By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Call it a testament to the strength of our culture. The incredible thing about director Jon M. Chu’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” an old fashioned shoot-‘em-up dressed in brave new world clothing, is that for all its nihilistic, cacophonic violence, there seems to be a need to include some sort of storyline. Alas, all is not lost. And that’s about it for the rosy side.
Probably the sorriest aspect of this adventure about the elite defenders of freedom known as the G.I. Joes is that its sensibilities consist of the same old war stories we humans have been rehashing since time immemorial, but with an aberrant mirror on the contemporary scene. Shouldn’t we have developed something a little bit better by now? Just sayin’.
Adding insult to injury, for those not hip to this franchise that has evolved from either a doll or an action figure depending on your socialization, there’s tons of lore to learn. Tossed into the theater like a shanghaied sailor, frazzled by the lack of a glossary, I was Alice in Hell, and wished for a second I had chosen podiatry instead of movie reviewing.
But, reminded of Dr. Halberstoddter’s tolerant cautionary in Lousy Movies #101 back at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College, I recalled my mission and oath. I was here as an explorer, a Lewis and/or Clark, or maybe even an Alexis de Tocqueville, dedicated to finding out and informing. Good assignment or bad, there’s no crying in film criticism.
Besides, I’d probably have to pass organic to be a podiatrist. So, armed with trusty box of Goobers™ and other gustatory appurtenances of the trade, my scales of justice reset, I sallied forth. Sadly, while it is generally held that having an open mind might render a film less tedious, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” may be the exception that proves the rule.
While Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the main Joe is granted that certain likeability and leniency we afford our strongmen who emigrate to movies in search of continued bucks and stardom after they’re done with the heavy lifting, he doesn’t quite make it. Weissmuller was so bad he was good; Arnold is Arnold; and Dwayne, well, is just there.
As he is supported by allies and enemies who don’t even earn that distinction, what’s left is the usual action template, gussied up the way Hollywood assumes the younger third of the Great Unwashed want the amusement portion of their bread and circus served. In other words, X amount of carnage per linear foot of celluloid, and lots of explosions.
So take heed, Tyler and Brittney, if you’re still in a quandary as what to be when you grow up. Whereas Benjamin in “The Graduate” (1967) was advised to go into plastics, beckoning now on the economic horizon is f/x, with a concentration in explosions. Yep, whole bunches. This film can’t seem to ignite enough of ‘em. But it’s worse than that.
Though legitimate action movies may ungratuitously focus on the wounds of combat to emphasize the sheer horror of it all, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” cuts away at just the right moment, sneakily sanitizing the awfulness. It’s the same sort of sugarcoating perpetrated on this generation by liquor distillers when they market booze-laced juice drinks.
Thus, if films are any barometer, The Age of Special Privilege is now being replaced by the Era of Euphemism and Detachment. And, whether too lazy to pen their own stories or cannily stealing the old stuff to camouflage the obvious dearth of ideas, this example uses the same old good guy renegade ploy…the hero abandoned by an unthankful nation.
But, just in case that’s not hackneyed enough, the President (Jonathan Pryce) who has announced that Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock and his G.I. Joes are officially persona non grata isn’t really the President. Nope, he’s really archenemy Zartan. Of course this is why he informs that henceforth Cobra (read evildoers) will be America’s main security force.
Naturally, these bad guys have nothing less than world domination in mind, and because they’re malevolent but not very creative, they heist an old 007 movie stratagem to hold the globe hostage. Project Zeus, capable of orbital nuclear bombardment, or some such nasty stuff, will snuff out any country that doesn’t grovel before the Cobra Commander.
Filling the interstices, because even junky cinema cannot live by mass extermination alone, is the sort of feeble macho banter that makes you want to rejoice when the detonations resume. All of which leaves me to conclude that in trying to be objective and fair whilst assaying “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” it is true that no good deed goes unpunished.
“G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” rated PG-13, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Jon M. Chu and stars Dwayne Johnson, Adrianne Palicki and Bruce Willis. Running time: 110 minutes
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