Operation: Hasbro

Big-name actors are action figures in frenetic, silly G.I. Joe sequel

Posted: March 29, 2013 at 4:19 a.m.

Byung-Hun Lee plays Storm Shadow in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, from Paramount Pictures, MGM, and Skydance Productions.

Byung-Hun Lee plays Storm Shadow in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, from Paramount Pictures, MGM, and Skydance Productions. GR-11471R

A line wrapped around the block (in a light rainstorm, no less) for an action-figure flick? Never underestimate the power of dull, ultra-repetitive, ’80s-era cartoons, it would seem. This film, unlike its early animated predecessor, is largely live-action - but for the copious amounts of CGI that renders it more like a cyborg - and, for those of us with a bit more disposable income handy, in 3-D. A sequel to the surprisingly popular 2009 G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (they love their full colons, those Joes), this installment features an almost entirely new cast of heroes, but many of the same villains and tropes that worked the first time around.

Snake Eyes versus Storm Shadow!

In this clip from G.I. Joe: Retaliation, longtime comrades-in-arms Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) face off against one another in ninja-style combat. It comes courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
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Still, even given the flashy upgrades, big-name cast, and substantially larger budget, the film is shockingly close to the original cartoons in most aspects. A rowdy, multiracial audience, consisting of an unlikely mixture of families,loud frat boys, slouchy teens, ponytailed middle-aged men and a surprisingly goodsize contingent of women - drawn there, we imagine, mostly by the Channing Tatum factor - treated the film as if it were a rock concert by a formidable band rather than a tired glom of choppy action scenes, cardboard cutout characters and a disheartening triumph of Hasbro’s marketing division (who, frankly, could do withsome good news after last summer’s Battleship debacle).

To be fair, even if the film is little more than a giant, cinematic toy catalog, with nearly everything you see on the screen - including the figures themselves, much of their advanced weaponry and their cool, off-road vehicles, helicopters, and motorbikes - available in cheap plastic form at your local department stores, director Jon M. Chu, working from a screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, takes care to give the action figures plenty enough to do to fill the screen time between showdowns.

When we are reintroduced to the Joes, it’s in a time of relative peace and quiet. Duke (Tatum), the team-leader, frats around with Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), playing video games and engaging in light, teasing boy-banter, but, alas, things are destined to get shaken up. It seems evil Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has managed to infiltrate the White House by kidnapping the president (Jonathan Pryce) and expertly disguising himself as the POTUS in his place. In command, he orders the Joes on a dummy mission to recover some stolen nuclear warheads and launches a surprise attack that leaves all but a small handful of them dead, including their beloved leader, Duke (it would seem thatTatum and his agent wanted his character pulled on this franchise as quickly as possible, perhaps to give him time to shoot Magic Mike 2: Still Kickin’ It or 21 Jump Street 2, take your pick).

Furious, the surviving Joes - Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) get back to the States and plot their revenge. Later, reunited with the mysterious Snake Eyes (Ray Park), and a couple of other quick converts, the team enlists the aid of the original Joe, Gen. Colton (Bruce Willis), now retired and living in a plain-looking suburban house whose dummy kitchen is filled with fake drawers and secret chambers fully stocked with guns, ammo and other assorted weaponry (presumably, he eats out a lot). For Hasbro’s purposes, it’s an Easy Bake Oven with an RPG hidden inside.

Forming a new elite task force, the Joes try to stop Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey), Zartan (whose name sounds like a prescription medication for heartburn) and his various skilled henchmen, from launching an insane nuclear assault in an attempt to scare the world’s other nuclear powers into disarming themselves, leaving them open to attack and easy conquering. To prove his dastardly point, CobraCommander shows the world leaders the power of his array of deadly satellite bomb launchers by wiping out London in one fell swoop.

Despite the large (and notably bloodless) body count, we’re about a step and a half removed from the Power Rangers here, only with bigger muscles and gobs more weapon porn. The film is a crazy patchwork of target audience enticements, attempting to create an adult-enough tableau that the abject cartoonishness of the whole enterprise doesn’t alienate anyone over the age of 9. Which leaves us with shameless dialogue straight from a tin can (“Let’s move! The world ain’t saving itself!”) coupled with intricate, often rousing action set-tos (including, most ingeniously, a samurai sword fight while rappelling down a steep mountain face in the Himalayas) and a plot that is all too happy to leave its nonsequiturs and massive inconsistencies cavernous and unattended.

Naturally, things end happily enough, with the surviving Joes heralded once again as the world’s “elite fightingforce” and Cobra Commander safely escaped to launch a new dastardly plan once the dust has settled. So, great for them, and the restored president and all, but meanwhile, presumably all 14 million residents of the London metro area are dead, and no one seems terribly broken up about that on U.S. soil, with all the glad-handing and pats on the back the Joes receive. Oh, well, at least Lady Jaye finally earns some respect from the military brass, receiving a well-earned salute from Gen. Joe. Thank goodness!

Jaye also presents something of a conundrum in the Joe universe: How do you include women on the force without losing your young, male-centric audience in the process? Their solution, unsurprisingly, is to completely sexualize her - in one cringe-inducing scene she changes down to her skivvies as Flint watches admiringlyin a hazy reflection - while also allowing her to do her part in combat scenes. Lesson learned: Women can kick military butt and still be completely sexually objectified.

In a sense, there’s nothing much more to say: If the sound of “Yo, Joe” stirs your senses, who am I to condemn you? The filmmakers have succeeded in creating a film consisting of little but product placement that is also virtually immune to snark. You try a line like “The characters are all off the action figure assembly line” and not only is it absolutely true, it’s entirely the point. It’s difficult to condemn a film for being exactly what it sets out to be in the first place, even if what that is should make all involved pretty ashamed of themselves.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation 82 Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Adrianne Palicki, RZA, Jonathan Pryce Director: Jon M. Chu Rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language Running time: 110 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 03/29/2013