Yo Joe! by Scott Nye
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is an interesting gambit in seeing just how far a brand name will get you. Paramount and Hasbro’s bet is they needn’t retain a single star to keep this train a-chugging. In some way disposing of nearly the entire cast of the first film (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, for those lucky enough to have forgotten it), along with its director, the only familiar face left after the first act is Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow, and even his initial appearance caused me and several others to ask (hat tip to David Ehrlich for finding the perfect reference), “Who Dat Ninja?” In their place, joining Ray Park’s ever-masked Snake Eyes, we get the ever-charismatic Dwayne Johnson, the beautiful Adrianne Palicki, the blank slate D.J. Cotrona, and the sleepy Bruce Willis. Also Elodie Yung, who has swords. They’re set to battle Jonathan Pryce, who, along with Cobra Commander (played by not-Joseph-Gordon-Levitt) and some guy Ray Stevenson plays, is set to take over the world. In terms of people who fill their screen time better, the bad guys are winning, but a little muscle and sex appeal goes a long way in these affairs.
There are traces of humor to be found in all corners of the film, and as much as it seemed like a wild rumor that the film was pushed back from its planned June 2012 release to get in more Channing Tatum, it really seems like they did just that. Two great early scenes show him just hanging out with The Rock, and are wildly more interesting any of the interactions between any of the other team members. What the film lacks in good-guy humor, though, it makes up in great, wild comic-booky ideas, from impersonator presidents to a totally nutty (but awesome) world domination scheme centered around nuclear disarmament to RZA as some kind of kung-fu guru to prisons located miles under Earth to the coolest mountain fight scene you’ve probably ever seen. It’s the kind of wackily inventive stuff I wish we’d see more often in these types of films.
And speaking of wackily inventive, man, it’s too bad looney director Gore Verbinski was letting Jonathan Pryce rot away in a thankless father role in those Pirates of the Caribbean films, because he is kind of extraordinary here. He gets to play two roles, really, one as the President of the United States and another as the big bad guy who’s impersonating him (which sort of beautifully establishes the dumbness of the film’s plot). He’s playing to the rafters, certainly, but is so sharp and on-point with his comic timing that his performance can hardly be called hammy. He has this whole scene at the end trying to goad world leaders into abandoning their nuclear arsenal that, sure, has a couple good lines on paper, but his ability to turn a line as simple as “I did it” into one of the best laughs of the picture is what turns an otherwise standard boilerplate scene into something kind of extraordinary. It’s no secret that action movies typically have a hard time filling the space between the fight scenes, but Pryce is pretty much a one-man band, keeping the whole thing afloat when even Rockarisma cannot.
Director Jon Chu’s action sequences, on the whole, are very good, rarely lacking in coherence and always maintaining a certain visceral momentum. There’s a nice variety to the types of fights, without really stretching itself too much, and even the more disappointing aspects (Bruce Willis literally laying down for his one action scene) tend to fade as one recalls the ninja mountain fights, The Rock’s righteous jeep-tank, or even the opening sequence, which sets the stage for the modestly spectacular stuff to come. Rise of Cobra went all-out in its final act, cross-cutting between three (I believe) totally separate conflicts, and while this film doesn’t quite rise to those heights, the first two acts are also much, much, much better, and the whole thing comes out better for it. The film was shot in 2D and post-converted to 3D, which, for the most part, works quite well (nothing like ninja stars COMIN’ ATCHA), though a few of the faster motions lose a little density.
Fast, loose, and deeply silly is pretty much how I like my blockbusters served, and this is a fantastically pure serving. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick keep the annoying winky-wink stuff from their Zombieland screenplay to minimum while still having a lot of fun in the meantime, and that spirit tends to inform the film as a whole. Comic-booky in the best of ways (heavy on the fun, low on the portentous drama), G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a top-level modestly satisfying blockbuster.