I find it difficult to discuss Jon M. Chu’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation without getting into the details of its troubled production. Initially set for release in June 2012, the hardly awaited sequel to Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) was pushed back a full ten months after Battleship (2012), another Hasbro property, tanked at the box office. The official reason given for the last-minute delay: the film was being converted for 3D showings.
Now, there are several ways to interpret this announcement. We could, for instance, take it at face value that Paramount just spent a year and a small fortune reducing the quality of its product. It’s well known 3D post-conversions look like crap, and indeed donning polarised RealD shades adds little to G.I. Joe: Retaliation, except perhaps in the breathtaking aerial battle between Snake Eyes (Ray Parks) and Cobra’s nameless red ninjas. More to the point, Chu offered to shoot with 3D cameras, and the studio declined. As a result, the director of Step Up 3D composed this latest offering with a 2D perspective in mind, making for a somewhat headache-inducing experience during the more frenetic action sequences.
It seems to me more likely that G.I. Joe: Retaliation had to be retooled in reaction to poor test screenings. Unfortunately, much like 3D post-conversion, the process generally leads to a mediocre product because test audiences refuse to be challenged, focusing on momentary nitpicks instead of the overall journey. From the extraneous footage showcased during the end credits, it appears their feedback largely focused on screen time getting extended for the white characters (even those who die in the first act) while minorities like Jinx (Elodie Yung) and Flint (DJ Cotrona) get sidelined in favour of redundant exposition for the slow kids in the class.
Consider the scene in which RZA of all people dresses up like a Shinto monk to explain everyone’s motivations in a ham-fisted performance that borders on outright racism. How much more engaging would the set piece that follows have been if G.I. Joe: Retaliation had instead invited us to ponder what Snake Eyes is doing in the mountains, where he got his new sidekick, and why he’s taking his arch nemesis alive. Certainly, the revelation regarding Storm Shadow (Lee Byung Hun) and the murder of his Ashikage master would have felt more earned, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick might have spared us the endless repetition of the words “honour”, “honoured”, and “honorable”.
Mind you, I appreciate the filmmakers drawing inspiration from Larry Hama’s run on the comic book series. Chu even throws in a tribute to the famed silent issue, G.I. Joe #21, by delivering a fifteen minute action extravaganza devoid of any dialogue. It’s a fantastic sequence that starts with a martial arts duel between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, turns into aerial ballet as Cobra ninjas pursue our hero across mountaintops, and ends, of course, with a great, big explosion. I like the small details emphasising a sense of humanity on both sides, such as when our favourite white-clad assassin tries to grab his faceless minions to save their lives.
It occurs to me the villains share an odd sense of camaraderie this time around. Sure, Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) screws over Destro in the opening act, wipes out the G.I. Joe organisation, making the handful of survivors renegades, and then blows up London with a satellite cannon, but I find it endearing that he’d call mass-murdering pyromaniac Firefly (Ray Stevenson) his old friend and that they’d both carry their wounded associate Storm Shadow after yet another explosion. I also dig all the playful quips from the shape-shifting Zartan, who keeps the President’s appearance throughout G.I. Joe Retaliation, presumably because Jonathan Price makes for a more compelling lunatic here than Arnold Vosloo in the previous instalment.
It’s worth noting though that, unlike G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, this new movie features equally interesting heroes, capitalising on Dwayne Johnson’s natural charisma as Roadblock and later on Bruce Willis’ deadpan wit as General Joe Colton, the original G.I. Joe. The latter’s got a nice dynamic with Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), who carries a chip on her shoulder as a result of the U.S. military’s institutional machismo. This may seem an awkward trait to give a character who spends most of the runtime prancing around in tight, revealing outfits, but it provides G.I. Joe: Retaliation a much needed dose of reality amidst all the action-packed madness.
Look, I’m not claiming the movie is, by any means, profound or even smart. The way, for instance, Zartan cheekily tricks world leaders into ceding their nuclear armament reaches uncanny levels of nonsense. However, G.I. Joe: Retaliation surpasses its predecessor in every fashion, which is why it breaks my heart to see Chu’s efforts at a bright but earnest action thriller be reduced to shallow, under-ambitious mush by meddling test audiences. One usually doesn’t expect a sense of authorship from a mid-level blockbuster based on toy soldiers dressed like the Village People, but here’s hoping for a director’s cut.