G.I. Joe: Retaliation
The best thing about the generally crappy G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra was the subplot involving the infiltration of the Whitehouse. It gave Jonathan Pryce, never one for underplaying, a chance to take centre stage. It was also one of the few parts of the movie that didn’t encourage Stephen Sommers to bounce off the walls like the ADD, taste-free scourge of cinema he is. So it’s welcome news that the sequel continues with that thread. And, with John M Chu at the helm, it’s certainly better assembled than the first movie. But it says something that, for all the action stars assembled here, the only character to have any real impact is played by Ray Park. And you can neither see his face nor hear him.
Until he is swallowed up during the third act, I was enjoying Park’s masked maestro Snake Eyes. Park has all the moves and then some, of course, but it was mainly the sheer bonkers bravura of the character that kept me interested. I found myself questioning how the Hollywood machine didn’t spit out a revised Snake Eyes, completely altered from his toy persona. If Judge Dredd takes his head gear off, surely Snake Eyes will doff his helmet and engage in a sparkling dialogue with some lovely lady. Instead, he’s this ever-imposing, black-clad silent knight. Presumably he always wears this gear when he goes on a mission and never says a word. I’m astounded that he ever gets results; he’ll stick out like a sore thumb if he goes out in daylight or anywhere remotely populated. And, if he needs to interrogate someone, that speech impediment’s really going to put a cramp in his style. He’s conceptually unfeasible, basically, and the film’s all the better for his presence. It could have done with embracing a bit more of that silliness rather than ending up as just another action movie.
During the opening scenes, Channing Tatum’s Duke strikes up a good rapport with Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock, but once Johnson’s left playing against bland D. J. Cotrona the chemistry fizzles. There’s only so much renta-Johnson franchises can take to spice them up, and his charisma isn’t best served here. Back when the first film came out I barely registered the lovechild of Stockard Channing and Tatum O’Neal; four years later when he absents the screen he creates a void.
So who better to fill it than Bruce Willis, wisecracking his way through every scene like he did in his heyday? You remember the first Die Hard and Last Boy Scout. Unfortunately it’s not that Bruce Willis. This is the same Willis who’s more intent on drifting stony faced through cameos (see also The Expendables), unwilling to goof off in David Addison mode. Apparently Bruce is responsible for the friendly sparring between his’ “original Joe” and Adrianne Palicki’s Jaye. You just wish much more could have been made of it. Willis does deliver the odd funny line (although you’ve heard the best if you’ve watched the trailer), but this is further evidence that he’s spent the last decade pissing his career away (Wes Anderson aside).
Then there are the villains. Byung-hun Lee is saddled with the most ridiculous character development as Storm Shadow; it’s very much on the “Doh!” spectrum. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s non-return sees Cobra Commander voiced and performed by two different people and Chris Eccleston was never coming back even if the first movie had received Best Picture Oscar. Arnold Vosloo returns, eager for work, but it’s little more than a cameo. So that leaves Ray Stevenson, whose Firefly has the bulk to take on Roadblock but little else. Stevenson seems preoccupied with his lousy Southern accent and fails to inject any fun into the proceedings; it’s left to Pryce to make the villains sell the menace of Cobra (he gets to “hang out with Bono” and even makes a line like “You know, they call it a waterboard, but I never got bored” kind of work).
Chu’s direction isn’t bad; certainly good enough to wrench himself from the doldrums of directing Step Up movies and Justin Bieber documentaries, but he never manages to give the film as a whole much momentum. Individual sequences work fine, but that’s all they are. You’re not invested in getting anywhere with the plot so before long listlessness sets in. Even the fight on the cliff face, which looked like the highlight from the trailers, doesn’t quite have the thrill it ought.
There are a few daffy elements to note; more emphasis on that tone might have made for more memorable results. Storm Shadow undergoes a healing process that involves a curious mixture of Eastern magic/medicine and science. There’s an early training session between Jinx (Elodie Yung) and Snake Eyes that’s also big on the Eastern wisdom, with RZA presiding as a blind master. It verges on Austin Powers self-parody but, alas, it’s played deadly straight.
A movie this mindless obviously has no worthwhile pretentions of making statements about the state of the planet. Cobra’s world domination gambit is particularly ridiculous. But I did wonder if there was some modest propaganda in there. The whole premise is a celebration of the US armed forces after all, even if in a somewhat adulterated way. So North Korea is established as an out and out enemy in the first scene, while Pakistan is identified as incredibly weak (you can steal their nukes and kill their president in the blink of an eye). I’m not sure what the mass destruction of London is about, but Roland Emmerich would be proud. Then there are the shout-outs to the greatness of Patton; the whole movie desperately needed to have its tongue firmly in its cheek, but there’s only the odd wink.
A third instalment is inevitable, as the Hasbro brand has managed to expand its appeal overseas (to the tune of $100m on top of Rise of the Cobra’s gross). It seems that Chu is attached, and he’ll no doubt refine his skills. But the series really needs a shot in the arm in the script department, and to embrace its essential absurdity.