“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” surprisingly varied mix of stupidity, noise, and well-calibrated action

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Director Jon M. Chu is something of a 34-year old wunderkind, rising quickly through the ranks of USC’s film program, picking up countless awards along the way and landing some fairly plum film opportunities. What does his resume include? Well, Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, and, hem, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. But to discard his works on the generally corny, corporate nature of their origins is also to ignore one of the great propulsive talents of escapist cinema today. Perhaps its his origins as a dancer and the fact that three of his four films to date have depicted this topic, but the guy has an immaculate sense of how to convey in-camera geography and, very simply, how to make an image *move*. His fluid style as a director has gone a long way to make his products stand out in my eyes.

So, in a weird way, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the culmination of all that he’s worked towards so far. Working with considerably bigger toys and considerably bigger stars than his past works, Chu still manages to telegraph everything that works about him as a filmmaker and everyone that works about the “GI Joe” brand, silly though it may be. I’m shocked, guys. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is kinda awesome.

There is, as always, the bare-bones plot on-paper that manages to seem much more convoluted on-screen: there’s a big, bad, evil organization named Cobra that wants big, bad, evil world domination and stuff. Their first step in achieving this goal? Kidnap the president and post an impostor in his place. Their second step? Annihilate as many G.I. Joes as possible, seeing as they’re the most powerful commandos on American soil. But in doing this, they don’t quite manage to take out all of them — leaving alive a small squad led by the hulking Roadblock (played by America’s favorite hulk, Dwayne Johnson), the silent samurai Snake Eyes, and the aptly named Joe (Bruce Willis in his ninth screen appearance in nine months). Their goals: revenge and exposure.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation doesn’t want to be the biggest, loudest action film of them all. Rather, it serves to provide an unusually varied sandbox for a lot of different concepts to fuse together: a sequence where The Rock wields a chain-gun may only be five minutes from an extended samurai duel or a hi-tech prison breakout. One-note the action is not, with Chu putting distinctive touches on every sequence. No doubt the most impressive is a set-piece, completely dialogue-free for about eight minutes, in which two samurais break into a mountain-side compound, fight their way through, and make off with a key villain while rappelling alongside the mountain — engaging in sword and gunfights with their pursuers. It’s a rare moment where special-effects and 3D technology are employed to create something that has genuinely never been seen before.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation has been the subject of unusually heightened scrutiny due to Paramount’s decision to push its release from June 2012 to late this March — with some speculating that it was in order to nab more scenes with the massively famous co-star Channing Tatum (false, he’s killed off 20 minutes in), and others bemoaning that it was for a hack-job 3D conversion (false, the 3D is pretty superb). The film, however, betrays no gaping signs of outer interference or strife, as it clips along at a fairly solid rate.

The script by Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick doesn’t do much for the film, however. With that film they demonstrated a canny ear for snarky tone and subversion of typical genre-film structure, two things that aren’t given a whole lot of attention within the earnest, straightforward parameters that “G.I. Joe” represents as a brand. Some massive logistical gaps prevent the script from the structural air-tightness of their first work, as does the fact that, generally speaking, they aren’t writing lines for very smart characters.

The cast puts in predictably earnest efforts — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seems to get impossibly bigger with age as he refines his movie-star charm, Bruce Willis can still growl a one-liner or two, Friday Night Lights actress Adrianne Palicki plays a refreshingly headstrong eye-candy type, and Channing Tatum’s famously brief role is as charming as one could hope.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is no doubt the kind of cynically motivated, brand-oriented filmmaking that I despise as a trend. But, for whatever reason, it really clicks together just this once. The set-pieces are bold, the internal logic isn’t too ridiculous, and a genuine passion for the source material is evident with every explosion, every sword clank, and every god-awful catchphrase. B

 

[Afterword, 4/7/2013: One of the definite peaks of running this site and contributing to newspapers is the occasional attention it receives from higher figures in the film industry. As it happens, one of these recent figures turned out to be the director of this film himself, Jon M. Chu! He put the word out to his 552,000+ Twitter followers, something for which I’m very grateful and very pumped. Just thought I’d share.]

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“Spring Breakers” is actually a near-masterpiece. Genuinely. No joke. I am serious. This is my serious face.

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I’m not writing much lately. I know that.

I can attribute it to any number of factors: the growing pressures and responsibilities in my personal and academic life, the time I give over to athletics, pure laziness, et cetera. But why accept personal responsibility when I can pin it on an outside factor? The slate of films offered up in recent months seem less like genuine artistic expression than they do an extended conspiracy to kill my love for cinema. It has been a long winter. A crippling winter.

Spring is here.

My tastes have never overlapped much with that of shock artist/director Harmony Korine, whose body of work runs the gamut from his debut script, a film about an AIDS-addled sex-addict teenage skateboarder, to his recent film entitled, simply, Trash Humpers. I understand more the value of having artists like him around than the value of what they actually produce. So to see Korine make such a large leap to the mainstream with his new film, Spring Breakers, should come as more of a surprise. See, at first glance, Spring Breakers seems a product primed to satisfy the basest and crudest of audiences — advertised as a candy-colored fest of bikinis, hedonism, violence and pulsating music with the added hook of several Disney/soap-opera idols (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson) gone “bad”. In essence: four fairly innocent teenage girls go down to Florida for spring break and gradually lose that innocence. It was not marketed incorrectly.

What shocks most about Spring Breakers is just how much of this content Korine offers up to his audience, to the extent that scenes and lines literally begin to add up and repeat themselves. At first glance, it seems a move of laziness and faux artistry. To take this stance, however, is to ignore just what a dreamlike state Spring Breakers conjures for much of its run-time: a hypnotic blur of provocative images, bright colors, bashing sounds. It is by leaps and bounds one of the most experimental films to meet the projectors of major cineplexes in quite some time, creating remarkably avant-garde aesthetic choices out of seemingly the most accessible subject matter there is: a spring break gone wrong (and as such, very very right). Korine is often content to dial back straightforward plot mechanics and momentum in favor of montage, emphasizing mood and music in curious, often inventive places.

But back to those girls. The three previously-mentioned teen idols, plus director Harmony’s wife, the pink-haired Rachel Korine, serve as the audience stand-ins to introduce us to a world of rampant partying and minimal connection. Their work, both as eye-candy and actresses, is pretty fantastic, giving credence to even the most outrageous lines the film conjures up (“Suck that gun, Alien!”, “All this money makes me wet”, “Wake up little bitch, it’s spring break!”, etc). The actor that absolutely slaughters his role, however, elevating Spring Breakers to a new level of lurid looniness: James Franco. Seeing his work in more big-budget projects of late (read: the limp Oz reboot from a few weeks back) makes one forget just how capable Franco is of immersing himself in a role, and he does so wildly here: playing a gun-toting, gold-toothed, corn-rowed rapper named Alien. He plays the role with complete earnestness, conjuring countless catch-phrases and unforgettably goofy neuroses in the process. Alien bails the four girls out of prison when their drug possession lands them in trouble, taking them under his wing.

Curiously, of the several dozen peers of mine that caught the flick over the last few weekends, I’m the only one that liked it in any fashion. Their reasons included the perceived lack of plot, lack of message, the improbable ending, the trashy behavior of the protagonists, etc. When one begins to interpret Spring Breakers as a deeply moral film, however, mysteries begin to reveal themselves: the grating, repetitive party sequences seem less like “entertainment” than they do angry, abrasive criticism. The film is holding up a mirror to the outlandish, bratty behavior of my generation, triggering a complex reaction in me. Sure, I enjoyed the shit out of this movie on an entertainment level. But what does that say about me? Questions like this triggered a discomforting reflection on my own actions and cultural attitudes — and knowing that it was no accident is what convinces me of the greatness of this film.

For the score, Cliff Martinez (of Drive) teams up with brash dubstep musician Skrillex to hammer out compositions that, when need be, either shake the theater with noise or subtly pulse with tension. Funnily enough, it’s the music of Britney Spears that gives Spring Breakers a sequence for the ages: the girls and James Franco’s rapper sit down at a sunset-side piano and give a rendition of the ballad “Everytime”, which is intercut with footage of the characters gleefully shooting and killing rival thugs. It manages to navigate between finely-tuned entertainment, spiteful irony, parading obnoxiousness and bittersweet beauty. Drugged-out college students will hold hands and sing along to it at midnight screenings in 30 years. And honestly, given where I am as a person and given where I interpret the state of cinema to be in 2013, that’s a compliment of the highest order. A-