Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Cinema File #149: "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" Review

Full disclosure, as I've mentioned on this site before, I was never a G.I. Joe kid growing up. I can't really say why, except that I guess I just never really found stories concerning war or gun toting hyper masculinity all that appealing at a young age. I distinctly remember having one G.I. Joe toy as a kid, found in one of those grab bags at the thrift store with ten other small toys, and I always wondered what all the fuss was about, considering my guy was just some blond dude in a Hawaiian shirt who looked like he was on vacation. I didn't like the first G.I. Joe movie, but I didn't exactly hate it either; it was marginally entertaining for what it was and didn't take itself too seriously, but I didn't have the nostalgic preparation to care all that much. There are many action sequences in the new G.I. Joe: Retaliation that I could definitely see myself having played out as a kid had I been a fan (though mine would have no doubt ended in the Ghostbusters' Firehouse with an assist by the Power Rangers with the flippable de-morphing heads). And yet, purely as a movie, I'm just not feeling the same energy as before.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation picks up from where the last movie left off in the secret hot and cold war between the Joes and Cobra, with the President having been replaced by the shape shifter Zartan and what's left of our favorite super terrorists plotting to bust their commander out of prison. I'm a little surprised they even bothered to pick up the fake president plot line from the last movie (which I liked both there and here), considering that in pretty much every other respect, this film is as much a reboot of the franchise as a direct sequel. We still have a few lingering threads from the original, most notably the overrated Channing Tatum as Duke for about ten minutes, but for the most part, this movie is all about The Rock taking over yet another franchise and making it kick more ass than we thought it capable of kicking. I want to say it works, I really do, but despite enjoying Mr. Johnson's performance a lot more than Tatum's in the last film as well as the merciful absence of any Wayans brothers, I felt the results somewhat lacking, even when compared to the thoroughly lackluster first movie.

Rise Of Cobra was silly, but at least it was consistently silly. As I remember it, it embraced its wacky roots at least in so far as any cartoon or comic book property does nowadays (ie. just as over the top, but in cool black leather pants). Its been awhile, and I've only ever seen it once, but I don't remember the last movie being this militaristic. Now I know that sounds really stupid considering the movie is called G.I. Joe and its all about super soldiers, but I found that the original almost went out of its way to paint over that specific aspect of these guys and just make them akin to superheroes who happen to be in the service. This mostly new group of Joes come off as coke binge inspired offshoots of an ill-fated pitch meeting to try and remake Act of Valor or the last twenty minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, but, you know, for kids. The problem is, once you take that more grounded approach to your main characters, the rest of the universe can't still look like a cartoon.

The more outlandish elements of this mythos do not jive well with the more "realistic" tone. Now keep in mind, when I say realistic, that is only a relative term for lack of a better one. These characters all still fit in very well in your typical action movie setting, but then this isn't your typical action movie. While the crazy ninja fights and nanobots fit perfectly in the last one, here it feels like what you would get if you made a new Die Hard movie and suddenly threw in a cybernetic super-villainous Gruber sibling as the bad guy (or set it in a ridiculous location like the White House...oh wait). Actually, on second thought, Cyber Gruber would be awesome. This movie is more like the reverse of that, as if you did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, but just made them human soldiers with artistic code names, and then still had them fight the Super Shredder and those Bebop and Rock Steady rejects. And they'd still dance with Vanilla Ice, cause that was amazing. This disconnect left me unable to engage with the film even in the sense of intellectual abandon fostered by its predecessor.

Two things to note before I sign off on this one. First, leading into the end of the film, as our displaced heroes are preparing for their final assault,  there is an extended sequence set in the home of Bruce Willis' General character that I can only describe as an indulgence in "gun fetishism" well beyond what you would see in most popcorn action movies. I want to say that my knee jerk reaction of visceral disgust for this moment is motivated by recent tragic current events, but then I didn't feel this way at all about the recent Olympus Has Fallen, and that movie was easily composed of 30% head shots. Then again, the sheer glee with which our heroes fawn over a massive collection of guns, hidden behind a safe with the password "1776" in a clear ego stroke to the NRA, might just push it that one step too far, even for me. It doesn't help that we're given very little set up for this new character whose arsenal we are supposed to respect. He might as well be Willis' character from RED for all it matters. I'll admit that I'm too lazy to research who he is from the toys, and personally I've just chosen to believe that he's the original doll sized Joe, even though I'm fairly certain this movie would never be that clever.

Secondly, and perhaps even more egregiously, there is a twist to the final climax that even for a movie this stupid just completely loses me. There is no way I can talk about this without major spoilers, and I can't not talk about it in good conscious, so if your concerned about such things, you might want to skip the next two paragraphs. To set things up, the movie ends with a summit of world leaders led by the evil fake president wherein he tricks the rest of the world into total nuclear disarmament through a game of nuke launch chicken, whereupon he launches all of our nukes, leading to mutually assured destruction commencing, only for him to disable the missiles in mid air, prompting everyone else to do the same. Let's forget for the moment that none of the nukes are actually detonated, only the missiles carrying them, and thus rather than disarmament, we've really just vastly increased the loose nuke problem as all of these warheads fall harmlessly (I assume) to the ground. That isn't the problem with the story here, nor is it the general idea of what just happened, and that alone should give you pause. The even stupider and by far the stupidest thing is what comes next.

After all the nukes are disabled, we learn of the villain's grand plan, to hold the world hostage with a revolutionary new satellite weapon that from what I gather works by dropping a giant metal rod from space onto a country with such force that it completely destroys it. While I can suspend my disbelief with a giant space laser traveling at the speed of light, I imagine dropping a solid object onto the Earth with pinpoint accuracy while its rotating might be prohibitively difficult, though I don't know enough to cry foul on the physics of this thing. The problem is that they demonstrate this device by blowing up the UK to make their point. Now, I'm not even offended by the fictional destruction of a major country, as that seems almost obligatory for action movies nowadays. What I find objectionable is that prior to this moment, we are told that the Joes have found out Cobra's plan, and at this point have had a man on the inside all along, and yet they don't bother to spring into action until after Great Britain is in freaking ruins! The way it plays out, there's no reason they couldn't have rushed in at anytime before millions of people were killed, except than I guess we wouldn't have gotten the shocking CGI beat, even as it makes our heroes look like the shittiest anti-terrorist organization since The Bush Administration.

The more I come away from it, the worse G.I. Joe: Retaliation comes off in retrospect. Uncomfortable consequences of the plot aside, it just doesn't work as a movie. A lot of the action is admittedly passable, especially a somewhat epic ninja battle across the side of several mountains, but I just couldn't get into any of it, because the tone was all over the place and things never settled down long enough for me to stop and figure out why I should care. You wanna know how bad this movie is? I got through an entire review about all the stuff I didn't like, and didn't even have time to talk about the fact that the RZA is in it, and is inexplicably given multiple exposition monologues! As I've said many times throughout this review, I am not a fan of the source material upon which this movie is based, so I can't speak to how well this movie measures up, and on that score alone you should probably take my opinion with a grain of salt if you do know significantly more about this franchise. But if you are at best a casual fan or a relative newcomer like me, you might just find yourself where I am, confused, underwhelmed, a little insulted, but most of all, just really disappointed.

Oh, and case in point, there's no Sienna Miller in skin tight black latex, so why bother? Sorry Lady Jaye, you ain't got nothin' on The Baroness.

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