If G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t the worst movie ever made, it’s certainly not for a lack of trying. This is 110 minutes of sweaty macho swagger, which would have been fine on its own, but when you pair it with a plot out of Manchurian Candidate and characters from an episode of The Power Rangers, it makes you wonder if Larry the Cable Guy was busy the weekend they shot it.
Then again, you’re only as good as your source material. There was a time when G.I. Joe was a plastic doll, an action figure that proved more popular than the Vietnam War, which was raging while 12-year-olds went on search-and-destroy missions in the back yard. I, myself, once thrilled at the discovery of my own birthday-issued “G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip,” a bearded Joe whose fingers curled into a rubbery fist whenever he dropped his government-issued M16 to go kill Charlie with his bare hands. He and my plastic Evil Knievel, riding a Harley-Davidson XR750, managed to get into some serious scrapes out there in the Arizona desert, but that was before several iterations of a Saturday morning cartoon that threw the franchise into Power Rangers country, which is probably what Shakespeare was thinking about when he penned the line, “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
In this sequel to 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) is leading “The Joes” on a mission to seize Pakistan’s nukes, following that country’s fictional descent into total anarchy. I got a chuckle at this carefully choreographed “surgical rescue” – which amounted to killing every Pakistani within a 15-mile radius. There were no distinctions between “friend” or “foe,” just thermal targets ripe for a toe tag. Next to these guys, Seal Team Six looks like the Girl Scouts. Anybody want a cookie?
The “Joes,” led by Roadblock, Duke (Channing Tatum) and their sister-in-arms, Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), quickly discover they’ve been set up, as another squad – even more secret than themselves – wipes out everybody but our three heroes, who vow revenge – just as soon as they get out of Pakistan. Ah, but do they know that the president (Jonathan Pryce) isn’t the president? He’s really Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) wearing a body suit made to look like the president. That’s why the last of the Jo-hicans will have their hands full when they get back to the U.S., just as soon as they finish walking out of Pakistan.
I can’t remember five minutes that went by when I wasn’t asking myself, “What the hell am I watching?” Movies where burly-chested warriors grunt “hoorah” (or “oorah” if they’re marines) aren’t written for rocket scientists, but how dumb does a movie have to get before it’s affixed with a warning that says, “Nobody above the age of nine will be admitted without a kid.” I took my wife to this Saturday morning cartoon and kept wondering when she would turn to me and say, “Let’s sneak into Evil Dead.” This is not a movie you should watch sober.
And there’s where the mystery remains. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland), this movie should be self-consciously hilarious. In fact, if anything keeps this movie from spontaneously combusting, it has to be the fact that its cast and characters don’t take themselves too seriously. But when you’re popping Pakistanis in one scene, water-boarding the president in another and dealing with Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) – before involving characters like Blind Master (RZA), Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) – you have to make a choice: play it straight or get ironic with a vengeance.
Like Mr. Miaggi said, “You karate do? Okay. You karate no do? Okay. You karate so-so? Squish, like grape.” Zombieland was a masterpiece trash-‘er piece on the zombie genre, but something went wrong on the way to the apocalypse: Director John M. Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) was brought in, and Chu shot it like he believed it. The result is a movie that feels a lot less like Zombieland and a whole lot more like watching the Wachowskis blowing their Matrix credit on Speed Racer. Instead of making fun of the genre, we’ve got Gus Van Sant down here doing his shot-for-shot remake of Psycho – and it hurts.
The only thing I really liked about this movie was the cast. Who can’t watch Dwayne Johnson and not love the guy? Johnson is the closest thing we have to an Arnie for the 21st Century. He’s big, overly developed, probably wouldn’t beat a blood-doping scandal but charismatic, earnest and likable. Cast as his sidekick, Duke, Channing Tatum doesn’t chafe at the supporting role, which was probably cast before he became what he is at the moment: Channing @#$# Tatum. Arianne Palicki also does a nice job of fleshing out the thankless job of being “the warrior girl who wants to be taken seriously.” I thought she was terrific, much better than the role she was assigned. Jonathan Pryce (whose face still evokes the saxophone solo in “Take Five” from those old Infiniti ads) is iconic, both as hero and villain.
If you’re thinking of storming the White House but you can’t, because Gerard Butler is doing that in Olympus Has Fallen – another Diehard ripoff – the least you can do is bring in Bruce Willis, who has made a career out of slapping some color into the cheeks of cardboard plots. While he’ll never get credit for doing so, Willis does a terrific job of playing General Joe Colton, a character who just knew something was up.
If you can keep yourself from walking out of the theater before his character shows up, there are payoffs for sticking around. Willis seems to have one foot in Silly Land and the other in a Reality similar to our own, which may be why he spends some of his time giving the script what it wants (a stiff and dependable supporting character) while otherwise reacting to the nuttiness of the plot with the humor this movie so desperately needs.
After almost two hours of what is essentially a Saturday-morning cartoon, I left the theater with much the same feeling I get when I see an Adam Sandler film. I spent the first hour trying not to walk out, then spent the second hour accepting my fate and enjoying the ride for what it is. One of the film’s unexpected highlights is the dumb luck of being released at a time when North Korea is actually acting like Dr. Evil’s hidden volcano lair.
As the plot involves the theme of nuclear disarmament, the audience broke into laughter when “the president of North Korea” was introduced as one of the “group of eight,” not because the G8 doesn’t – and never will – include North Korea, but because Kim Jung-On has become the poster boy of nuclear disarmament.
There’s also a really cool scene of a major world city being blown to kingdom come, which is – perhaps – the best scene in the whole flick.
I give this movie two stars, reflecting its lackluster story, its tedious A-Team violence and its castration of the willing suspension of disbelief. Forget about swearing sweet revenge – just as soon as we all walk out of Pakistan. The moment one of your characters, standing in the middle of a desert, announces the humidity is “68 percent,” you’ve got a credibility problem that can’t quite be fixed, not even if you tweet Storm Shadow and the rest of the Power Rangers. That’s when you call in Bruce Willis and hope he feels like screaming, “Yippee Ki-yay, mother@#$#.”
– Bill Kilpatrick