Friday, 5 April 2013

GI Joe: Retaliation Review

My relationship with the original GI Joe: Rise of Cobra is, as Facebook would say, "complicated". It's the first film my brother and I really fell out over - he believed it was a fun film with some crappy bits while I found it a crappy film with some fun bits (it's since been replaced by the first Hobbit, which he thinks is excellent but I think is just very very good).
Well, David, I take it back. I take it all back! Rise of Cobra is definitely not a crappy film with some fun bits. That's Retaliation.

Buried somewhere in the new film there is an actual sequel to the first movie. But there's at least two other, different films nailed on to it.
Whenever the villains are on screen - the mask-faced Cobra Commander, the master of disguise Zartan, the ninja who died last time but we're going to pretend he didn't Storm Shadow, and Ray Stevenson's new explosives guy Firefly - we are very much in the universe of Rise of Cobra. This is a universe, lest we forget, in which "Doctor Mindbender" is a viable name! There is ridiculous technology, there are bright primary colours, there's an overabundance of shiny CGI, people are evil just because they are evil, their schemes are totally insane, and the dialogue and acting are gloriously hammy. Jonathan Price, playing Zartan playing the President, is a joy to behold - he's having the time of his life and it's infectious. When he's on-screen you can't help but enjoy it. This movie - the one that's actually a sequel - is great fun.

But there's also a gritty militaristic reboot going on here. Unlike the primary-coloured film the bad-guys are in, the good-guys' film is drenched in sweat and grease and dirt, and everything's shot with that washed-out, grainy look. The combat is all shouting and running and firing, and they seem to kill a hell of a lot of people (they're pretty brutal about it too). Gone is the cartoon violence and accelerator suits - replaced by a hail of gunfire and not much else. The good-guys' film wants to be Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker, except for a bit in the middle where it wants to be a spy film and the bit where Bruce Willis turns up as a veteran (read "NRA nutjob") and it suddenly wants to be RED.
To go with this new, grittier feel, there's an entirely new premise, too. Remember how the GI Joes were a multinational team of experts in different fields, equipped with amazing technology and a massive futuristic base under the Sahara desert, who dealt with the problems that were too big for any one nation? Well, now they're an elite American team of American soldiers, working with only-slightly-modified American military equipment out of a standard army camp in the Mojave desert in America, who perform the same kinds of operations as normal American soldiers and take their orders directly from the President. Of America.
Also, wasn't this organisation a secret? Because everyone seems to know about them now.

It almost feels like it's an entirely different group of people fighting Cobra this time round. In fact that's exactly what it is, because none of the good-guys from the first film return except Channing Tatum's Duke, who gets unceremoniously killed off in the first quarter of an hour (not a spoiler).
Instead our protagonists are the Rock, and two people who are not the Rock. Dwayne Johnson plays Roadblock, who everyone just calls "Block" (yet nobody ever asks what the Block is cooking), and the other two play other people. There's nothing wrong with the performances but, just in case you're missing the subtext, nobody makes any kind of impression except the Rock. I genuinely can't even remember their names.
Johnson, as always, is dripping with charisma - but even his enormous shoulders can't hold up the whole film on their own. It's partly that he has to play intense and serious the whole time. It would really help if he had someone to play off - like that Channing Tatum guy, for instance. Those two have fantastic chemistry, and when Duke dies (not a spoiler) you really miss the buddy movie that could have been.

There is actually one other returning character: Snake Eyes the mute ninja. Yes, this team of American army-grunts still have a ninja for some reason. Except Snake Eyes isn't really in the same film as the good-guys. He's not even in the same film as the bad-guys. He's in some impossibly bad martial arts movie, along with Storm Shadow, a new (and totally unnecessary) ninja called Jinx, and some guy who's apparently named after a cigarette paper. We're suddenly in a dojo that's also a garden, and people are slamming their swords into the ground and proclaiming that they have been shamed or betrayed - sometimes both! It's laughably bad even before you take RZA's horrible acting into account. I'd probably believe it was a deliberate parody if it wasn't bookended by the super-serious war movie parts.

One would hope, then, that this is all in service of the action. The three different films at play here don't gel at all, but they should offer a rare combination of ridiculous doomsday weapons, intense, visceral gunplay, and awesome sword-fights. But Retaliation doesn't deliver on any of them.
Say what you like about Rise of Cobra (and, believe me, I have), but you could always tell what was going on. Here, every single action scene is torn to shreds by choppy editing and chaotic cameras. I honestly couldn't tell if the ninjas' fight-choreography was any good because it was shot so messily. Likewise, when Duke dies (still not a spoiler) I wasn't actually sure who had just died until later. There's another character who dies but I'm not even sure when or how it happened!
Even the doomsday weapons disappoint. You see a couple of shots of a city exploding in the trailers, and it looks fantastic. But that's all there is - that same couple of shots - in the entire film. It's just empty spectacle, too. We cut to it, then we cut back, and it's never touched on again.

GI Joe: Retaliation is an ugly, clunky, messy film. It has some great bits (though they generally make you root for the bad-guys) - but the heroes are too bland, the tone is all over the place, and the action is mostly incoherent and actually kind of dull.
On the plus side, it's really made me appreciate the first one. I'm ready to embrace the fun of that movie - crappy bits and all!