by Thom Yee

G.I. Joe - Retaliation Poster

G.I. Joe: Retaliation images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and MGM

Overall, Scrubs was a pretty good, possibly great show.

It was the kind of show that a lot of young adults needed in the ’00s because it felt real as it explored its young protagonists’ fanciful psychoses.

Even though it was uneven and occasionally a little too up its own ass, it had a lot of strong character arcs and emotionally raw moments.

To me and a lot of Scrubs fans, a truly standout performance was Brendan Fraser as Ben, one of the few people that Dr. Cox (the acerbic doctor of internal medicine at Sacred Heart Hospital) actually liked.

As a reminder, here’s one of the best moments in the entire Scrubs series:

 

That’s some really gut-wrenching stuff, especially if you’d seen the entire series of events that led to that moment.

If you’re somehow one of the few people who’s determined why I’m talking about Brendan Fraser seriously as an actor in a review of the second G.I. Joe movie, then congratulations — you and I are so on-the-same-page that you should be genuinely terrified of your immediate future.

Believe it or not, it’s actually pretty tricky to write something like G.I. Joe:  Retaliation.  There’s a certain vacuity that we all, audiences and producers alike, know goes into conceptualizing and writing a script for a G.I. Joe movie.  Maybe it’s just a cosmic coincidence that writers with just the right lack of talent became attached to a movie like G.I. Joe:  Retaliation (which I will refer to as Retaliation going forward), but I think these things are much more calculated.  Going into making a G.I. Joe movie, the producers know that they need a unique and tricky-to-balance combination of cool visuals, interesting ideas, at-first striking characters, and a complete lack of sophistication, and my experience watching Retaliation was a few moments of “that’s cool”, balanced against a lot of time to think about other things.

So I got to thinking about what it means if most of G.I. Joe really had been killed in that sneak attack at the movie’s outset.  I — somehow — also saw Retaliation’s predecessor, The Rise of Cobra (it was playing on a long bus trip I had to take), so previously established characters like General Hawk (played by the always amazing Dennis Quaid), Ripcord (played by the always amazingly annoying Marlon Wayans), and Scarlett (played by the always amazing-looking Rachel Nichols) are probably also dead (rather than just deliberately left out in a between-installments retooling of the franchise).  And among the most dear departed, to me, would have to be Brendan Fraser’s cameo role as Sgt. Stone.

Here’s Fraser talking a bit about G.I. Joe:

 

G.I. Joe - Retaliation - Sgt. Stone

Don’t worry Brendan Fraser, people will eventually recognize your work in… wait, have you been in any good movies?

I thought about a lot of other things while watching Retaliation.  Brendan Fraser.  Going rock climbing.  Superchargers vs. turbochargers.  That cheque that I should probably deposit soon.  All of which is a roundabout way of saying there’s more to talk about around G.I. Joe:  Retaliation than there is to talk about the movie itself.


When the G.I. Joe team is discredited and destroyed by order of the Commander-in-Chief, the President having been replaced by the dastardly Zartan, Cobra’s master of disguise, survivors Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Snake Eyes, and new recruit Jinx must go to ground to defeat Cobra Commander’s latest plot for world domination and restore their good names.  Normally I hate writing plot synopses, probably because they force me to confront stories on a more literal than thematic level, but this time it was easy to recall exactly what happened.  Because it was all right there.  On the surface.

G.I. Joe - Retaliation Poster - Michael Bay

Michael Bay on Transformers: “It’s the incomprehensible action, forced, stereotypical characters, and spending more time with said characters than the Transformers themselves that draws people to these movies.”

As a ‘90s kid, I missed a lot of the highlights of the original G.I. Joe experience, but I still had some of the toys and read some of the comics, so I kind of know things about it.  Flint was always my favourite character, mostly because he looked good in a beret and usually had a dark shirt on, and to this day I honestly think that Flint would be a great name for a kid (of either gender), possibly rivaled only by the name Lady Jaye (which would probably have to be a girl).  Much like Transformers, a franchise I have far more attachment to and, thus, feel much more violated about, most of the backstory and mythology of G.I. Joe was developed by Marvel Comics for a monthly comic series that would last for more than 10 years.  So even though a lot of people blame the relative poor quality of the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies on the fact that they’re based on toy lines, the truth is there’s actually a bit more depth to those two particular properties than most other ‘80s relics (I’m looking at you, the little-remembered Bionic Six).  In other words, their failings lie entirely in the hands of people like Michael Bay (though, admittedly, Transformers did pretty well financially).

I think the notion that one shouldn’t be surprised when a movie based on a toy line turns out badly is specious reasoning and is primarily an off-the-cuff response by critics who weren’t there to experience the fun and creativity of a childhood playing with toys.  Just because you’re a kid playing with violence-oriented figures, vehicles, and playsets, sacrificing sophistication for fast action, doesn’t mean that the worlds you imagined necessarily gave up essential intelligence.  Sure, I wouldn’t want to read a lot of fiction written by 3rd graders, but there’s a forthrightness in many children’s stories that can be profoundly moving and oftentimes transcendently inspiring.  And besides that, fun = great, toys = fun, therefore toy movies = great, and that’s a syllogism that you can’t deny.


I will say, right off the bat, that the ninja mountain scene (which you can see most of right here) was pretty spectacular in a way that didn’t directly insult my intelligence or betray my tenuous attachment to the ideals of the old G.I. Joe.  Some of the tech on display, like Roadblock’s fence-melting gloves and Firefly’s explosive… fireflies, was also pretty neat, and, again, not directly stupid like the accelerator suits in The Rise of Cobra.

The smartest move the producers made in Retaliation was moving far away from the movie’s immediate predecessor.  Most of the previous cast is ignored entirely in the name of not having to service so many goofy characters, and Channing Tatum’s Duke is written out pretty early on.  I hate Channing Tatum as a leading man (almost as much as I hate Marlon Wayans in general, and I loved Damon Wayans in the ‘90s and love Damon Wayans, Jr. on Happy Endings, so don’t think I have some Wayans vendetta), and I know his portrayal of Duke is a major part of what made The Rise of Cobra such a failure.  And if it wasn’t, Tatum’s acting is at least symbolic of what made that film so bad:  lack of commitment.  Everything in that film was so disingenuous, so half-baked, and so poorly executed that I was surprised that a sequel came out in as little as four years (even accounting for the almost year-long delay).  I don’t think Tatum is a terrible actor (he was okay in Haywire), but he can’t really headline a film where he’s supposed to be a dominant personality.  He just doesn’t commit to his lines and most of the time I just don’t believe his head’s in the game of making movies.

G.I. Joe - Retaliation - Jonathan Pryce

Donald Trump on G.I. Joe’s President: “Zartan should’ve released his birth certificate long ago.”

Retaliation‘s casting choices are so much stronger than the last.  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the new face of the franchise is a smart move for G.I. Joe and, arguably, for The Rock’s career as well.  He’s got a screen presence fifty to one hundred times greater than Channing Tatum on his best day, and even if he’s not a classically trained actor, he would have to be a great performer to sell stupid lines like “Let’s kick that ass” with any sort of integrity.  Jonathan Pryce (the best holdover from the first G.I. Joe) does a great job as Zartan, the nanotech master of disguise pretending to be the President of the United States, and even though he’s so British-looking, his accents were convincing enough.  Bruce Willis was a canny choice as the original G.I. Joe, and he plays his part well without being too distracting.

The most important victory that Retaliation can lay claim to is that none of the action is a tumbling mess or failure.  Even with all the future tech, the action scenes never moved so far into unrestrained idiocy that I was ever at risk of completely falling out of the movie.

Having said all of that, I can’t in my right mind give Retaliation an overall good final score.  Despite some big ideas, the script is unambitious and clumsy overall.  There is so little character development, basic lip service to The Rock’s Roadblock and almost none to speak of for D.J. Cotrona’s Flint or Adrianne Palicki’s Lady Jaye — the Rock’s alleged co-stars — that it was hard for my mind not to wander away quite a few times.  For a little while, I thought a lot about chair ergonomics and how it was good that the theatre seats weren’t very comfortable or else I probably would have fallen asleep.  And I’m not one of those people who casually misses parts of movies; I had to pee really bad for the last half-hour of The Hulk (the Ang Lee one), but I still stuck it out even though by that point no ending could possibly have saved that ridiculous catastrophe.

G.I. Joe:  Retaliation is trash.  It’s a trashy movie, and you know it, and I know it, and we all know it going in.  I didn’t really want to go see it, but I, for various reasons involving false friends and yet more Malaysian judicial canings, saw it anyway.  And that’s the power of opening on weekends with no direct competition.  I am in no way going to say that Retaliation is a good movie, but what you’ll see on the screen if you wind up going is an ever-so-slightly better version of what you should have expected.

G.I. Joe:  Retaliation final score:  5.5


On the Edge

-It’s nice to see the great Walton Goggins in more movies, and it’s also nice to see that his hair transplant is working out.

-Why the hell wasn’t Flint wearing a beret in this movie?  That’s one of the only reasons I remember his character from the ‘80s with any detail and it would’ve at least set him apart visually.

-On costuming choices, I also wish they had kept Jinx in a red suit in the ninja mountain scene.

-Given that this happened without premeditation, it seems ironically fitting that my Retaliation review ended on a discussion of holding in pee.

-And just for fun, here’s more Brendan Fraser:

 


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