The most impressive thing about Jon Chu’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation is how badly it manages to suck. The bar is low for an action movie based on a line of silly military toys, and even still, Chu and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick fail to clear it.
The G.I. Joe brand was inaugurated in 1964 with a series of Barbie-size bruisers representing the branches of the U.S. armed services (“America’s movable fighting man”). Fortunately, the current movie franchise is based on the much more colorful 1980s successor, in which the “G.I. Joes” became an elite “freedom force” defending the world against a terrorist organization called Cobra. The Joe-Cobra war was conducted under such equitable terms that you would think armed conflict was an Olympic sport: every fighter was issued an awesome code name and a special skill no one else was allowed to use, the cool hardware (lots of waterfoils) was evenly distributed, and each side got a ninja.
Though that toy line was a product of the Cold War, it was prescient in positing that the battles of the future would be fought not against a rival superpower but against lawless bands of terrorists bent on fascist world domination and given to making grandiloquent pronouncements from secret desert hideaways. A G.I. Joe movie could do a lot with that, but the most strangely frustrating thing about Retaliation is how little screen time the villains get. This is a franchise with a bandolierful of ludicrous villains, but after abandoning the silver-faced Destro in an underground bunker, Retaliation gives Cobra Commander (who is unfailingly called Cobra Commander, even in medical records) barely a cameo—though he does have the opportunity to arrive at a global summit via airboat.
I was hoping for a lot more moments like that, where you could almost see the giant hand of the kid mounting the figure on top of his vehicle. Instead, Retaliation gets lost in the thickets of inter-ninja psychodrama, the endless chuckling of a sadistic thug (code)named Firefly, and the awkward bromance between Duke (Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (The Rock, an actor who comes with his own code name). Bruce Willis shows up to mutter a few self-deprecating zingers (“Are you okay?” “My cholesterol’s a little high”), and Jonathan Pryce chews the CGI as a U.S. President being impersonated by Zartan, Master of Disguise.
The film’s release has been delayed by nearly a year to add 3D, and it must be said that the time was not wasted. I spent more time cringing and dodging than I ever have before at a 3D action movie, my frontal lobes cursing the visual cortex that convinced me I was about to be hit with throwing stars every five minutes. At the center of the film is a ninja battle on zip lines, an eye-popping sequence that’s almost reason enough to sit through the tedious flirtation between Flint and Lady Jaye.
That latter scene reminded me of the weird sexual tension pervading the G.I. Joe franchise. I spent my share of time playing with Joes and Cobras in the mid-80s, and in my prepubescent perception, there was always something a little kinky about the multi-jointed Joes with their bulging, breakable crotches and their tough, tight-shirted lady friends. In subsequent iterations of the toy line, G.I. Joe was at the forefront of the equal-opportunity cultural movement to give boys just as unattainable a body ideal as girls had, and that’s carried through to the movies—Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) pauses for applause after he whips his shirt off to reveal absurdly perfect musculature, while Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) manages to have toned abs, zero body fat, and boobs like bowling balls. Yo, Joe!
The film also nails the franchise’s signature lack of introspection or empathy. Cobra demonstrates its latest superweapon by completely destroying a major global metropolis, but there’s no mention of the eight million dead as Retaliation ends with a tribute to the fallen members of America’s Freedom Force. “The world knew them as G.I. Joes,” says the President, whose speechwriter must have been one of the casualties, “but we called them…heroes.”