Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Official Black Owl Review of "GI Joe: Retaliation"

There’s something we need to get out of the way first.  I am a huge fan of GI Joe.   My first GI Joe was when I was four or five and from somewhere I ended up with a bearded 12” Land Adventurer.  The gear I had I now know was from one of the foreign weapons sets; he wasn’t new, and I assume my folks found him at a garage sale or swap meet or something of the kind.  I got a few more as the years went by, and even an Adventure Team Headquarters and did like all boys did with their Joes: lots of adventures in the outdoors.  There was no narrative though, just missions from inside my head. 

Then in 1982, my buddy Brett had this little Star Wars figure sized soldier, but with much better articulation.  I asked him what it was, and he told me it was a GI Joe.  I immediately went looking on  the next trip to K-Mart and soon his Rock n’ Roll joined forces with my Zap.  I became infatuated with these toys, and since Star Wars figures died out after Jedi, it really became my main toy focus.

As most of you know, when I should have been putting away such things, I kept up.  I found out well into my Real American Hero collecting that there was both a cartoon AND a comic book!  Now, I had already built an ongoing overall story for my Joes and COBRAs based on the filecards, and I didn’t always agree with what happened in the official stuff (what do you mean Snake Eyes is mute?) but I was pulled even further into that world, preferring the comics.  They were fun without being funny, but certainly had their dark moments for what should have been just a commercial for toys.  Snake Eyes’ parents killed in a car accident?  Cobra Commander’s son tries to shoot the despot himself?  Trucial Abyssmia and a Joe team body count of 16?  The Vietnam vets on the team met resistance and derision from the American people when they came home?  Larry Hama gave us some messages about the reality of war, while still showing the camaraderie of the fighting man, and the honor of defending something greater than yourself.  Yes, I slowed down on the toy purchases when Hasbro decided that neon yellow was somehow a military camouflage, but I kept reading those comics.

And I joined the Army. 

In 1994, the 12-year run of Marvel Comics GI Joe came to an end, and I was deciding if this whole uniform wearing thing was for me.  Issue #155 was the last one, and featured the mute Snake Eyes finally getting to tell the story in the form of a letter to a young man who is considering joining the Army.  The entire thing is devastating and blunt as to the costs of military service, but again speaks to that camaraderie, asking what other job can engender such loyalty.  Then comes the line that quite literally changed my life: “But then, this bearing of arms in defense of the Constitution of the United States is not just a profession, per se;

To this day, trying to quote that out loud brings a catch to my voice.  In the pages of this little toy ad, I found the words that described what I was beginning to feel about the meaning of my service.  It is a feeling that has stuck with me through good and bad, and led to the fact I have kept putting that uniform on each morning for the next two decades.  On those days (and there have been many) when it seemed like there was more bad that good in my Firm, I would read that issue and hold out just a little more.*  I also kept up with those characters as they went through some different writers and forms and was quite enthusiastic when I heard there would be a movie back in 2009.

Then I got “Rise of Cobra.”  I am certainly not expecting “Saving Private Ryan” from a Joe film, and sure there should be some fun, some SF style weapons, and some over the top characters.   But there is a heart to GI Joe, a feel from the familiarity with these characters I have known for 30 years that was so completely missing from RoC.  My disdain was not objective.  As I have told others, had this movie been something called “Super Fast Future Soldiers” I would have likely gotten a kick out of the B-Movie with the blockbuster budget.  But they called it GI Joe, and I cannot overstate how much venom I sling at this movie.

It made money though, and got a sequel.  Grudgingly, I started following their progress and hearing things I wanted to hear.  The original cast was gone; there would be machine guns instead of lasers; characters like Joe Colton (the ORIGINAL GI Joe) and the Blind Master (never a figure, but a key support role in the comic) would appear.  I got interested.  The trailer hit with the remix of “Seven Nation Army” playing behind it, and I was blown away.  Plus, Adrianne Palicki (sigh). 

Then the movie’s release was delayed nine months.  Reshoots?  Bad test audiences?  I was afraid we were getting the same crap as the first.  When the new promotional campaign started for this release though, well, dammit, things looked…right.  When the release came, I waited a week so I could see it with my brother-in-law, someone who I know has as much love for these characters as I do.  Yesterday, he in his GI Joe team t-shirt, and I with a COBRA emblem emblazoned on my chest sat down to see GI Joe: Retaliation.  Here, a thousand words in, is my review.

This movie was made for me.  It is almost as if Jon M. Chu picked up the phone, called me, said, “understanding we can’t get rid of the first movie, how do we make this one actually seem like a G.I. Joe movie for forty year old men whose fandom stretches across at least five different incarnations of the toy and comic?”   We got this.  It is not always smart; it is certainly not militarily accurate; a couple of performances are awful, and at least one character almost requires an existing knowledge of the source material to see why they are even there.  In its heart and soul however, this is GI Joe.  It is fun, filled with adventure, and has characters who are quite recognizably adaptations of their 3.75” counterparts.  Perhaps it requires a love of GI Joe to really get into, but as a fan I will take that over a movie (like the first) that required you to know nothing to try to enjoy.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I am getting into specifics now, and spoilers abound.

We open with something which could be right out of an issue of GI Joe: Special Missions.  A squad of Joes is infiltrating the DMZ in Korea to extract a defector.  The scene shows us a Flint who goes off mission to shine on North Korea by replacing the guards’ national flag with the GI Joe flag.  It is arrogant, dangerous,  cocky, indicates prior planning on Flint’s part to even have the flag to use…and is exactly the Flint we first see in the Marvel run.  Remember, in issue #37 when he debuts everyone thinks he is a complete jerk.  It’s some 30 issues before an actual relationship develops between Flint and Lady Jaye, and several missions before we see him grow into the leader he will be.  This film gives us inklings of that, and I was pleased. 

Actual Russian Agent
The Lady Jaye in the film though is really more from the short-lived Devil’s Due Press “GI Joe: Reloaded” series.  We see her as a competent and talented officer with experience in intelligence and weapons.  I have seen a couple complaints regarding the fact that she twice uses her feminine wiles to accomplish a mission.  I have two things to say on that: If you don’t think actual female intelligence soldiers use their femininity as a weapon, you are naïve; secondly, the situation does not speak to the objectification of those women, but rather the stupidity of the men whom they target.  Why do spies like the actual Russian agent Anna Chapman exist?   Because they get results.  Men with information seem predisposed toward giving their secrets up to a pretty face (General Petraeus, anyone?).  I think this movie showing Lady Jaye using her attributes to her advantage is less about her, and more about the men who fall for it.  She’s no damsel in distress, and it is a better movie for it.
Made up Hollywood Sexism

Cobra Commander is still “Rex” from the first film, but quickly dons a more comic book evoking costume and plays from behind the scenes as the Commander should.  I admit I prefer a Commander we can commiserate with a bit more, but you believe he’s running a ruthless terrorist organization, so overall he works for me.  Such an improvement from RoC as well.

Bruce Willis plays more of a role than I expected as Joe Colton, and I was very pleased to see that character included.  Indeed, he rounds up some of his old friends at one point.  I don’t know the intention behind that, but these older guys who were Colton’s old team?  Sounds like a nod to the GI Joe Adventure Team to me, and I really appreciated that.  His “I’m an old school soldier” interaction with Lady Jaye is amusing, and pays off nicely when you learn the real reason he’s picking at her.  I have heard people say Willis phones this one in; well, he acts like a generic action star.  Since he’s playing the world’s first action figure brought to life, the prototype for many a young man as to what action star meant, I prefer to think he’s not being typical but rather archetypical. 

The obvious star of the film though is Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock.  I initially had a moment’s reservation, as Johnson is not the ethnicity of the original character.  He brings a charisma a physicality to this role though which make it undoubtedly our favorite M2-Manpacking gourmet chef.  I have enjoyed Johnson’s performance in other movies, particularly the much maligned “Southland Tales” but he brings an earnestness to his roles you don’t find in a typical action star.  That and his undeniable star power pay off for GI Joe.  His interaction with Channing Tatum’s Duke is delightful and fun, and gives a sense of gravitas to the entire affair when Duke is killed.

Yep, they kill Duke.  Indeed of the characters retained from the first film, only Cobra Commander, Snake Eyes, and Storm Shadow make it to the end of this  film (maybe Destro, time will tell).  For not being a reboot, this film does a great job of cleansing the pallet from Rise of Cobra. Ironically, I started to get a feel for Tatum’s Duke, for whom I had NO love from the first movie, which does show just what a director who cares about your subject matter can do for you.

So, what doesn’t work?  Well, the method by which COBRA gets rid of the world’s nuclear weapons is a bit contrived, but should have some interesting ramifications in the next film (like how much fallout we’re going to have to deal with from the detonation of hundreds of nuclear warheads in our atmosphere).   RZA is almost laughable in his delivery as the Blind Master, and luckily exists only to deliver exposition in a weird semi-Asian accent.  Speaking of accents, Ray Stevenson I believe is trying to affect a deep-South American accent for Firefly, but comes off somewhere between Australian and cockney.  He’s a great presence in the film otherwise, but should probably have just gone with his regular voice.

Was the bar perhaps set so low by the first film that I am willing to give a few passes to this one?  Perhaps.  Was I just so damn happy to see Flint and Lady Jaye get their turn on the big screen that I ignore some stuff?  Perhaps.  Is this a movie that stands on its own without knowing the history?  Maybe not.  I don’t care.  I loved it; it pushed pretty much every button I as a Joe fan wanted, and I really hope Jon Chu gets a chance to do another. He brings a great aesthetic to the fight scenes that is not the new Hollywood standard of quick cuts and wobbly cam making it impossible to follow what’s going on.  Despite the lack of blood, the battles feel very visceral and often realistic, and the training these actors did with real soldiers shows (particularly in Adrianne Palicki). 

This movie does for me what Joe Carnahan’s “The A-Team” did for me.  It gives me a nice group dynamic with respect for the source material, enough action to make it count, and yet still at its heart the idea that we as fans of the original want to have a lot of fun.  There will be no Oscars going home with anyone based on this movie, but it is going to be a default “what do I feel like watching?” movie for this fan for a long time. 

Now, how do we get them to fix the Baroness?

*At the 2013 Emerald City Comic Con I actually got Larry Hama to sign my ORIGINAL, oft-read #155 and tell him what it had done for me.  I was able to thank HIM for MY service!

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