Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Bored stiff

'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' exemplifies why being loud, fast and action-packed doesn't mean you can't also be dull

G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Paramount Pictures
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jonathan Pryce, Adrianne Palicki, Byung-hun Lee, Ray Stevenson, Walton Goggins, Elodie Yung, Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes
Opened March 28, 2013
(out of four)

The lazy thing to say about G.I. Joe: Retaliation is that it's boring. I mean, it is boring, but relying on that kind of oversimplified terminology is cheap film criticism and I know it. So shame on me.

But allow me to at least explain why that description was one of the first things that popped in my head while I watched this movie. Keep in mind that among the films I consider the most boring I have ever seen are Transformers, the second Transformers, and the third Transformers. So that, for your frame of reference, is where my definition begins - with a certain type of movie that some may protest could not possibly be boring because there's so much happening.

Retaliation doesn't quite offer the same disengaged sensory bombardment as the aforementioned trio, but it does spark the same kinds of counter-arguments to my claim. But look! There's so much action! And explosions! And flying and shooting and stunts! And it's so fast-paced! All of that is true, and in fact the action is executed with sure-handedness by director Jon M. Chu, who I can at least admire for his ability to navigate space during certain setpieces, and for his appreciation of body and camera movement.

But what the movie itself suffers from is a lack of identity, thought or personality. It's little more than a collection of action scenes and setups molded around a flimsy excuse for a narrative, with no particular aesthetic to propel it forward. It just sits there killing time for two hours, checking off plot markers beat by beat, hoping all the noise and action will distract us from the fact that none of it has any purpose. Be it through the filmmakers' lack of ingenuity or the studio's artistic control over the property, the film is cooked up in that all-too-familiar teal-and-yellow color scheme, a tacit admission that it doesn't even want to set itself apart. It's only trying to be this week's Big Dumb Action Movie; the more anonymous, the better.

But the Big Dumb Action Movie umbrella is a broad one, and includes good and bad movies alike. The good ones know how to express their Big Dumb Action Movie intentions, and put them to good use. The bad ones, like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, simply know how to go through the motions.

Consider the "nanomites" - a major plot point of the first film that is continued in this sequel - which the odious Zartan has injected into his body in order to take on the physical appearance of the U.S. President (Jonathan Pryce). At the very least, that's a potentially cool sci-fi idea that a clever filmmaker could have fun with. Or, on that same note, the very idea that the president is an impostor - that's the kind of cartoonishly silly concept ripe for cartoonish indulgence. But no; in the hands of Chu and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Werrick, it's merely a plot point used to get from one action scene to another.

The movie's primary selling point, aside from the reinforcement of the G.I. Joe brand, is Dwayne Johnson, who takes over as the face of the franchise. Look, I love seeing Dwayne Johnson being a badass as much as the next guy, but even his presence can't inject any energy into this thing. He plays Roadblock, the de-facto leader of the three surviving members of the G.I. Joes, who have been framed for treason and slaughtered by Impostor President Zartan. Together, the three enlist the help of a retired general (Bruce Willis) to avenge their fallen comrades, redeem the G.I. Joes' good name, destroy Zartan and the recently escaped Cobra Commander, and stop a nuclear war.

The script plays out like a patchwork job, with scenes seemingly inserted at random in order to artificially give its characters "motivation" - or, worse, "depth." One particularly egregious scene introduces the idea that Flint (D.J. Cotrona) has a crush on his fellow Joe, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) - a fact that is never again brought up for the rest of the movie. In that same scene, Jaye gives a, uh, heart-wrenching speech about joining the armed forces in order to make her disapproving father proud. And just like that, the film thinks it has developed some characters. Easy, huh?

The truth is a movie with these intentions doesn't need to saddle its characters with superficial emotional baggage. But, like any other movie that doesn't know quite what it is, Retaliation hedges its bets. Here's a movie that can't even figure out what to do with the science-fiction concepts the entire movie is built around, and it still has time to bother with paying lip service to character motivation? What a complete waste of everyone's time.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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