed by comparison. There is a running gag in which his character keeps referring to Lady Jaye as "Brenda" and he handles it so lazily that it never feels like an inane running gag--it really feels as if he never even bothered to learn his lines before showing up on the set. Some may say that it is irresponsible for an actor to accept huge amounts on money to do a movie and then not put even a token amount of effort into his performance. True, but since the movie itself has spent a huge amount of money without making an effort itself, can you really blame him?

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