Friday, April 5, 2013



- The first G.I. Joe movie was, to me, a pleasant surprise. Instead of an overly grim and "edgy" reimagining of a beloved kids' property from the 80's, we got a fun, over-the-top action film that embraced the show's cartoon and comic-book roots. Stephen Sommers is an underrated director who makes the most of any film he works on - visually, few can match him for sheer spectacle. Now, it's director Jon Chu's turn to try his hand at building G.I. Joe into a legitimate action franchise. Based on box office numbers, he's done his job. But is this sequel enough to get nostalgic fanboy's blood pumping? Or is this a weaksauce cash-in, whose troubled production schedule is indicative of a disaster-in-the-making? The fact is, the movie is fun and harmless - with some nice moments and some fist-pump worthy action scenes. But, it also lacks the madcap comic-book fun of the first film, giving the film a greyed-out feel, with only scattered moments of color and vibrancy.

Here's what *is* sort of awesome about the move:

1.) Jonathan Pryce playing the shape-shifting Zartan inhabiting the body of Jonathan Pryce/The President of the United States. Look, Pryce is a phenomenal actor, one who can do more with a subtle head nod or half-smile than most can do with an entire monologue. He does a fantastic job of making Evil President truly and entertainingly evil. And in fact, Pryce emerges as the movie's unlikely MVP. He spouts all kinds of gleefully menacing lines. When a terrified diplomat asks him what he wants, he flashes a sinister grin and hisses "I want it all." Awesome. Plus, Pryce even plays opposite himself - as the actual, not-evil President - and manages to do a bang-up job of it. G.I. Joe is lucky to have him as such a big part of the cast.

2.) There is something crazy going on in this movie with fan-favorite ninja-Joe, Snake Eyes. While most of the movie is a little more reigned-in, a lot less cartoonish and crazy than the first film - Snake Eyes and eternal nemesis Storm Shadow are in their own mini ninja epic that seems to be playing out in parallel to the rest of the film. In this quasi film-within-the-film, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan plays a bushy-browed sensei, Elodie Young plays a badass warrior woman named Jinx, and there are all kinds of insane ninja fights. In fact, midway through the movie, there is an action sequence so badass and so breathtaking that it literally seems like it's excerpted from a different movie altogether. In this scene - which has been previewed in most of the trailers - Snake Eyes and Jinx engage in a jaw-dropping battle with an army of Cobra ninjas while suspended from the side of a rocky, snow-covered mountain. And it is one of the coolest action scenes I've seen in some time. And yet, nothing else in the film even comes close to it - or even feels like it came from the same director. Seriously, what is going on here? It's like someone ran up to John Chu and pumped him up with a nitro boost before he went to direct that scene. Or else Stephen Sommers was brought in to inject some Mummy-style awesome on the sly. I don't know. But damn, what a scene. Overall though, the tone of the Snake Eyes segments is pretty crazy - aping old kung-fu flicks and possessed of a reckless abandon that the rest of the movie lacks. It creates some pretty jarring tonal inconsistency, but still, I dug all the Snake Eyes stuff.

3.) Walton Goggins plays a badass prison warden. No, he doesn't use his cool accent from Justified, but he still sort of rules it, and gets in a moment or two where he gets to go toe to toe with Storm Shadow. No, this is not a part anywhere near worthy of Walton Goggins, but still, a nice surprise.

Here's what is a mixed bag in the movie:

1.) The Rock. I always come away from watching The Rock in an action movie thinking that he is a pretty solid actor. But at the same time, he rarely wows me. He's a hard worker - you can tell he's not just going through the motions. And yet, he sort of is. He's playing "The Rock" - not the charismatic and hilarious prima donna WWE character, but the toned-down, generic blue-collar badass-with-a-soft-side version that crops up in most movies starring Dwayne Johnson. Which is to say that his turn here as Roadblock is pretty bland. The Rock is watchable, he's entertaining, but I also don't know if he'll ever be as entertaining as he is when he's the WWE version of "The Rock." Roadblock is basically a generic tough guy bruiser type. Nothing special, not a memorable character in any way shape or form.

2.) Cobra Commander. There's actually a huge upside to Joseph Gordon-Levitt not returning to this film as Cobra Commander: we actually get to see the character with his mask on the whole movie, looking straight out of the cartoons, using a modulated voice that sounds awesomely evil. Great, right? Not so much, because Cobra Commander - aside from looking cool - does jack squat the whole movie. Zartan is really the one with the screentime (along with Ray Stevenson's Firefly, who's sort of the hired thug of Cobra), but it's a mistake to leave CC on the sidelines for so much of the film. We never really get a sense of the cult of Cobra, of his hold on his followers, of him as an uber-villain. He's mostly just there.

3.) Adrianne Palicki. She's pretty good as Lady Jay. She looks the part. She believably kicks ass. She does solid work here. Too bad she's stuck in a lame, chemistry-less romance with personality-less Flint.

Speaking of which, here's what sort of sucks about G.I. JOE:

1.) Flint. This dude sucks. He does parkour stuff and, well, that's about it. Not worthy of main-player status. And as played by DJ Cotrona, he's bland as hell.

2.) Destro. He makes a cameo, but then isn't in the movie, with no real explanation except Cobra Commander saying something about how he's "not in the band anymore." Um, what? Maybe this is all set up for G.I. Joe 3: Destro's Revenge? I don't know. Lame.

3.) Bruce Willis as "Joe," the original G.I. Joe. Yep, his name is freakin' Joe, and *that's* why they are called Joes. Really? Yes, really. Anyways, Willis pretty much sleepwalks through this one, and does nothing that cool or interesting. And his character adds nothing to the Joe mythology and feels tacked-on. Couldn't we have gotten Sgt. Slaughter or something for this role? I'm not saying Willis doesn't have some fun moments, but they're all based on "look, it's Bruce Willis as a world-weary grizzled badass who's too old for this $#%&." In other words, 90% of all Bruce Willis roles.

4.) The pacing of the plot is broken. Basically, the end of this movie should have been the middle. The film is way too concerned with giving extra screentime to Channing Tatum's ill-fated Duke in the first act, and not nearly concerned enough with raising the stakes and positioning Cobra as a serious threat. Zartan and co. take over the White House and replace the American Flag with the Cobra flag - awesome ... if it happened in the middle of the movie, setting up a Cobra-controlled government that only the now-rogue Joes could topple. But withing the span of minutes, the Cobra flag is flown, the Joes burst on the scene, and the day is saved before Old Glory has even touched the ground. Basically, it makes the movie's third act feel rushed and fairly anticlimactic.

5.) Cobra's plot is pretty uninspired. We can infer that they want to use Zartan-as-Prez to arrange a forced disarmament of the world's nuclear powers, but then secretly have the newly-installed Cobra world order control the last remaining nukes. I'm not saying it's not a good plan, from a practical perspective. I'm just saying from a story perspective, it's so cut and dried as to be, well, boring. I mean, this is Cobra we're talking about. They must have some master plan beyond just controlling the nukes? Perhaps if we were allowed to glimpse what the world would look like under Cobra's iron fist (see above), their plan would have a bit more oomph. But as it stands, it feels too much like we're watching the plot of a "24" movie play out, except with guys named Roadblock and Firefly instead of Jack Bauer.

Overall, I found G.I. JOE: RETALIATION to be a pretty enjoyable - if not sort-of-stupid - popcorn flick. The Snake Eyes segments showed glimpses of the type of visual imagination and flair I would have liked to have seen throughout the rest of the film. But mostly, I was a bit surprised at how, well, ordinary everything felt. Perhaps it's a sign of the times that this G.I. Joe feels in some ways less like the colorful cartoons of the 80's and more like the brown-hued worlds of Halo and Gears of War (they even replicate those games' fire-and-seek-cover mechanics in the action scenes) - more about big guns and bad attitudes than over-the-top costumes and personalities. This G.I. Joe is, certainly, more XBOX 360, less Saturday morning cartoon.

My Grade: B-

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