Let’s Find 5 Nice Things to Say About “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (Review)

starring: Dwayne Johnson, Adrianne Palicki, Bruce Willis, Channing Tatum, Jonathan Pryce, D.J. Cotrona, Byung-hun Lee

written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

directed by: John M. Chu

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language

I am not the target audience for G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Not even a little bit. I did not see the first movie, am completely unfamiliar with the mythology of its characters and their ridiculous drag queen-style nicknames (there’s even one called Jinx!), and view Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the kind of actor whose mere presence in a film typically indicates that it’s not for me (see also: Kevin James, Jason Statham, Katherine Heigl). With that said, I am aware that a very big audience does exist for it, an audience consisting entirely of people who are presumably not well-known among their friends for doing a great impression of Julianne Moore’s pharmacy freakout in Magnolia. And to those people I say: you will probably love G.I. Joe: Retaliation! Hell, even I didn’t hate it. I actually enjoyed myself some of the time! It is impressively (even boastfully) dumb, but also funny, entertaining, delivers the action goods in spades, and might even be in on the joke of its own dumbness.

Is that five things yet? No? Okay, let’s think of five other nice things to say about it:

  1. It has a good plot/dialogue sequence-to-action sequence ratio. One of my biggest pet peeves in action flicks is when they’re basically one giant prolonged action sequence with tiny one-minute dialogue intervals, adopting the porn movie structural model of inundating the audience with a nonstop stream of what they presumably came to see and viewing the rest as “filler.” I find this to be incredibly numbing, in action movies as well as in porn (there’s a reason we don’t watch them all the way through). I don’t think it’s possible to watch more than two or three action/”action” scenes in a row and still care about what you’re watching. Give me time to catch my breath/towel off and reset! G.I. Joe: Retaliation is good at this, which allows the true centerpiece action sequences – particularly one that plays out parkour-style along the side of a plummeting cliff – enough space to be more effective within the film’s context.
  2. Dwayne Johnson may be a lunkheaded formal wrestler, but he is a charming screen presence, sharing a complementarily dry sense of dude humor with costars Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis. He also knows his way around filling out a t-shirt: stretched to its absolute tautest, most tensile limit, moments away from literally exploding off of him. I would liken it to stopping an inflating balloon at that last millisecond before it bursts. Where does he get these t-shirts? They must be custom-made and I don’t think they’re cotton blends.
  3. Veteran character actor Jonathan Pryce has a ball in a hilariously ridiculous dual-role performance as the American president: one is secretly the movie’s shape-shifting villain using the president’s form to wage nuclear war, while the other is the real president bound and gagged in a subterranean bunker. The latter isn’t especially rewarding, but screenwriters Reese and Warnick (Zombieland) have written some deliciously awful zingers for the former, delivered by Pryce with relish and aplomb. “They call it waterboarding – but I’m never bored!” he exclaims at one point. Later, when Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) crashes a White House gala (featuring a cameo by James Carville cracking jokes so hacky he clearly wrote them himself) and introduces herself to the villain-president as a Fox News reporter, Pryce sizes up her bombshell figure and purrs, “That must be why you look so fair and balanced.” Hi-yo! And just wait till you see the climactic scene where the villain-president assembles a handful of the world’s leaders to incite global nuclear war. It is parodic enough to be a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker production, and Pryce clearly savors every moment.
  4. Speaking of Palicki: hey there, Tyra Collette! Anytime a Friday Night Lights alum appears on the big screen, it must be counted as a plus in the film’s favor. This film continues her post-FNL trajectory into butt-kicking heroine land, and why not? She is a giantess who doesn’t suffer fools. Her height is actually one of the only ways to recognize her from the days of her FNL feisty blonde bob; her lustrous brunette locks and deep tan in this film suggest a less sultry Eva Mendes. In addition to the butt-kicking and Fox News impersonating, there is also a scene that finds her randomly lecturing Johnson and D.J. Cotrona on the topic of “conversational fillers” such as like and um. So there’s actually a decent chance the 12-year-old boys clamoring to see this movie will also learn something from it! How radical!
  5. Channing Tatum utters the words, “You love my panties,” which is right up there with “I’ll beat your dick off” from 21 Jump Street for things I don’t mind listening to him say. So, uh, there’s that.

So there: five nice things! But let’s not get carried away: G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a marginally above-average popcorn movie at best, and at worst it is culturally irresponsible gun porn. It was originally scheduled for release last June, then postponed by nearly a year to capitalize on two trends: 3-D (it was upgraded) and Channing Tatum (his initially brief role was slightly beefed up). But there’s another trend that kicked into high gear shortly after Retaliation‘s original release date and has continued steadily ever since: mass shootings. Watching a film like this, which takes an almost Seussian glee in introducing its dizzyingly vast array of doomsday assault weapons, feels problematic, regressive, and tone-deaf. And that’s not the only thing in the movie that feels out of date: in one scene, a street character points at Palicki and calls her “Miley Cyrus.” Um helloooooo, Miley hasn’t been a brunette in like FOREVER.

G.I Joe: Retaliation is now playing nationwide. 

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