Sunday, March 31, 2013

"GI Joe: Retaliation" (2013)

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Adrianne Palicki and Ray Park
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Rated PG-13 - Language, violence
Running Time: 110 Minute

When the leader of Pakistan is assassinated, the elite GI Joes are sent into the destabilized nation to secure that country's nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately for the Joes, led by Duke (Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), the operation is a setup. Zartan (face of Arnold Vosloo, but mostly played by Jonathan Pryce), agent of the evil terrorist organization Cobra and master of disguise, has replaced the President of the United States (also Jonathan Pryce), and sets up the Joes as a rogue military operation and uses US forces to wipe them out.

Only Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (DJ Cotrona) and silent ninja warrior Snake Eyes (Ray Park) survive the assault. Cobra's plan quickly begins to take shape: Zartan uses his influence as President to locate the secret prison where Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voice of Robert Baker) and Destro are being held. He sends in Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-Hun) to free Cobra Commander, who resumes his rightful place as leader.

On the run, Roadblock, Lady Jaye and Flint head back to the US to try and expose Zartan while Snake Eyes enlists the aid of Jinx (Elodie Yung) and Blind Master (RZA) to track down Storm Shadow. When Joes learn of Cobra's dastardly plans for world domination, Roadblock realizes there's only one man he can turn to: The original GI Joe, General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), and then the battle is on to save not just America, but the entire world from the evil of Cobra.

Writing that description was kind of a mess. There's a lot of stuff going on in "GI Joe: Retaliation," and frankly not much of it really makes much sense. But ultimately, you may find that this isn't really the criticism it might sound like. This is a movie that seems to know exactly how dumb it is, like it knows you don't really care whether the story makes sense so long as there are ninjas and explosions and funny banter.

The Joes spend nearly the entire film alternately having almost supernatural access to expository knowledge, or being completely in the dark about what's going on around them. Plotting is actually the film's real major weakpoint, as much of the rest of it is actually remarkably entertaining. "Retaliation" doesn't take itself seriously, in the slightest. The deaths of millions of people are brushed away as though entirely inconsequential.

There's a moment in the film where Jonathan Pryce's Zartan has just launched a nuclear strike on several world powers, and he dares them back to do the same. Then, he sits back and plays "Angry Birds" on his iPhone while people are dying. It's kind of like a metaphor for the whole movie. Nothing here is of consequence, and the film jokingly brushes aside any attempt at dealing with reality.

So with that said, you know exactly what kind of movie "GI Joe: Retaliation" is, right? Good.

What surprised me most about "Retaliation" is just how funny it is. An opening scene with Johnson and Tatum playing "Call of Duty" is a downright riot, once again proving that Tatum's real talent is in comedy and that's pretty much where he should stay from now on. There are a number of laugh-out-loud lines and moments peppered throughout "Retaliation," and then I saw that the film was written by the same duo responsible for "Zombieland," and suddenly it all makes sense.

"Retaliation" lacks the heart of that film, but that's alright; this is an entirely different animal. Bruce Willis is featured prominently in the film's advertising, but appears only briefly. He probably has about as much screentime here as he does in "Expendables 2." Channing Tatum's Duke also appears in only the first ten or fifteen minutes, so the heavy lifting is all done by Dwayne Johnson here. There are some basic attempts to flesh out the characters by giving emotional backstories (delivered in exposition-heavy speeches) to Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. The most interesting backstory, of course, belongs to Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, but it's also the one that's delivered in the weakest fashion... yet the film hinges its entire plot on it.

You see, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are blood brothers, but Storm Shadow was framed for the murder of their master and eventually fell in with Cobra while Snake Eyes went on to become an honorable member of the GI Joes (somehow). Here, we learn that (again, somehow) Zartan was actually the one responsible for the murder and has been manipulating Storm Shadow his entire life. Yet, the way this is all revealed, it seems like Storm Shadow always knew this. So why did he wait until now to reveal it? Who knows. Again, it's one of the things the movie just kind of throws out there and then quickly brushes past in order to get back to the banter and the action.

So let's talk about the action, because that's really what anyone wants out of a GI Joe movie. "Retaliation" has plenty of action, and much of it is pretty cool. The film doesn't really break any new ground. There are lots of standard gunfights, chases, explosions and the like, but it's all competently executed.  Where "Retaliation" stands out, however, is an extended mountaintop fight sequence involving ninjas on zip-lines. This is easily the action centerpiece of the entire film, and totally worth the price of admission for me (it was a $6 matinee).

The only problem is that this sequence is so cool that nothing that comes after it measures up. In fact, the film's climax feels standard and even rather small in comparison. "Retaliation" generally feels like it runs out of steam after this breathless sequence, as though the filmmakers put all their eggs in the first-hour basket. It's too bad, since the first half is so much more wildly entertaining. Still, there's a lot to like. This film's characterization of Cobra Commander is much better than whatever was happening in the first movie. In fact, I wanted more Cobra Commander.

The action sequences have a tendency to be a cut a bit too quickly. I didn't really feel lost, but sometimes I wanted the shots to breathe a little more, whereas the film seemed to think I just wanted to be assaulted. When there's so much martial arts going on, I think it's a disservice to edit things this way, but it's still all watchable. This should also serve as a warning to those going to see the film in 3D.

"GI Joe: Retaliation" is certainly better than the first movie in a lot of ways. It feels much more like I think a "GI Joe" movie should. I admit, I'm not as familiar with the cartoon or comics as I am with, say, "Transformers," but from my limited experience this movie feels like a better adaptation. As a film, it's a fun ride. It is a dumb, dumb movie... but the ninjas are cartoon greatness, and there's enough badassery and joking around to make this worth you're while if this kind of movie is your thing. The movie isn't asking you to take it seriously, so you shouldn't. You really shouldn't.