Friday, March 29, 2013

GI Joe Retaliation: Too inane to be witless

GI Joe Retaliation (2013) • View trailer 
One star. Rating: PG-13, for nonstop violence and occasional profanity
By Derrick Bang

This sorry excuse for a movie is for folks who find the Transformer series too intellectually stimulating.

Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson, foreground left) and his fellow Joes — from left, Lady
Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) — are running
out of options, before the evil Cobra Commander and his minions start doing Very
Bad Stuff to the world. Are we worried? Do we even care?
Honestly, even in the realm of dumb fluff, this new GI Joe entry is impressively pathetic. Rarely has so much money been squandered, to such little effect.

I’m surprised Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were brave enough to admit writing this dreck. The proverbial 10 chimpanzees with typewriters could have created something better. A random episode of the kid-oriented Power Rangers TV series has more dramatic heft.

Basing a movie series on a toy line does not, of necessity, require all concerned to fashion the result for undiscerning 5-year-olds. Any set of characters can be made captivating; indeed, Reese and Wernick have the advantage here of some established archetypes, just waiting for a bit of back-story.

But, clearly, that would have been asking too much. Instead, we labor through flimsy expository scenes and battle sequences that appear to have been assembled at random. I’ve no doubt, if director Jon M. Chu had simply tossed the script pages into the air and filmed them as they fell, that the result would have made more sense.

What we have, in fact, displays the dumb plotting, wooden acting and lunatic dialogue that grace afternoon TV soap operas, stitched Frankenstein-style to an A-production budget that delivers plenty of golly-gee-wow special effects.

Actually, GI Joe: Retaliation is nothing but special effects. This isn’t a movie; it’s a video game. And one that’s thuddingly predictable and insufferably boring, at that.

This isn’t even bad enough to be campy fun; it’s merely bad. When an actor of Jonathan Pryce’s stature, playing the U.S. president, is forced to utter corn-pone dialogue such as “Send in the Joes!” — and do it with a straight face — we know the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

This is one of those narratives that repeatedly has the actors tell us what their characters are doing, or about to do, or have done ... because, otherwise, it would be impossible to make sense of anything.

The storyline, such as it is: All-American soldier boy Duke (Channing Tatum), having proven himself in 2009’s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, leads an elite assault team of “Joes” that includes the über-strong Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), the mildly rebellious Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and expert snipers Mouse (Joseph Mazzello) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).

We watch these heroes effortless extract a hostage from a North Korean military base, and then rescue some nuclear warheads from a suddenly destabilized Pakistan (grudging credit to Reese and Wernick, for their awareness of current events). But then things go pear-shaped, when the Joes’ desert HQ is bombed into oblivion by assault helicopters, with all presumed dead.

Ah, but not quite: You don’t hire an actor of Johnson’s natural charm, surround him with associates sporting silly names, and then take ’em all out in Chapter One. No, Roadblock and his key allies survive to fight another day, while trying to determine who could have arranged such a cataclysmic double-cross.

Veterans of 2009's GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra already know the answer, having realized — in that film's final scene — that the U.S. president was replaced by the evil, shape-shifting Zartan (Arnold Vosloo). Eliminating the Joes is merely the first phase of a diabolical plan that also involves breaking the malevolent Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) out of a most unusual maximum security prison.

Frankly, I’m surprised makeup designer Todd Kleitsch didn’t give these clowns Snidely Whiplash mustaches to twirl.

Zartan orchestrates the escape of Cobra Commander — who, unable to survive without a face-concealing oxygen mask, seems a poor man’s rip-off of Darth Vader — with the assistance of ninja master Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and chaos agent Firefly (Ray Stevenson). Walter Goggins, such an enjoyable presence as Boyd Crowder on TV’s Justified, chews up the scenery with style, as the warden of this high-tech prison. Goggins, unlike everybody else in this flick, understands — and delivers — the necessary stylized tone.

I must point out that Firefly’s explosive-laden nanobot “insects” are insidious enough, and powerful enough, to end the movie at any point ... but, of course, this is one of those dumb stories where good guys, bad guys and their various weapons are only as strong — or as weak — as is necessary at any given moment.

Anyway, Storm Shadow is badly injured during this fracas, necessitating convalescence at the mountaintop-hugging Himalayan monastery run by Blind Master (RZA, spouting particularly inane fortune-cookie dialogue). Ah, but just as our U.S. president isn’t necessarily what he seems, Storm Shadow may not be completely bad ... merely misunderstood.

Cue an infiltration by the Joes’ mysterious, masked Snake Eyes (Ray Park), also a ninja expert, and newbie ninja acolyte Jinx (Elodie Yung). Honestly, given all the subterfuge and clandestine baddies inhabiting his Himalayan dojo, Blind Master seems a lousy judge of character, his supposed enlightenment notwithstanding.

Anyway, the subsequent skirmishes — involving Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, Jinx and a couple dozen Cobra ninjas — are, credit where due, pretty damn impressive. (Indeed, this otherwise wretched flick’s single star derives from this set piece.) Boasting superbly choreographed stunt work that Jackie Chan would have loved in his prime, this cleverly staged battle climaxes on the side of a sheer mountain, and is assembled with verve by editors Roger Barton and Jim May, stunt coordinator Steve Ritzi and fight coordinator Thomas Dupont.

Indeed, if the rest of this film were assembled with such panache, it’d be a lot more fun.

Back in D.C. — which the surviving Joes somehow reach during an off-camera sequence that Chu, Reese and Wernick conveniently omit — Roadblock liaises with (I’m not making this up) the “original Joe,” Joe Colton, who apparently has been sitting on his ass while the squad he founded has been destroyed, both in body and reputation.

Colton is played by Bruce Willis, smirk firmly in cheek, whose “running gag” is a habit of referring to Lady Jaye as “Brenda.” Maybe this seemed more amusing on paper, because it sure doesn’t play on the screen.

Cue an explosive final act that begins with an unpalatable sequence involving the total destruction of a major world city: the point at which this film becomes tasteless, when up to this moment it has been merely witless.

A few years back, when discussing Roland Emmerich’s end-of-the-world drama 2012, I complained about modern, effects-laden “thrillers” and their tendency to turn mass slaughter into a spectator sport. Because of the directorial approach — and Chu’s tone here is no different — we’re intended to marvel at the ingenious, sci-fi spectacle of these insidious weapons, rather than mourn the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of innocent civilians who perish in a heartbeat.

Frankly, this attitude is rather sick: on par with the gore hounds who lap up, say, the image of an attractive young woman being gutted by a sword — in Hostel 2 — so that her naked-babe killer, reclining beneath, can bathe orgiastically in the resulting font of blood.

Since GI Joe: Retaliation is an otherwise frivolous flick apparently designed for arrested adolescents, one can’t help wondering about this unexpectedly callous subtext.

That possibly disturbing thought aside, it’s impossible to care about any of the characters in this mess. The cast members don’t act; they merely pose, showing their best side to the camera. Naturally, the script finds a way to slip the fetching Palicki into a body-hugging red dress, before later stripping her down to her underwear. In fairness, she does display a bit of spunk, which is more than can be said for Cotrona, whose “performance” as Flint is nothing more than a blank spot on the screen.

Not even Johnson, with all his inherent charm and goofy amiability, can shape a human being out of the wafer-thin details granted Roadblock. Who, when he’s at home, has two adorable daughters. That’s pretty much it for character development.

A glimpse at Chu’s résumé reveals that he’s primarily a dance director, having previously helmed Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. Most recently, he brought us the documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never ... which, I think, says everything necessary about Chu’s unimaginative, brain-dead sensibilities. To borrow an old cliché, this guy couldn’t direct traffic.

As a Hasbro toy, the GI Joe action figures have a rich heritage that dates back to 1964; the initial cartoon series debuted in 1985 and has continued, in various incarnations, to the present day. That’s a lot of back-story and colorful villains, and some of the latter have made their way into this live-action translation. In most respects, though, this newest Joe is the same sort of debacle that M. Night Shyamalan wrought on another beloved cartoon series, with 2010’s The Last Airbender.

Make no mistake: Airbender remains the apotheosis of bad filmmaking ... but GI Joe: Retaliation ain’t far behind.

No comments:

Post a Comment