JBL reviews G.I. Joe Retaliation
To borrow a phrase from one of the recent Star Trek series “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.” Two years since Rise of Cobra and then an unexpected nine month delay before G.I. Joe fans were treated to a second attempt at a big screen franchise of their favorite Real American Heroes. Nearly three years since G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra tore apart the G.I. Joe fandom and tarnished the image of the once-dominant brand as a kitschy modern day remake of Mega-Force. This time, however, things appeared to be different. Director Jon M. Chu, better known for his Justin Bieber documentary, set to direct a script from the talented duo that brought us Zombieland. Admittedly, all were fans of the incredible comic run by the “godfather of G.I. Joe” Larry Hama and promised a film that was more true to its comic roots than RoC. However, I’d heard that song and dance before but tonight felt different. The lights dimmed and I sat with friends in a surprise early birthday celebration organized by my wonderful girlfriend Amanda. Was this a film to redeem the brand, the fandom, and reignite the enthusiasm of many disheartened fans?
Read on and find out one Joe fan’s opinion…
I’ll state this up front—I won’t go too heavily into spoilers here. The film’s official debut is on March 28, 2013 and I would hate to ruin things for so many fans. I will say this—the film is a dramatic improvement over G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra in almost every way imaginable. From the story to the pacing to the characterization, it just feels more like Joe. From the team’s interaction to Cobra’s main plot, it’s a plot worthy of G.I. Joe.
To borrow from one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, I’ll break down my experience with the film in three categories.
I’ll start with the cast: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, and Byung-hun Lee were fantastic as the Joes/Cobras we all know and love. Ray Stevenson makes for a great Firefly even if his southern accent is a bit odd. The real presence in the film, however, goes to Jonathan Pryce as Zartan/the President of the United States. He made the audience laugh and yet knew just when to play a scene with more sinister overtones. Another really positive aspect of the cast is Snake Eyes. Sure, he doesn’t say much– okay ANYTHING but this time he looks plausible and moves with the cat-like agility that we’ve come to expect from the character. He’s not a cartoon character but rather he feels like a real moving being under the mask.
Here’s another surprise to the “Good” cast category—Channing Tatum. Yes, I said that of my own free will and am not being coerced in any way. His performance in Retaliation over Rise of Cobra marks a complete turnaround as an actor. Honestly, I was sad that he wasn’t in more of the film and most likely will not be back in a sequel. Pairing him with the Rock was a perfect casting choice and their dynamic makes for some truly enjoyable character moments.
In terms of the plot, I have to say that Cobra Commander/Zartan’s end game was brilliant. It’s a scene in which Jonathan Pryce holds all of the cards—completely arrogant and secure in his position of power. The actor revels in that moment as does the character—to the point of playing Angry Birds while the leaders of the world panic. I loved it and so did the audience. Meanwhile, the storyline involving Snake Eyes and Jinx in the Himalayas was well done. It goes by quickly but the action sequence is positively mind-blowing. Yes, it’s been shown to death in the trailers and teasers but there is so much more to it that audiences will be pleasantly surprised.
Another terrific aspect to point out is the tone of the film. It’s funny in the right places and deadly serious in others. Moments like Duke and Roadblock playing a Call of Duty clone to Joe Colton’s interactions with Roadblock are full of some much needed humor. It doesn’t feel forced but flows like natural dialogue between comrades and friends. While the humor disappears in the final act, there’s a moment in Joe Colton’s kitchen that has to be seen to be truly appreciated.
Lastly, I’m a huge movie music nerd. I was a big fan of Henry Jackman’s work in X-Men: First Class and his score to Retaliation doesn’t disappoint. Dramatic and driving when it needs to be, the score greatly enhances the action and tension of the film. One particular track of the soundtrack I find myself replaying is the very last– aptly entitled Zartan. That track summarizes everything about the character as seen in the film.
This category isn’t so much “bad” as “what could have been better.” First off, G.I. Joe Retaliation’s running time is short—just shy of an hour and forty minutes. Honestly, with all of the material that needed to be covered just to resolve dangling threads from Rise of Cobra the film could have been longer. There are parts of the first act that really feel a bit choppy—with the focus cutting from scene to scene a bit too abruptly. The end credits showcase a myriad of sequences that were cut from the film and I’d like to see those restored for a director’s cut DVD/Blu-Ray. The addition of a total of about 20 minutes could go a long way in not only resolving those abrupt transitions but providing additional character development. Getting the core cast from the wholesale slaughter of the team back to the US happens in the blink of an eye—and it makes me feel as those some key transition scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Please, if anyone with any authority reads this—let’s have a proper director’s cut and give G.I. Joe Retaliation the running time it deserves.
Another casualty of the shorter running time is the Arashikage plotline involving the RZA as the Blind Master. It’s so brief that that musician’s role is almost a cameo. As a result, poor Elodie Yung’s portrayal of Jinx is given precious few lines. When she’s on screen she gives a solid performance but like so much of Retaliation I found myself wanting more time for exposition and narrative vs. all out action. Don’t get me wrong—Retaliation is hardly a film that is “action without plot” but I can only reiterate—an additional 20 minutes would benefit the film greatly.
The same can be said for D J Cotrona’s portrayal of Flint. When there’s time and focus on the character he does quite well, playing off both Adrianne Palicki’s Lady Jaye and the Rock’s Roadblock with ease. Sadly, the bulk of his screen time is relegated to action sequences which, while exciting, fail to take full advantage of the actor’s range. Hopefully a third installment can remedy this.
Okay, this next bit is something that has bothered me in films for years and that’s the need for the heroes to off key villains in the film’s third act. With the hatchet job that Rise of Cobra did on characters like Baroness and Destro Cobra’s core cast has been pared down a bit. This film focuses on Firefly and Zartan and it’s safe to say that a miracle is needed to bring them back for G.I. Joe 3. It’s a shame as both characters were played particularly well by their respective actors and I really would love to see them reprise their roles again. It may be possible for one but for the other—well, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put poor XXXXXXX back together again.”
Lastly, I’ll mention Cobra Commander. He’s not bad—far from it. I just wanted to see more of him. So much time and effort is put into bring him back into the fray that I wouldn’t have minded a bit more time on screen. Heck, give him a “Blofeld monologue” to explain his plot in full. Still, when he’s on screen he’s a dominant presence and thankfully we can hope to see him back in G.I. Joe 3!
This spot is reserved for one thing and one thing only—the guy who happened to sit behind me during the screening and felt the need to speak to his buddy who was sitting two seats away in a conversational tone. Seriously man, there’s a reason I told you to “keep it down” and another reason that I responded to your suggestion that I perform a specific action on myself that was inappropriate for a theatre in kind. There’s a line from the fantastic series Firefly from an episode entitled “Our Miss Reynolds” that refers to “a special Hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.” We know where you’ll be spending eternity, pal.
So, in end, was G.I. Joe Retaliation worth seeing? I can whole-heartedly answer this “YES!” It’s not an Oscar-worthy film like Saving Private Ryan but it’s one of the better action movies I’ve seen in a while. I find it to be miles ahead of Another Day to Die Hard which featured Bruce Willis just a month ago and light years ahead of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Whereas this film’s predecessor divided a fandom, G.I. Joe Retaliation stays faithful to its roots, treats its characters with respect and not as a bunch of rubber-suited jokes, and brings to the screen some dazzling action sequences and a villainous plot in which the stakes have never been higher. As I sit here typing this late at night I find myself replaying the soundtrack on my PC and eagerly anticipating the fact that I’ll be seeing it again in less than 24 hours. The writers, the director, and the entire production staff have crafted a film that for once feels like the G.I. Joe I grew up on– featured each month in the pages of Marvel Comics. I don’t often see films more than once in the theater and yet Retaliation is a film that I’ll be hitting more than a few times in the coming weeks. It’s a film that has once again re-lit the once stagnant fires of my love of G.I. Joe and one that can hopefully show the world that G.I. Joe is still a viable franchise with a real future. The beauty of G.I. Joe is that it isn’t about one man or woman but about a cast of characters. With the right handling it could prove to be an American franchise with the longevity of Eon Production’s James Bond franchise. I hope audiences forget the past and give G.I. Joe Retaliation a chance as I’m far more interested in seeing more cinematic G.I. Joe than I was 3 years ago. Of course, that’s just one Joe fan’s opinion.
- Plot: 8
- Cast: 9
- Pacing: 7
- 8 out of 10.