I never played with GI Joes as a boy – Mum thought they were too violent and I was more of a Transformers kid anyway. The recent films seemed like a bit of dumb fun though, so the other day I went off to GI Joe: Retaliation (a much snappier subtitle than the original one they had for it, which I understand was GI Joe: This Franchise is a Dwayne Johnson Vehicle Now And If You Don’t Like That Tough Shit You Had Your Chance With The Last One And You Fucked It Up).
Roland Emmerich’s semen stains
The first film, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, was a masterclass in how to violate John Rogers’ guidelines on writing action scenes. That article is something every fan of action films should read – the main lesson is, as he puts it: “Don’t write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.” After I first read it, I found myself seeing the lesson in every movie I watched (like when I first heard about teal and orange). And I saw it plenty in The Rise of Cobra – pretty much every action scene in that film just went until it stopped without serving any real purpose. I have to say though, when watching Retaliation, this sort of stuff didn’t stick out to me – basically because nothing about the film really stuck out.
I’d hoped this one might be an improvement on the former – it shows promise when they start by ditching all the dead weight from the first film. Some characters get blown up and others just never appear, such as the Superfluous Wayans and the Hot Redhead. (Bit of a pity, that – one of the best things about the first film was being able to shout “ha ha – looks like this time the fire is on the other crotch!” whenever she appeared.*) One of the villains basically gets told to his face “sorry, you’re not in this one” and is never seen again.
Having done that, they’re free to bring in an entirely new team, consisting of The Rock, Parkour Guy and Corporal Tits’n’Ass** and play them up as an improvement on the last lot. This wasn’t a problem for me at all – since I was never a GI Joe fan, I had no attachment to any of the characters who were jettisoned. I wonder how actual fans would have reacted, especially since the film shovels in lots of other stuff that I’m assuming were fan-pleasing references to GI Joe things I’ve never heard of – cool gadgets that are used once and then forgotten, characters that hang around in the background and barely get a mention.
Compared to the first film, this one spends less time setting up the characters, but more time setting up the story (or at least it felt that way). Even with all the setting up, though, the plot was still all over the place. Some of this was down to the Snake Eyes Problem – Snake Eyes is the Wolverine of the GI Joe franchise; not a central character in the overall scheme of things, but the number one fan favourite, which means he needs to be included in whatever’s going on. While I haven’t seen or read too much GI Joe material, everything I have experienced has had the plot “the Joes go and blow up Cobra and also Snake Eyes is off somewhere doing awesome ninja stuff.” Sure enough, while everyone else is trying to foil Cobra’s evil scheme to hold the Earth’s nuclear powers to ransom, Snake Eyes is jumping around mountains and hanging out with RZA (here playing the role of Ninja Master With a Ridiculous Beard).
There’s also a fair bit of tension generated by the film’s attempts to be modern and realistic while also remaining true to the silly 80s toy line it’s based on (and while keeping to an M rating – I’m pretty sure there was not a single drop of blood visibly spilt throughout the whole film). This was also true of the first film, which took pains to set up the Joes as a modern fighting force and introduce everyone’s detailed back story, and then casually introduced a character called Dr. Mindbender without anyone blinking. So here we get tense, personal drama and intimate action, in the middle of which there’s the following sequence, which occupies no more than 30 seconds of the film and is never brought up again:
COBRA: Yeah, so we just destroyed London.
[CGI shot of a kinetic harpoon devastating central London, Roland Emmerich’s semen stains still drying on it.]
EVERYONE ELSE: Sucks to be London. Anyway…
There were definitely multiple writers working on this one – not only does the plot jump around, but the dialogue does too. At the very least there was Witty Dialogue Guy, who supplies some genuinely funny quip-laden banter and one-liners, which The Rock in particular delivers well; and Clunky Exposition Guy, who throws in leaden prose whenever things are in danger of displaying subtlety or requiring a few seconds’ thought. Cobra Commander in particular seems to have been the object of a tussle between the two – one minute he’s throwing out pop culture references, and the next he’s a walking thesaurus of movie villain clichés.
So not the best film I’ve ever seen. Ah well. And I haven’t even mentioned how part way through Bruce Willis shows up, behaving as he always does in films like this – the cocky smirk, the presumed invulnerability – oh shit, was this actually a Die Hard sequel all along?! Mind. Blown.
*Because, see, she was in The Woods as a blond bully who was always teasing the ginger protagonist and calling her “fire crotch” and then she was the one playing a redhead don’t fucking judge me.
**If you think that’s sexist, you should see how the film treats her – despite setting her up as a highly trained killing machine, at two separate points in the film her role is to wear something cartoonishly revealing and distract a horny bad guy. After the second such sequence it cuts to a scene of her teammate surreptitiously ogling her as she changes outfits while discussing her daddy issues.