Thursday, April 4, 2013

Average JOE

It looked like GI Joe: Retaliation was doing all the right things when it was getting ready for release early last year. After the uneven mess that was 2009's GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, it was obvious that any sequels would have to make some massive changes to even come close to the success of its predecessor. Gone were director Stephen Sommers and most of the cast, including Rachel Nichols, Damon Wayans, Dennis Quaid, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In Sommers' place was the inspired choice of  John M. Chu, whose previous works included the dance-heavy Step Up sequels and the 3D concert title Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. While Channing Tatum was returning for the sequel, it was obvious to everybody that he was going to get offed quickly to help pave the way for newcomers D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Elodie Yung and established stars Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis. While the Joe franchise as a whole has seen better days, Retaliation looked to at least kick it up to minimum respectability when it was to come out last July.

Don't get used to that guy on the left...
But two things happened that caused studio Paramount Pictures to delay until this past weekend. The first was the rise to stardom of Tatum. When the first GI Joe was released, the actor was still feeling his way through movies, and as a result he was responsible for some of the most wooden, dry performances of the past decade. His performance in the 2009 tentpole flick was a prime example, and it was one of the worst parts of the whole experience. But in 2012, Tatum broke out. While I never saw it, The Vow cemented his status as a romantic icon, and his work in three other exciting projects that solidified his hold on Hollywood: the low budget action flick Haywire, the hilarious 21 Jump Street and the Chippendales drama Magic Mike. Suddenly, the knee-jerk choice to kill off former cornerstone Duke seemed like a dumb move, and while it couldn't be wiped completely, time was taken to add some extra Tatum content to the beginning of Retaliation.

I like Cobra Commander's look much more this time around.
The second event was the crash and burn of Battleship, a similar action movie that nobody except studio heads thought to take seriously. Most damning about this failed blockbuster was that it was one of the few modern action flicks in recent years to eschew 3D visuals completely. That not only contributed to its domestic disappointment (lower ticket prices), but hurt it in the international market, where 3D hasn't yet lost its sheen. Retaliation was originally set to be released with no 3D, but facing diminishing returns and facing direct competition from big-budget movies The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises (two of which were also 3D), the studio decided last-minute to utilize the technology to rectify that situation. Unfortunately, that meant waiting another eight months for a movie that was already on thin ice, hoping that perhaps Retaliation would be worth the wait.

Ninjas. Why did there have to be ninjas?
Talking place after the events of The Rise of Cobra, military organization GI Joe has maintained its position atop the worlds' covert military teams. But when the team is framed and then all but wiped out by their own government (under the orders of The President who is actually an enemy COBRA agent), the few survivors band together to try and uncover their plans. Roadblock (Johnson), Lady Jaye (Palicki) and Flint (Cotrona) are alone against the world, having to move between the shadows to avoid drawing attention to themselves. But even the best the Joes have to offer might not be enough when they are considered enemies of the state, and their own government has a weapon that threatens to topple the delicate balance of world power forever, and with endless destructive capability.

One of the coolest characters in both movies.
There is a lot more to like in Retaliation than there ever was in the first film, and you can't talk about what's right without pointing right at the special effects. Last time out, we were subjected to six SFX studios doing their best to out-disappoint one another, but here the effects shine as action sequences and explosions are much, MUCH prettier to take in. The fight scenes are not perfect (like most action directors, Chu keeps to camera WAY too close to the action), but for the most part they are effective enough, especially on the big IMAX screens. The sequence with ninjas rappelling across snow-covered mountaintops is especially exciting, though your mileage where ninjas are involved may vary. There are also some very good characters, from Johnson's charismatic leader Roadblock to the COBRA swordsman Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) to Palicki's covert operations expert Lady Jaye. At it's best, Retaliation does a better job of keeping your eyes glued to the screen than any action movie so far in 2013.

Obligatory "Team Success" strut.
But for every cool moment the movie throws out there, there are two or three smaller bits that will drive you crazy. The Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow (a returning and still silent Ray Park) storyline, which had been the albatross around the neck of the first film, is better but is still almost laughably separate from the rest of the movie. It takes its most ridiculous form in the sadly necessary exposition commentary by hip-hop artist/filmmaker RZA that is so bad it makes his performance in The Man with the Iron Fist look like Shakespeare's greatest hits. Other actors - most notably Yung, Cotrona and even Willis - have painfully little to do, as the story is so bloated with side-stories, unnecessary characters and plot twists that little things like "character development" and "plot progression" often take a backseat to the next action scene. It's sad when  you bring in such a celebrated action star as Bruce Willis just to have him sit on the sidelines and spit out unnecessary one-liners (and didn't the last Die Hard already do that?). And that shot of the rampant destruction of London? Arguably the most intense moment in the trailer? It lasts a grand total of ten seconds, and is never, EVER revisited once it's done.

Consider this Road Blocked.
Make no mistake; GI Joe: Retaliation is a HUGE step above The Rise of Cobra, and does a lot to redeem the film franchise from the damage done by its predecessor. But while it's undeniably more fun than the original, it's still a long way from being a truly self-sustaining movie franchise, most notably because only die-hard JOE fans really care all that much, and those are definitely dwindling in numbers. Still, while the film is way too dumb and implausible to be taken seriously, this is also a huge part of its undeniable charm. Will you like this movie? It entirely depends on how tolerable you are towards dumb action flicks loosely based on childrens' toy lines, because that's exactly what we have here. Expect anything more, and you'll be sorely disappointed.

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