G.I. Joe: Retaliation Review
NO JGL return, But the RZA Plays Blind Master
There’s a reappearing theme of patriotism in this year’s action films. Who didn’t love being an American when Harrison Ford shouted, “Get off my plane!” and punched Gary Oldman in the face? Gangster Squad had elements of service and devotion to Los Angeles, The Last Stand displayed a local police force of an Arizona border-town as the last force in America who could possibly stop a drug lord, A Good Day to Die Hard showed us that Russia can’t survive without a curmudgeonly NYC cop and Olympus Has Fallen is all about America, the White House, freedom, America and liberty. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the PG-13 cover of Olympus Has Fallen — it’s intense and exciting without cursing, blood and carnage with all the patriotism, movie stars, violence, flat jokes and terribly scrambled political commentary (Angry Birds in the nuclear war room? No).
G.I. Joe: Retaliation improves on what its series predecessor failed: the Joes are a red-blooded American force in this film (how can’t you with Channing Tatum, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis?) whereas the first series entry pandered to the bland, inclusive and ELE crowd making the Joes an international squad. After all, I remember the slogan:”G.I. Joe — a real American hero” from all the toys, merchandise, cartoon, etc. I didn’t want another studio appeasement to appeal to an international crowd for what is so clearly, obviously and synonymously American. We wouldn’t want an American, Canadian, Columbian, Algerian or North Korean Harry Potter, would we? Harry Potter is British and I don’t believe the BS the studio feeds me otherwise. Wolverine will always be Canadian, Sherlock Holmes will always be British, Anna Karenina will always be Russian, Black Panther will always Wakandan, Clark Kent will always be Kryptonian and Anderson Cooper will always have stark white hair. But enough about patriotism…
…Because famed Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce plays the president of the United States America — which would make sense if any part of America was still a British colony when his character was born and he was born in that exact part of America (John Tyler was the first American-born president. TIL). Not only is a foreign-born man playing the president of the United States of America in a G.I. Joe film, but he gives the best performance of the entire two-film franchise! Pryce nails every scene as Zartan/ President: his role is almost what Robert Downey Jr. might say call “a dude playing a dude disguiiiised as anotha dude!” That kind of acting talent is impressive even in a movie franchise based off of a toy.
Also shining in this film is Walton Goggins as the warden. Goggins is the best part of “Justified” when Patton Oswalt doesn’t show up (Am I right, Constable Bob fans?). Goggins has an extended cameo as a warden of a prison so far underground in Germany that nobody has jurisdiction over him or his prison. His performance is campy, over-the-top and flashy. I love it when it’s done well — I might have believed he was an NFL wide receiver if he came off any more arrogant.
I must admit I had low, low expectations when I learned when Jon M. Chu, the director of the Justin Bieber “documentary” (and two installments of the abysmal Step Up franchise), “won” the director job for this film. Perhaps I shouldn’t have judged him right away (everybody’s gotta eat, right?). Chu handles the action scenes very well. I suppose shooting all that street dancing translated quite well into intense, boisterous action if this film is to be considered. However, Chu’s greatest strength is his writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland and upcoming Deadpool and Zombieland sequel). Chu does an admirable job with a great script. Reese and Wernick are exactly what the franchise needed — two non-studio exec types whose first objective is to always write an entertaining narrative. Their idea to use a completely new team (save Channing Tatum’s Duke, Ray Park’s Snake Eyes, Byung-hun Lee’s Storm Shadow and Pryce) was a great idea to jolt and boost the franchise. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s presence was sorely missed, but the new crew proved to outshine a crew from the first featuring Marlon Wayans (I’ll admit Requiem for a Dream shines on his resumé but all he has left to offer is White Chicks for still-awake-at-two-am.-and-watching-TBS crowd). The unfortunate thing about this movie (and my greatest criticism) is Channing Tatum — and it isn’t his fault. Time for a quick SPOILER:
Still with me?
Channing Tatum’s character Duke returns only to be killed off approximately ten minutes into the movie. His presence is pointless — he shows up to offer continuity and as a rallying motivation for the remaining Joes to keep on keepin’ on. I ask the studio, “Shouldn’t the death of the hundreds of fallen Joes have been enough of a motivation than to drag poor Channing Tatum off his “Sexiest Man Alive” pedestal because you made him sign a multi-picture deal before he could act?” How many girlfriends were disappointed when they dropped eight dollars to see the love of their lives for a total of ten minutes? I imagine they feel a refund is well-deserved. While this stunt is admittedly gutsy by the studio, Tatum is just too big of a star right now than to get built up as the protagonist only to die as the film’s dramatic hook. His death is pretty heroic though, so there’s that.
The most bizarre move of the film is casting Wu Tang Clan leader RZA as Blind Master. This kind of performance should be offensive…somehow. However, RZA takes his role so professionally serious that I won’t question it further. After The Man with the Iron Fists, I’ve learned to just go with it.
This is a rare sequel that makes improvements on the first offering. Universal Studios is to be commended for not giving on a franchise that has so much potential and this sequel has given the franchise a fighting chance to make the third film a near-unprecedented best in a trilogy. The film’s primary stars (the Joes) are each formulaic and unexciting. This film excels with a great villain, intense action and less over-acting. While the COBRA lapel pins are really annoying, you’ll still enjoy the ride if you’re in the mood for action and gadgets.