It’s safe to say that the first G.I. Joe film, The Rise Of Cobra, was divisive at best. A fun spectacle for younger viewers, no doubt accounting for its large box office take, older audiences seemed to split into those that enjoyed the vacuous, live action equivalent of an irony free Team America and the more dedicated comic book fans (myself included) who loathed almost everything about it. Still, hopes were high when Paramount acted on the criticism aimed at the first film and decided to reboot the franchise, via the 80s tradition of killing most of the characters and links to the previous instalment.
In came a relatively unknown director, Jon M Chu, as well as a script by Zombieland’s Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and out went almost everything from Rise Of Cobra, including the majority of the cast, with only the likes of Ray Park’s Snake Eyes and Channing Tatum’s Duke making it through to the next round. Thankfully, the winds of change also brought in one other substantial factor, Mr Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who seems to have found himself saddled with the expectation that his mere presence will improve any film, or sequel that he appears in, a factor that I really was counting on for G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
It’s a great relief, then, that Retaliation is a far, far better, more enjoyable and loyal adaptation of the G.I. Joe mythology than we could possibly have been hoped for, with a roster of classic characters and some good action, even if it finds itself too burdened at times by the dead weight from Rise Of Cobra. It’s also chock a block full of ninjas – and ninjas, just like The Rock, make everything better.
A rather clunky opening chooses to explain the new team line up, complete with ranking, but makes no explanation as to what the score is with Joe HQ, or where any of the other established characters are. Duke is now in charge and has a brand new team, which now consists of Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (DJ Cotrona – who looks and sounds uncannily like his comic/cartoon counterpart, just younger), an AWOL Snake Eyes, Mouse (Jurassic Park’s Joseph Mazzello) and a whole bunch of nameless, faceless cannon fodder.
As you may be aware, the speculation surrounding Retaliation’s delayed release from this time last year, concerned filming more footage with Tatum and Johnson (after test audiences loved their on screen dynamic), but this doesn’t appear to be the case. The duo share a few scenes together involving one liners and X-Boxing which could have been added since, but that’s about it. Strangely, the film does contain one crowbarred plot event that revolves around Bruce Willis’ character, Joe Colton.
After an attack in which Cobra attempts to wipe out the Joes, Roadblock is understandably paranoid about who’s responsible, and states that there’s only one person he trusts, and that’s Snake Eyes. Five minutes later, Roadblock exclaims there’s only one person he trusts, and that’s Colton. It’s very noticeable and smacks of a re-write, but what makes it worse is that Willis (and I never thought I’d say this) is the worse part of Retaliation.
In a film that mostly chose to cast from relative unknowns, Bruce carries too much baggage to fit in, and dials in a standard cameo performance that jars – one minute you’re engaged in a G.I. Joe movie, the next you’re watching Bruce Willis act like Bruce Willis. The squeezing in of his character also slows the entire pace of an otherwise breezy action movie, and Colton proves utterly superfluous in every sense – he isn’t even a core character from the comics.
The Rock, on the other hand, makes good on his reputation, delivering some much needed weight to both the physical and emotional centres of the movie, with his fine combination of charm and brutality working effortlessly to help ground the film amongst the more high tech hokum. Palicki’s Lady Jaye also stands out as a nice addition to the new wave of action heroines currently gracing the silver screen, with Jaye given the most fleshed out character amongst the new additions, and fans given a slight nod to her future relationship with Flint.
Flint and Elodie Yung’s Jinx didn’t quite get enough screen time for my liking, but Jonathan Pryce seems to have an absolute riot playing both the captured President and Zartan, delighting in every chance to ham things up a little, as does the underappreciated Walton Goggins in a small, but appropriate part.
G.I. Joe Retaliation’s main strength for me, though, was the sheer abundance of comic-related joys that Chu and his writers have included, from story arcs to costume designs. Familiar vehicles from the H.I.S.S. Tank to the A.W.E. Striker make an appearance, while Cobra Commander gets his classic silver mask, with a costume redesign that seems lifted from Sideshow’s recent 1/6 figure release. Joe’s own Boba Fett, Firefly (complete with camo mask), gets plenty of screen time to blow things up and fight; the mighty Ray Stevenson’s incarnation is more brawler than ninja, but it’s perfect casting.
The real highlight was the handling of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. The pair get the best fight scenes of the movie, with the much previewed mountaintop battle in the Himalayas a real stand out – I’d seen a few minutes earlier this year, but the full length ninja brawl is just amazing. It almost pains me to say, but it has to be one of the few actions scenes that’s actually enhanced by some well executed 3D, especially when that added dimension involves flying ninjas smashing into rocks. It’s just as well the 3D is done well too, as that’s now the sole reason being given for the film’s delay.
Chu even finds time to squeeze in Storm Shadow’s involvement in the death of the Hard Master (though the RZA makes a truly awful Blind Master), which seemed to baffle most of the other writers I spoke to, as being one new plot point too many. In fact, I got the impression I was one of the only writers covering the film that had read the comics, as others also voiced confusion over some of the character motivations (such as why Firefly had so many explosive gadgets), but I thought Chu’s decision not to explain every detail helped to quicken the pace.
I enjoyed Retaliation, and have nothing but admiration for Chu’s devotion to the source material. Sure, it’s a big, loud, crazy movie, but Chu’s done a great service to the franchise by eradicating most of the awfulness from Rise Of Cobra, even if he loses precious time while tying things back to how they should’ve been. It’s no easy task, either, trying to balance the two different tones that the comics presented, placing military realism alongside ninjas, characters with outlandish code names and over the top gadgetry.
Hopefully it will delight both fans of the comic, a younger audience and those people who didn’t like the first film, as it’s a completely different take on the much loved brand. The solid cast and spectacle left my younger self utterly elated at seeing some moments from the G.I. Joe mythology come to life, so I’m hoping that, should Chu direct a sequel, it will be even better now that he’s free of the constraints left by the previous movie.
G.I.Joe: Retaliation is out in UK cinemas from the 27th March.
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