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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: G. I. Joe: Retaliation


G. I. JOE: RETALIATION (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Jon M. Chu, 2013

G. I. Joe Retaliation may sound like another big, rotten box-office smash shooting down the pipes: another ridiculously over-violent action movie, in this case with characters based on Hasbro action figures or toys (and on Marvel Comics versions of them) with another machismo-drenched cast (topped by Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis and Channing Tatum) and another cliché-drenched script. And some of it as bad as your worst fears. But it surprises you.

Not at first though, You walk into the theater, the lights (and your wits) dimming, and you remember the world war stinker of last week (Olympus Has Fallen), and you think: Is that all there is? Is this what movies have come to after more than a century of refinement and innovation and occasional triumphs? Are most of us now reduced to watching the 3D chronicles of the battles waged  by the toy hero G. I. Joe (Willis, in a supporting role), the massive hero Roadblock (Johnson, the star) and, for a while, the two-fisted hero Duke (Tatum, who was the star of the last 2009 G. I. Joe smash), with all three fighting the gang of the insidious Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) and his maniacal minions? Where is Ming the Merciless?

The movie then reveals its secret weapon: a light touch amidst the carnage. The plot is familiar, but it’s done with some pizzazz. In the story, the G. I. Joe guys are hit with a massacre (of most of their number, apparently including Duke), a frame-up of the ones left, including Roadblock and the adorable Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki), and a plot to conquer and  destroy the world, engineered by their old nemesis Cobra (I think) and involving a phony double of The U. S. President (Jonathan Pryce, of Brazil), who bullies a gathering of world leaders and starts yet another countdown to destruction (one of those countdowns that usually gets all the way past five), while the real President (also played by Pryce) languishes in captivity nearby, probably wishing he were in Brazil.

That’s what it’s all about: a lot of bang-bang, but no kiss-kiss — or at least none I remember. Truth to tell, this movie strikes me as an odd choice as the big Hollywood release on Easter Weekend. It’s loaded with action, loaded with violence and, most of all, loaded with guns. (Check out Bruce Willis’ seemingly endless stash.) Isn’t giving this show the Good Friday-to Easter Sunday slot (which it won) like using Easter weekend to celebrate the centurions? If The Prince of Peace or any other peacenik showed up in this kind of world, they‘d probably be crucified all over again.

Be that as it may, I must confess I enjoyed G. I. Joe Retaliation more than most of the recent big-bucks bang-a-thons. Maybe I saw too many westerns and war movies in my misspent youth. Maybe the film worked for me because of the cast (Johnson as the aptly named Roadblock, Pryce as The Presidents real and ersatz, Willis, Tatum, Bracey, Byun hung-Lee as the aptly named Storm Shadow, Walton Goggins as a warden, D. J. Coltrona as Joe‘s man Flint, Ray Park as the aptly-named Snake Eyes and James Carville as the aptly named campaign advisor James (“It’s the economy, Stupid”) Carville.

Or maybe it was because of the truly spectacular action, which includes one certifiably great scene: an amazing battle raging and soaring all over Himalayan cliffs and slopes, with Storm Shadow in a body-bag being carried or whooshed downhill  by his daredevils — with bad guys swooping at them to try to stop the escape, and the snow-capped mountains treated like the site of  a parkour chase, bodies tumbling like the popcorn that the entire audience probably failed to eat while they watched dumbstruck, as this outrageously exciting scene —  a sequence that puts the “cliff” back in cliffhanger — run its course.

Or maybe it was because the people who made Retaliation, director Jon M. Chu (of  the ludicrous, if high-spirited musicals Step Up 2 and 3 and the well-regarded Justin Bieber documentary), and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of  the undead comedy Zombieland), just don’t seem to be taking themselves or the movie all that seriously. They have fun with the clichés and formulas, which is more than you can say about most of these  gun-crazy shows. In fact, how much you’re able to enjoy Retaliation probably depends on  how far up its own cheek you think its tongue is poking.

It also may depend on how much you enjoy a contemporary star vehicle, which actually gives its stars a few clever lines to say. Retaliation was well-shot in largely irrelevant 3D by Chu and cinematographer Stephen F. Windon. (The 3D was added afterwards.), and Chu, a director of musical films, sometimes handles the action scenes as if they were music numbers. Maybe that explains why I kept hearing, in my mind, Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High” during the Himalaya scene, or Ary Barroso‘s tune Brazil being used to introduce Pryce‘s Prez. The show is more fun, and more human, than you’d expect. It actually has a fight coordinator (Thomas DuPont) and a stunt coordinator (Steve Ritzi).

I’ve tended to make fun of Dwayne Johnson at times — overusing that obvious joke about The Artist Formerly Known as the Rock — but this episode of the G. I. Joe epic and the recent neo-noir Snitch, though neither film is a real hoot, both show that Johnson is a genuine movie star who can carry and enhance this kind of movie (and neo-noirs like Snitch), even if,  a lot of the time, movies like these aren’t worth carrying. Despite the silliness of some of his vehicles, The Once-Rock has a tremendous screen presence and immense likeability, and he has that blend of simpatico, humor and toughness that Clint Eastwood, John Wayne  and Bruce Willis could all take to the bank.

Even if G. I. Joe has problems, and it does (including, at times, incoherence), I think  Johnson has finally lived down The Tooth Fairy. I just wish the Ex-Rock would choose more films with more (good) dialogue. But his ebullience and willingness to kid himself — the latter something Eastwood and Willis have, more than Stallone or Schwarzenegger  — definitely works for him. Somebody, sometime, should show the Rock That Was the great silent adventure comedies of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who was the model for the silent movie idol of The Artist, and whose brio, delight in life and bounding high spirits Johnson might well emulate. (Well, maybe not the bounding.)

So the movie wasn’t so bad after all. But don’t be fooled. Except for the mountain battle, it’s not that good either. Now, excuse me. Ming the Merciless and Storm Shadow are waiting in the hall with a high concept. It has something to do with the Himalayas.

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