2013, d. Jon M. Chu
[So my original post got bollocksed up, a grand masterpiece covering 30 years of GI Joe culture, gone and lost forever. So, instead of 20 immaculately constructed, brilliantly reasoned, perfectly spelled, grammatically correct paragraphs, you get this less eloquent, half-sized assembly of thoughts about the movie.]
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is an authentically awful movie. It comes by it's lack of grandeur honestly, as it is a true successor to the works of Buzz Dixon, Ron Friedman and the other writers of the Marvel Productions cartoon of the 1980s, as well as Larry Hama's impressive decade long run on the series with Marvel Comics.
The primary impetus for these source materials was, without a doubt, to sell toys. The comics and cartoons featured on-model representations of the characters, vehicles and playsets found on toy shelves and in toy chests all over the world, much to the delight of the children who play with them. To think there's not any creative or artistic merit to stories crafted out of a set of action figures is a cynical position to take. Action figures are, inherently, a vehicle for storytelling, a ferry for children's imaginations. Kids will do what they will with the action figures they have, but they also love to see their toys come to life (see Toy Story's enduring popularity for example) and how they act and behave without their guidance.
The cartoon was richly detailed and wonderfully animated, in such a regard that visually it holds up well today. It often featured multi-part arcs to convey that the threat Cobra presented wasn't always so easily overcome. The episodes were primarily story-driven, so the characters were rather broadly constructed, their personalities driven more by the voice cast than any character-expanding stories. Due to FCC regulations, violence had to be, well, non-violent, so all bullets and ballistics were converted to lazers, and despite frequent spectacular fire fights and exploding vehicles, nobody died. It was always a Cobra versus Joes affair, both sides seeming somewhat buffoonish overall. It was in the comic books that Larry Hama worked in a hard military angle (he addressed military rank frequently and used military jargon and acronyms which were helpfully explained in footnotes), provided stories that were character-driven as often as story-driven, worked in martial arts philosophies, and dabbled in simplified politics. And characters died, often noble, often senseless deaths. Hama's took a more serious approach to his storytelling, but also seemed to understand that there was something inherently goofy to the whole situation, and would just as often play into as well. In both cases, the comics and cartoon played into the concept that the toys set up, that each Joe has a specialty, and thus they frequently featured large casts.
The first film, by Stephen Sommers was a train wreck. Ugly and incoherent, but also unaware of what the characters were supposed to be all about. The film presented spectacle but it wasn't good, and it was disingenuous to the G.I. Joe brand. Retaliation acts as more of a reboot as well as a sequel, fully aware that the "hyper-suits" (or whatever they were called) and other ideas of the first film were not authentic to the Joe experience. Despite the sometimes drastic difference in the presentation of the characters between the comic and cartoon, there was a consistency between them that fell right in line with the toy brand. Retaliation is many broad steps forward to finding that same consistency that the first film ignored in favour of trying to "modernize" (or "futurize") its military fighting force.
Retaliation brings back the idea that the Joes are soldiers, and hits the military angle hard (well as hard as a movie based on action figures will support, in line with Hama's portrayal of them). Channing Tatum's Duke returns as the commanding officer, and Tatum has developed considerable screen presence since the first film. I mercifully don't recall much about "The Rise of Cobra" save for the general impression of its awfulness and Tatum's decided lack of charisma. Here he's loose and leading charming, matching the always enjoyable Dwayne Johnson. Tatum and Johnson have considerable chemistry, and the film spends time building their close relationship, only to take it away as the catalyst for the titular "retaliation", as nearly the entire Joe platoon is massacred. (Johnson and Tatum should most certainly appear together in another vehicle).
The story that plays out could have appeared in either the cartoon or the comics (but is original to the film), which Joe faithful will certainly appreciate. Zartan is masquerading as the president, and with patience has executed Cobra Commander's scheme to destroy the Joes, take control of the country and potentially destroy the world. Meanwhile, a story straight out of the comics, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow bury the hatchet when they learn that it wasn't Storm but Zartan that killed their master years ago.
Like the cartoon, the characters in the film are pretty flimsy. While Snake Eyes was a star in the comics (the central figure in the title in its later years) where others can speak for him and his physicality can be placed in more focus, be more pronounced or exaggerated, he doesn't work so well as a feature player in motion. As such, the B-plot is more Storm Shadow than Snake Eyes focussed and even then it feels disconnected and slight. Still it does result in one of the most engaging and inspired action sequences I've seen, in which Snake Eyes and Jinx (Storm Shadow's cousin) square off against a seemingly neverending swarm of ninja while tethered to a mountainside. It would have had even greater impact if we were more invested in the characters and their situation.
The trio of Roadblock, Lady Jaye and Flint are the sole survivors of the assault on the Joes and they lead the remainder of the film. Johnson's charisma carries much of the film, though Roadblock has no real arc (only Storm Shadow truly has anything approximating a character arc). Adrianne Palicki (who played Wonder Woman in a failed pilot recently) succeeds at being tough as Lady Jaye , but is too often undermined by having to play sexy. D.J. Cotrona is Flint, a perfunctory character without purpose or definition. Bruce Willis stubs in as the original G.I. Joe, Joe Colton, another flimsily assembled character who seems to be in the film because they could get Bruce Willis.
The bad guys consist of Jonathan Pryce in the dual role of the President and Zartan-as-the-President and he seems to be truly enjoying himself. Both roles are steeped in cliches but Pryce's zeal goes a long way to making it entertaining. Ray Stevenson as Firefly does most of the physical legwork in the bad guy department, but he's impressive and imposing, even if his cajun accent barely holds for a few minutes. Cobra Commander finally appears like Cobra Commander should appear. He's serves no other purpose than as a figurehead, and looks the part.
There's plenty of cool vehicles in the film, HISS tanks and Raptors and Rippers and Fangboats... the vehicles were about the only thing the first film got right, and it's nice to see them in action here, if only minimally (there's more focus on gunplay and physical fighting). There's one land battle sequence with the vehicles and another boat fight, both happening in quick succession, inter-cut with a half dozen other gun fights, and it's endemic of the film's problem. Watching a lot of Bond films recently, it's apparent that the key to their success is the fact that they let the action sequences breathe, stand on their own. They become more memorable as an island than a part of the landscape, but you have to have plenty of meaningful plot and/or character to focus on between the action scenes, which is what Retaliation lacks.
In rating the quality of the film you have to contextualize it three ways. The first is against it's predecessor, "The Rise Of Cobra", and in comparison it's a triumph. The second is judging it against the beloved cartoons and comics from the property's heyday. Retaliation is as readable or watchable as the comic and cartoon remain. It's a kitschy '80's sensibility with a modern budget. It's literally toys come to life and there's something delightful about it. However, it's comparing retaliation against the standards of quality in cinema where Retaliation fails big time. It's not a good movie. Like a carnival ride, Retaliation provides momentary entertainment, but there's not a lot to think about beyond the initial experience. Joe fans will celebrate this film, just as I'm sure the film will likewise create new Joe fans (it's violent, but moderately so for interested kids 10+). And it will sell some toys.