G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was not revered by critics or hardcore G.I. Joe fans many of whom love the comics more than the 80’s cartoon. Though largely reviled, I loved it and thought it was an absolutely awesome adaptation of the cartoon. As a hardcore nerd I’m usually part of the crowd that cries foul when a film adaptation fails to live up to the high bar set by an original novel or comic or graphic novel. I understand fans of the comic’s slightly more serious and smart G.I. Joe wanted a less cartoony movie and I respect that. But since I never read the comics, I don’t have to care.
Here’s what was awesome about G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Channing Tatum carried the film on his back. Duke was a perfect live action leader for the Joes with charisma to spare. The gadgets were appropriately absurd. A lot of people had problems with the super-suits that Duke and Ripcord used to destroy Paris. But seriously? This is exactly on par for G.I. Joe and exactly the G.I. Joe I grew up watching. It’s absurd and awesome. It’s exactly the kind of stupid awesome weapon that makes for great action figures and thrills 11 year old imaginations. The Dark Knight was awesome. I guess people really like a James Bond film devoid of humour, soul, mirth, or even the slightest hint of joy because Skyfall broke all kinds of box office records. Still, why every adaptation of some classic cartoon or comic or book need to be gritty and depressingly realistic. Why can’t we just have some fun where the good guys win over absurd odds and crack wise along the way and the villains are absurdly evil caricatures with creepy voices and global destruction schemes?
Which brings us to G.I. Joe: Retaliation. What a fucking disaster. I don’t even know where to start. The movie started awesome. The Rock and Channing Tatum had great chemistry. There was a camaraderie there that could have carried an awesome G.I. Joe film. Then they killed Channing Tatum. I would have spoiler tagged that, but they show it in the previews for the movie so deal with it. You could literally feel the air being sucked out of the film right then and there. Reminded me of Django Unchained when the two best actors bow out in one scene and the film literally deflates without them to help it across the finish line.
The premise is that President Zartan has eliminated the Joes by pretending that Duke’s team went rogue. This allows him to kill every Joe ever, except, like, all the ones that are going to keep popping up for the rest of the movie. Not very thorough if you ask me. Roadblock (The Rock), Lady Jaye (the lamer guy from Supernatural’s modestly breast implanted sister), and Flint (this dude doesn’t even deserve a credit he’s so god damned awful in his role I can’t even believe they wouldn’t have been better off casting a mannequin) must make their way back to America (never clearly explained how they did this, but whatever) and clear their names. Oh, and for some reason Snake Eyes is off doing other stuff and will show up later to help them or something.
The Snake Eyes stuff is the worst. The film contrives to get Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes in a sort of temporary truce against a common enemy after first fighting about it. What results is a whole bunch of scenes that make no sense and some absolutely horrendous acting by RZA as their blind sensei. There’s some cool battles on the side of a mountain and a cool Storm Shadow / Snake Eyes fight, but it’s too little too late for that side story.
Walton Goggins as the prison warden who is in charge of the prison holding Cobra Commander and Destro (who gets left out of the film) might have been my favorite part of the movie. This guy steals every scene he’s in on Justified and stole a bunch of scenes in Django Unchained. He’s a great minor character here in probably one of the most fun segments of the film as Storm Shadow and Firefly help Cobra Commander escape from prison. Cobra Commander was leaps and bounds better than in the first film and appears in traditional costume, but still kind of left me wanting. The Cobra Commander in the cartoon was terrifying. The voice was part Skeletor, part smoker, and part Snake. He was evil, creepy, and maniacal. In Retaliation he just seemed like a bland Darth Vader. This was even more true if you juxtaposed Cobra Commander to to President Zartan and Firefly. Even the Cobra Commander on Twitter is more of a maniacal genius.
Bruce Willis appears at some point as retired General Colton. General Colton is not so much a character as he is Bruce Willis playing Bruce Willis. I like Bruce, so I’m fine with that. He’s skeptical of Cobra’s involvement despite it being obvious, but joins up once a DNA test proves the President has been replaced. This is infinitely less fun use of an old guy than Dennis Quaid’s role as General Hawk in Rise of Cobra. Bruce has very little to do, but still manages to score some of most memorable moments. His Presidential rescue is the sort of clever action bit John McClain built a career on. Strangely, Colton calls Lady Jaye by the name Brenda for the whole film. She always objects to it, but his rationale is never explained. He also makes a big deal of recruiting a bunch of other retired Joes to help out in the climax, but then they never really show the retired Joes doing anything. What was the point of either?
Cobra Commander’s plan to trick every world leader into destroying their nukes is actually pretty ingenious. President Zartan is delicious playing Angry Birds as the world approaches nuclear fallout further eclipsing Cobra Commander in overall evil quotient yet again.
It’s fun to see how hard movie companies are trying to avoid denigrating China at all. The summit of G8 nations that President Zartan convenes includes such major players as Romania, North Korea, France, and India. What a joke. I guess they have to try not offend China but, America was the bad guy here so I’m not sure why real G8 nations would be offended by inclusion. Although this doesn’t reach Red Dawn levels of preposterous the avoidance is starting to border on the absurd.
Cobra’s world destruction plan sort of undermines any argument that G.I. Joe needs to be super-serious and realistic. To believe in Cobra as a terrorist organization with a global footprint and the ability to go toe to toe with the US military is one thing. In this film you have to believe they have tons of expendable soldiers and their own space program. That’s a whole heck of a lot of disbelief suspension. Those suits and that plasma gas that raised so much ire in the first film were perfectly suited to this world. Retaliation‘s fun gadgets include Firefly’s explosive bugs, a gun with remote controlled bullets, and a gadget Roadblock uses to melt a chain link fence. Yawn. Where are the lasers and god damn ten-rocket mega rocket launchers?
General Colton arms the Joes for a final conflict and rather than giving them anything cool to play with his just gives them a ton of regular old guns. I get that real guns are more realistic, but G.I. Joe was a place for absurd guns and lasers and rocket launchers and ridiculous weapons. It’s also 2013, right? Realistic gun fetish imagery in a movie based on a line of kids toys is kind of weird. Even if they’re trying to broaden the audience and get a PG-13 rating, it’s still going to be a popular movie with kids. I’m not even super anti-gun, but the realistic guns in this just weren’t fun and weren’t in the spirit of GI: Joe.
The film roars on loudly and Roadblock gets a dune buggy that he uses to destroy three Cobra tanks that look like they could make chop suey out of him in seconds. No tension. Just wham, bam, boring. It’s the equivalent of John Connor walking up to T-1000 and shooting him with a water gun and somehow winning. It’s so “real” it’s stupid. Why couldn’t we have something more like what we see in this G.I. Joe: The Movie trailer.
Can you believe that shit was a kids movie at some point?!?!
And then the film ends and pretty much all you can think is, “how bad was this movie last summer when they went and did a million re-shoots to make it better and turn it into this mess?” America paid to see it though, so maybe we’ll get a third one with a cast that doesn’t totally suck. Maybe they’ll bring Duke back to life and let Channing and The Rock have fun for an entire film, but I doubt it.