Silver Screen: G.I. Joe: Retaliation *
It’s a little jarring, after seeing the breathtaking nighttime raid sequence at the conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty, to watch essentially another version of the same scene in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the sequel to the movie based on the cartoon based on the toys. In both, a group of the nation’s most elite warriors take a stealth aircraft on a secret mission into Pakistan to recover a high-value target. In Zero Dark Thirty, of course, the target is Osama bin Laden, whereas in G.I. Joe it’s a classically bomb-shaped nuclear bomb that all but has the word “Bomb!” written on the side of it.
Zero Dark Thirty’s Seal Team Six says little and moves with frightening swiftness through the Abbottabad compound. The Joes drop from the ceiling with guns blazing, shouting quips as they bloodlessly mow down a couple dozen anonymous bad guys; one fires a remote-controlled bullet that he pilots into a thug’s brain, a feat the soldier later credits to his hours of playing videogames.
It goes without saying that these are two very different movies with divergent agendas. But the parallels between the Pakistan scenes and G.I. Joe’s appropriation of more realistic military iconography, as opposed to the cartoon’s own semi-sci-fi approach, make for an uncomfortable juxtaposition. It’s a reminder that the nationalistic Reagan-era cartoon existed during a time when the Soviet empire was crumbling and the biggest armed conflict of the day was Britain’s brief dustup in the Falklands. A carelessly simpleminded cartoon about soldiers, be it traditionally animated or of the live-action variety seen in these new G.I. Joe movies, has a very different tone when the country has been at war for more than a decade. It seems patently disrespectful to translate real sacrifice into cheeseball blockbuster fodder, especially when it’s this shoddy and ploddingly dumb.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t the worst movie ever made, but it’s certainly one of the dumbest. It makes Transformers look like My Dinner with Andre.
The story picks up right where the last one left off. Master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has taken the place of the American President (Jonathan Pryce), and terrorist organization Cobra is secretly controlling the government. Their plan is to trick other nations into nuclear disarmament with peace talks, then use the power imbalance to their advantage and take the entire world hostage with a top-secret new superweapon. The president sets up the G.I. Joes for an ambush, then sends Cobra’s resident ninja, Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), to retrieve Cobra Commander from an underground prison. Meanwhile, the a few surviving Joes (including The “Dwayne Johnson” Rock and Adrianne Palicki) must reunite with missing team member Snake Eyes, a silent ninja who wears a black facemask, never speaks, and has no discernible personality, to launch their revenge strategy with the help from a retired general (Bruce Willis).
Some preposterousness is expected, welcomed even, from a movie based on a cartoon designed to sell toys. When one of the movie’s generic ninja characters draws his sword and slices a bullet in half before it can hit him, you shrug it off. The same goes for a mountaintop fight sequence between yet more generic ninja characters in which they swordfight by swinging from ropes that seem to be attached to nothing. But when the movie goes out of its way to explain that the doomsday weapon uses tungsten rods that turn into bombs when they fall thanks to the natural gravity of space, the only proper response is forehead slapping.
Key elements of the plot, which is itself an elaborate jumble of intersecting storylines just to arrive at “We’ve got to find the suitcase to shut off the bomb,” hinge on either bizarre oversights or characters’ astounding abilities to predict the future. When Snake Eyes is arrested and brought to a secret German prison to be held captive by Nigel James (Walton Goggins), it’s revealed that he’s actually Storm Shadow in disguise-- which nobody noticed before because he left his helmet and face mask on the entire time. On the extreme opposite is Zartan’s lifeplan for Storm Shadow, which involves wearing a rubber mask and pretending to be an old Japanese man for several months just so he could murder another old Japanese guy and frame ten-year-old Storm Shadow for the murder, because he knew the boy would become a master ninja but wanted to turn him toward the dark side early on, which has to be some kind of recruiting violation. And if the proceedings weren’t absurd enough, one of the old Japanese masters is played by Wu-Tang’s RZA, who recites his lines like he was reading them for the first time off an optometrist’s eye chart.
All this silliness reduces G.I. Joe to a delivery system for a series of action sequences, which would be moderately acceptable if the action was more thrilling. But instead director Jon M. Chu doles out a lot of second-rate computer-generated destruction, bland martial-arts combat, and choppily edited shootouts with no real sense of scope or adventure. Despite the trailer’s promise of Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis, neither has much screen time. Thanks to Snake Eyes’ total inscrutability, this would-be ensemble picture hinges on Johnson, who has the perfect look and approach to live-action cartoons, but he’s saddled with a generic character and a distractible plot that keeps veering off into tangents. The movie doesn’t even know who its star should be-- and knowing is half the battle....
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.