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.]