RECAP: G.I. Joe Retaliation
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013): Jon M. Chu
As if gifted to me by the Hollywood gods, the second G.I. Joe movie opened on my birthday. Did I see it on opening day? I did. Did I see it in IMAX? Of course. Did I have a kick-ass time? You betcha.
G.I. Joe is about as silly an idea for a movie franchise as one of enormous alien robots able to disguise themselves as 21st-century Earth technology. Now THAT would be a crazy franchise, and it would probably fail. I’m glad someone gave the Joes a try.
Is there any credit better than “In Association with: HASBRO”?
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: The Joes Retaliate against Cobra Commander and Zartan and…ZEUS?
Dwayne Johnson assumes the mantle of leader of the Joes after Cobra’s devastating sneak attack on the Joes in the Pakistani desert. Roadblock, in the cartoon, was a deep-voiced soldier who spoke in rhyme. He was terrific. Sadly, the screenwriters did not go for rhyming couplets, but they did give Roadblock a sense of humor. He’s got two girls, and he loves ’em so much. So, so much. They’re the only people in the world he loves more than his buddy Duke (Channing Tatum). They play the best joke of the movie with a voiceover of Duke and Roadblock shouting tactical battle speech until the shot cuts to the pair…playing Call of Duty (or some such entity). Good line. Duke, it turns out, is a terrible video game combat veteran.
Roadblock brings the remaining Joes to his old stomping grounds in the ‘hood. What city? I can’t say, but there is a huge gym, dusty from disuse. Roadblock is able as the leader in their down moment. He organizes an inventory and enlists the aid of General Joe Colton, the original Joe, in a final mission. They kidnap the Chief of Staff and get him to put them on the list for an important Presidential address.
I am an unabashed G.I. Joe fan. As a child I begged my mom to record the cartoon, often airing at 6:00 AM, which she dutifully did, and I would watch with glee. One of my all-time favorite birthday presents was the General aka the Mobile Command Unit, which featured a four-person cockpit, two helicopter pads, at least 18 detachable missiles, and one enormous cannon.
The action figures were always fun to play with, but undoubtedly the best part about G.I. Joe was its chief villain, Cobra Commander. He was absent in the first film, but he makes his debut, more or less, in Retaliation. And what a debut. Before Cobra Commander even speaks a line, we see that Storm Shadow and Firefly, two world class assassin/badasses were willing to be captured and penetrate a supermax prison below Germany’s groundspace just to bust him out.
Storm Shadow kills many to break him out, and shoots the glass to let him go. Cobra Commander struggles briefly, until he finds his mirror mask/oxygen breather/voice modulator. He stands up, ready to take over the world, but first he must deal with Destro, the guy who kind of screwed him in the first film, and tells him, in his not-quite-Vader baritone, “Destro, you’re out of the band.” A knee-slapper, that one.
I love Cobra Commander. I admit unabashed joy at his personality, and almost all of that was engendered by the cartoon. But movie Cobra Commander is criminally underused. A better choice for lead villain would be Zartan mimicking The President, considering he has more screen time and is more active in convincing the world’s nuclear powers to convene in one place, but, just as no one puts Baby in a corner, no one out-commands Cobra Commander.
Unfortunately, he appears in scant few scenes. I already described the prison break. When he returns to his headquarters he explains that ZEUS is nearly ready. What is it? Who cares? Trust in Cobra Commander. He shows up again at Fort Sumter, explaining what ZEUS does. How did seven satellites get into space without anyone noticing? You don’t ask these questions of Cobra Commander. You only accept that it happened and understand Cobra Commander’s genius.
In the cartoon, Cobra Commander often retreats. He spends much time in battle screaming at the cowardice of his troops, and then, when the battle is lost, screams at them to retreat. In the movie, he flees the battle when the Joes are winning, but he fails to rally his troops to retreat. He saunters away, but calmly and collectively.
You gotta love shadowy Kung Fu temples. That is where Storm Shadow went to heal from wounds sustained in freeing Cobra Commander. And if you need world-class tissue regeneration services, you go to secluded mountain ninja temples. Snake Eyes and Jinx, Storm Shadow’s cousin of questionable loyalty, follow Storm Shadow to his regenerative lair, and they arrive at the precise moment Storm Shadow is healed, announcing their presence with authority, by throwing guys into the abyssal space beside the sheer mountainside.
Storm Shadow runs into a hall and, without looking, knows his mortal enemy awaits him. Storm Shadow waists no time and throws ninja stars at the black-clad Joe warrior. Cue the most improbable moment in a movie full of ’em: Snake Eyes shoots the stars out of the air, raising the following, perhaps unanswerable question: What is more incredible, shooting ninja stars from the air or doing so without shooting the guy who threw them? Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes engage in some fisticuffs, while Jinx tussles with the old woman/ninja warrior/dermatologist. Snake Eyes subdues Storm Shadow long enough for Jinx to gas him, and both Joes zip him into a body bag for his flight down the mountain. Snake Eyes and Jinx are prepared to zipline their way from 20,000 feet, but so are the temple’s red guards, who all come equipped with two items: swords and rappelling guns. The Joes and the guards fly across the mountainside with spectacular speed and terrific dexterity. The fight was undoubtedly the movie’s best and most soaring, despite the CGI. The battle ends when Snake Eyes fires a flare into a snowy overhang, causing a miniature avalanche and killing dozens of guards.
If you saw the movie, and I hope you did because I’m about to spoil it for you, then you know the most shocking moment occurs when Duke dies. Channing Tatum, global superstar and Joe team leader, bites a bullet (or was it shrapnel) in the Cobra attack in the desert. When you saw it you certainly thought it was a shocking moment. Thirty minutes later, Duke is still dead. Hmm. Skip to the climactic battle. Duke is still dead. Roll credits. Duke is still dead. I was so surprised by Tatum’s death that I forgot about it for the rest of the movie, certain he would return. He never does, and that fact didn’t sink in until after the movie ended. The director claimed he thought it would be interesting to kill off a superstar like Tatum early in the movie. It was quite shocking, almost too shocking.
The Joe team is a collaborative unit, but in Retaliation many Joes die, affording us a chance to see more of the individuals on the team. New to the squad if Flint (the wall-faced D.J. Cotrona), who excels in dulling any screen he’s on, unless he’s doing some parkour fighting, which he did in the raid on the Pakistani nuclear facility, and did well. Lady Jaye (Friday Night Lights‘s Adrianne Palicki) is the new star of the unit. In the cartoon, Jaye was the mega-babe of the team. The producers adhered to the canon. Also, Jaye was a terrific markswoman, typically shooting a crossbow or throwing explosive-tipped spears. Sadly, these went unused in the film. Palicki, like most women in espionage roles, was forced to wear a gorgeous dress to a social event and schmooze with a creepy dude, in this case the POTUS. Luckily for her, she didn’t have to fight in it.
Snake Eyes, world-class martial artist, worked from the sidelines in the cartoon. But kung fu is pretty great when real humans are doing it, so the character is as prominent in the films as Roadblock and Duke. The great Ray Park wears the armor and face mask (he’s an actor with more onscreen face alterations than Johnny Depp) and fights Storm Shadow and his killer abs. Snake Eyes is a terrific sidekick because he is a silent one. All communication appears one-way, allowing the stars to shine brighter. They get more lines, as Snake Eyes’s lines are basically interpreted aloud by the other characters for the audience’s benefit. Also, Snake Eyes communicates with his fists.
The less said about Bruce Willis as the Original Joe the better. Willis never drops that patented sneer/smirk of his, and he says things to Lady Jaye like “Shut up, Brenda,” a statement never explained. His house practically bulges with weapons and is a prepper’s wet dream.
G.I Joe is a world full of crazy characters, and they showed up in the movie. Zartan, master of disguise, is using advanced technology to mimic the President of the United States, played by Pope Jonathan Pryce. (Pope Francis is a dead ringer for Jonathan Pryce.) Zartan has one goal: destroy the Joes so that he can convince the world’s nuclear powers to join together and eradicate their nuclear arsenals.
Zartan really shines in Fort Sumter. Calmly he convinces everyone to shoot their nukes, and they do, but he was smart enough to deactivate the warheads. He plays Angry Brids while the other leaders decide if they should or should not kill hundreds of millions of people. Zartan is a funny guy. I don’t think Pryce is. But Pryce is forced to deliver Zartan’s lines, and they often come off creepily.
Firefly is the newest bad guy. Gamely played by Ray Stevenson, the pyromaniac speaks in a voice best described as Anglo-Cajun. He wears a camo face mask and sports hundreds of tiny flying explosives disguised as fireflies.
I discussed Snake Eyes and Jinx invading the mountain temple/skin clinic. I loved everything about this sequence. Ziplines, carabiners, bowstaffs, ninja stars, avalanches, machine guns–everything’s there on the mountainside. I mentioned also the addition of parkouring Flint. He shines in the nuclear raid in Pakistan, running around cages and tightly packed stairwells. The setting gave him three dimensions to move through, and the actor used them artfully. Roadblock and Firefly engage in a terrific gun-chai style fight beneath a bridge in South Carolina. They use the bridge’s pylons to hide behind and duck around when dodging bullets and punches.
The stunt team greatly utilized the physical landscape for fights. Flint careening through the open factory space, Roadblock and Firefly weaving through bridge pylons, Storm Shadow locking his swords together to slice through everyone inside the prison–each character used the strengths of the space to their advantage, in line with the kung fu film legends of decades past. The producers of the Joe franchise seem to understand that while the cartoon focused on futuristic technologies and crazy characters (something the movies do not shy away from), the movies would and do benefit from more hand-to-hand combat. You just can’t draw that stuff.
Any movie employing Ray Park means business.
President Zartan-in-disguise succeeds in convincing the world’s nuclear leaders to convene for a summit in Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The symbolism of the fort’s setting is lost on the president, or the foreign leaders, or the filmmakers, or just everyone. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the US, and rebel troops fired upon the arsenal at Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War. President Zartan was trying a similar tactic, but instead of seizing weapons he tricked them into self-destruction. I mean, he tricked the leaders in to destroying them, not the weapons. That would be silly, cartoonish.
The Joes dispatch two teams. One heads to the fort, ready to fight Cobra, who only they know is an evil organization. General Joe Colton and Lady Jaye, having learned the location of the real president’s captivity, drive there. General Joe deigns to ask for Lady Jaye’s help in rescuing the real president, as if he could do it alone, and would do it alone, but it would go more easily if a lady came and helped. I cannot fathom what Bruce Willis was thinking in this movie.
The summit begins. Israel, China, India, North Korea, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia all sent their leaders to meet with the President of the United States, who is actually a mercenary posing as such. Pryce is in full ham mode for the meeting. He has only Cobra guys guarding him, and he’s just a few minutes away from totally ruling the world. He wants the world to rid itself of nuclear weapons, and he chooses an interesting negotiating technique: launching the entire US nuclear arsenal at all the other countries represented in the room. Yes, interesting choice, President. The other leaders are, let’s say, a little perturbed. They all kind of simultaneously shrug their shoulders and launch their nukes. Suddenly the monitors surrounding them are alight with digital parabolas tracing the subspace arcs of thousands of nukes armed to slaughter. Millions will die, billions will find their lives worse, and Hasbro will lose many further theatrical merchandising opportunities.
President Zartan plays his trump card. Gee, he says, I’d have to be crazy to launch all my nukes without disarming them first. He touches a little button and all the US missiles disintegrate and explode harmlessly without going nuclear. He gives the other leaders a few minutes to decide what to do while he plays Angry Birds. Angry Birds fly through the air, trying to kill hogs. The dead hogs presumably are cured into ham. Full ham mode.
The leaders decide to also destroy their missiles. President Zartan’s plan actually worked. Should we try this trick? Maybe Russia? We’d believe Russia if they did it. Maybe. Anyway, all the world’s nukes are gone. Enter Cobra Commander and his sweeping black cape. Remember that ZEUS satellite from earlier? Turns out it’s satellites, seven of ’em, and they are positioned above the capitals/current home cities of several of the people in the room with Cobra Commander. Now we see the true genius of Zartan’s-er-Cobra Commander’s plan. All missiles capable of shooting down the satellites are theoretically destroyed. The satellites are armed with tungsten rods. To demonstrate their power and effectiveness, Cobra Commander shoots one at London. “Shoot” is not quite right, as Zartan explains. The rods simply fall to Earth. They move fast enough, apparently, to shake the ground beneath London like a sandy blanket.
Cobra Commander generously tells the assemblage (and the viewers) that the carnage can end if he pushes “that button,” the one and only way to stop the rod drop. His price for pressing that button? “Total allegiance.” YES. That’s the Cobra Commander the world needs! Well, the Joes finally break up things and a lot of fighting goes on. Needless to say, Cobra Commander, as is his nature, retreats, and refuses to carry the briefcase with “that button,” leaving it for Firefly. No matter how sinister Cobra Commander’s plans and actions, he always leaves you slapping your head.
Firefly and Roadblock engage in a terrific fight beneath a bridge. Of course, Roadblock presses the deactivate button that disarms the satellites and–what, the satellites are blowing up? That button was the self-destruct button? How. many. times. can. I. slap. my. head.
As I said above, G.I. Joe is a silly franchise. The producers were tasked with turning an over-the-top and fun cartoon into a (somewhat) serious movie. Such tasks are not easily completed, yet they succeeded in toeing that (likely laced with nano bombs) line between silly and serious.
One great way to make your movie fun is to cast Channing Tatum in the lead role. We knew that he had dramatic chops, dancing chops, and hunky chops, but in 21 Jump Street he wowed us with his joke chops. Those chops really shined in Retaliation, especially in scenes with Roadblock, his brother-in-arms. Roadblock’s children might be the only girls in any movie to ever chide Tatum for having big ears.
Best line of the movie: Original Joe opens his garage and offers a vehicle (off screen) for Roadblock to drive. Joe says, “It idles a little bit in neutral.” Roadblock looks at the vehicle, then glances sideways at Joe. You can see he’s working up the words in his mind. He’s going to say something, but he wants Joe (and maybe us) to figure it out. He wants Joe to know that he accepted the joke set up, and now he’s gonna deliver: “I ain’t gonna be in neutral.
I can’t leave here without repeating that I love Cobra Commander, and that “You’re out of the band” line was awesome.
Retaliation takes place primarily in Washington, Pakistan, and South Carolina. I found these locations generic and boring. They could have been filmed anywhere. Does the inside of Fort Sumter really contain a monument to the weapons of war? I haven’t been there in about twenty years, so I don’t remember.
Silly cartoons turned into live action films are just as silly as the cartoons. No amount of Christopher Nolan’s patented Grit can toughen up a villain who wears a silver mirror mask.
I think Zartan was making a tasteless joke about the diminutive nature of North Korea’s leader when he called him “the little guy.” North Korea is a “little guy” when compared to Russia, France, and the like. But Zartan is a huge asshole, so it might be permissible. Mostly, I just found him offensively unfunny.
- Let’s go through a few other things that occurred:
- Lady Jaye said she would “cyberblast an encoded beacon every six hours,” to alert remaining Joes that they were alive.
- That’s Dick Casablancas!
- That’s The RZA! (And he’s blind)
- That’s James Carville!
- The Joes have a lipstick DNA sequencer.
- The Joes have camera bullets.
- The Joes can cut throwing stars in half with bullets.
Summary (42/68): 62%
Channing Tatum really did die in the movie.