Thursday, March 28, 2013

Accessories Sold Separately: G.I. JOE: RETALIATION

In the latest based-on-a-line-of-toys action film, elite teams of American commandos known as the G.I. Joes are locked in combat with the worldwide terrorist organization known as Cobra. When one of Cobra’s master impersonators takes the President’s place, he implicates the Joes in an assassination and orders a strike that leaves all but three of them dead. The survivors, somehow able to immediately determine the cause of this betrayal despite being stranded in the desert, vow revenge. This kicks off G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, by having just enough really cool special effects shots to fill a two-and-a-half minute trailer, giving the rest of the runtime to endless exposition, repetitive action sequences, bad jokes, and haphazard characterization. It’s a movie that’s probably on the whole a bit less fun than watching a six-year-old play with action figures, although how much less fun exactly would depend on the six-year-old. All the movie’s best ideas seem to have come out of just such a scenario anyways, moments like protecting oneself from throwing stars by machine gunning them down or jumping off a motorcycle which then splits apart into several missiles and continues straight ahead to a target.

Retaliation’s surviving Joes out to carry out said retaliation are Dwayne Johnson, called upon to be his usual muscular but loveable self, D.J. Cotrona, a bland goodie two-shoes, and Adrianne Palicki, as the token G.I. Jane who at one point gets to wear a tight red dress for mostly no good reason. (The star of the first movie, the suddenly-everywhere Channing Tatum, puts in a glorified cameo, but is otherwise smart enough or lucky enough to sit this one out.) There’s also Byung-hun Lee as bad ninja Storm Shadow and Ray Park as good ninja Snake Eyes, who have an almost entirely peripheral side plot involving all kinds of ninja acrobatics that includes (1) an underground prison break, (2) a cliff-side, mountaintop sword battle, and (3) bit parts inhabited by Walton Goggins as a morally ambiguous warden and RZA as a grizzled ninja mentor. That’s where the fun, such as it is, is happening here, but once these characters join up with the central narrative, the glimmer of fun slips away from them too.

The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick does what it can to salvage the colossal and bland confusion of the first film, but doesn’t improve upon a core concept that seems to be little more than living action figures acting out ridiculous scenarios for the benefit of little more than emptier-than-usual spectacle. Director Jon M. Chu, so good at staging fluid, visually energetic and sustained dance sequences in Step Up 3D, finds little in the way of coherent action, choosing instead to shoot it all in the quick flashes of bloodless bloodshed we’ve come to expect from our PG-13 shoot-‘em-ups. That it’s all a bit more disquieting than usual comes from the narrative that jumbles more than in coheres in the telling. Since the villain is impersonating the president, it makes the countless dead the Joes leave on their way to him uncomfortable. Sure, he’s clearly evil (and Jonathan Pryce is having a good time playing that up) and many of his staff positions are filled by Cobra agents, but it’s hard to tell if some of those around him are just good old army boys and Secret Service agents gunned down for no better reason than failing to spot the fake POTUS in their midst.

That it also happens to be one of those movies that ends on the kind of happy note that boils down to something like “who cares if a major world capital was just wiped off the face of the planet, the Rock got a medal?” is just indicative of the slapdash laziness of the plotting. When a movie can threaten the entire world with nuclear holocaust in its final climactic moments and completely fail to raise my heart rate, something’s gone horribly wrong. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a slickly put together piece of Hollywood craftsmanship. It’s easy enough to stare at, but it’s empty to the core. The character who is most indicative of the movie’s approach is a retired Joe the crew picks up on their way to the final confrontation. He’s played by Bruce Willis in a performance so relaxed and weightless that if you told me he did the whole thing lying down somewhere and was green-screened into all his scenes, I’d probably believe you. He contributes little to the plot, besides providing the things that go boom for the finale, revealing in a montage that his house is essentially an armory with weapons of every kind hidden in every nook and cranny. It’s supposed to be funny and rousing, I suppose, but is nothing more than a sad prelude to yet more numbing exposition and endless gunfire, not a lick of wit or strategy in sight. I guess the only thing that can stop a bad Cobra with a gun is a good Joe with a gun.

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