The Real Reason Behind GI Joe: Retaliation’s Shocking Duke Twist

Despite being the star of the first live-action G.I. Joe movie, team leader Duke dies after 20 minutes in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. For Channing Tatum, it wasn’t soon enough…

Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson in GI Joe Retaliation
Photo: Paramount Pictures

For G.I. Joe fans of a certain age, Conrad S. Hauser, aka Duke, is the G.I. Joe. Among the first of Hasbro’s revamped mail-away action figures, the character was created in 1983 as a descendent of the original G.I. Joe dolls. He’s also frequently been situated as the lead G.I. Joe character in cartoon shows, comic books, and finally Hollywood action movies.

Which along with the profile of an actor like Channing Tatum is what makes the opening scenes of G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) so shocking. After leading the first film, 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Tatum’s square-jawed 1st Sgt. Duke begins the sequel as practically a second banana to newcomer Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson). Then at exactly the 20-minute mark, Duke is unceremoniously obliterated in a fiery explosion after being betrayed by no less than the President of the United States (in actuality, Johnathan Pryce’s POTUS is the dastardly Cobra operative Zartan in disguise!).

In less time than the opening sequence of a Michael Bay Transformers flick, the guy who saved the world in the 2009 movie and incredulously turned the Baroness (Sienna Miller) into a hero is now roadkill as Johnson’s Roadblock assumes lead position. For audiences then, or discovering it now on Netflix, the turn of fate is a little jarring. But as Tatum has intermittently revealed to the press over the years, Duke dying after only four scenes is the price Paramount had to pay to get Tatum back in the series.

“Look, I’ll be honest. I fucking hate that movie,” Tatum said in 2015. At the time, he was speaking with Howard Stern (via Variety) about how his career had pivoted from action franchises to something a little more personal with the Magic Mike series. He was also specifically unloading on the first G.I. Joe film, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Still, it seemed likely that, even then, his entire opinion of the franchise was soured by the fact he felt forced into the series by Paramount Pictures.

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“I was pushed into doing that movie,” Tatum explained. “[After] Coach Carter, they signed me for a three-picture deal… and as a young [actor], you’re like, ‘Oh my god, that sounds amazing, I’m doing that!’”

However, when it came time to make a G.I. Joe movie, Tatum felt less than enthused. “The script wasn’t any good. I didn’t want to do something that I thought was 1) bad, and 2) I just didn’t know if I wanted to be G.I. Joe.” He said he even offered to play Snake Eyes instead of Duke, but Paramount wanted him in the lead role.

More recently, Tatum has admitted that he deliberately set up Duke’s death in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. While being submitted to a lie detector test by Vanity Fair, Tatum simply said “yes,” when asked if he demanded Duke’s death at the start of that movie. And with the polygraph still attached to his arm, he shrugged when asked if he regretted the decision.

“No,” said Tatum. “The first one I passed on seven times but they had an option on me, so I had to do the movie. So the second one, I just obviously didn’t want to be in that one either.”Hence the rather anticlimactic sendoff to Duke, who in one scene is palling around with Johnson as they play Call of Duty and dote on Roadblock’s daughters, and in the next is totally vaporized right before Roadblock’s eyes. A tragic end, or liberating reprieve? We’ll let you be the judge.