News, Views, and Reviews
True story: I watched Retaliation, opening night, at an IMAX 3D theater, no less, but talked myself out of writing a review. Watching movies is second only to my passion for video games, and this blog IS about things on My View Screen, but I hadn’t written a movie review yet. I have boxes and boxes of GI Joe toys and comics I collected when I was younger, so if any movie deserves to be my “first” review, let it be GI Joe.
As a long time fan of GI Joe, the one thing I liked the most about Retaliation was how closely it resembled the comic books. I don’t think it’s being stated enough, that this is one of the few, really GOOD comic-to-film adaptations. Unfortunately, like the first movie, I think a lot of people are expecting it to be more like the cartoon, and are coming away disappointed. My first recommendation, then, is to get that idea out of your head. The next recommendation is to partially ignore that first GI Joe movie (The Rise of Cobra), the same way Retaliation picks and chooses the parts it carries over and ignores the rest. In fact, a brief voice-over at the beginning of the movie explains EVERYTHING you need to know: GI Joe is now a small, special counter-terrorist mission force led by Capt. Conrad “Duke” Hauser, and includes Flint, Lady Jaye, Roadblock, and Snake Eyes. GI Joe is currently dealing with non-Cobra related missions, as Cobra Commander and Destro are still in captivity, and Zartan and Storm Shadow are still at large. Zartan’s whereabouts are known to movie viewers but not the GI Joe team, as The Rise of Cobra ended with Zartan securing his impersonation of the President of the U.S. Storm Shadow’s return is more dubious, as we saw him fall into freezing arctic waters after Snake Eyes stabbed him. A lot. I guess we don’t need an explanation how he survived that, he just did. At any rate, that’s all anyone has to know, so no prior cartoon, comic book, or movie experience is required. I believe the title, “Retaliation” is intentionally ambiguous, as we’re not expressly told if its relating to the GI Joe team or Cobra, and that’s perfect.
Story: Retaliation begins with two GI Joe missions that would feel right in place in any military themed action movie. These missions also set the tone for Retaliation – a more grounded, “realistic” tone – and further establish that we should forget some of the more fanciful stretches that The Rise of Cobra took. Gone are the “accelerator suits” for example, although we have to believe that ninja clans still exist, and that Zartan’s facial impressions of the President are made possible by nano-machines. Other than that, GI Joe behaves like a James Bond or Mission: Impossible movie, and in that case, it works really well. The espionage-style of the second act tends to drag a little, and makes a weak link between the beginning and end, which are full of bombastic, frantic action. There is also a little disconnect between plot lines at first, as major characters aren’t even working together for the first two-thirds of the movie, although everything is tied up satisfyingly by the end. The exposition is mostly carried by dialogue, and sometimes that dialogue is so brief, important plot-lines could be missed. When the exposition is carried by voice over, I had to roll my eyes at how cheesy it sounded, and wished they stuck to dialogue the entire movie. A few more lines of dialogue here and there could have kept the plot lines simple AND developed the characters better.
Characters: With a smaller cast, Retaliation could have featured more character growth and development than it does. Instead, we have a few stand-outs, and everyone else are minor, support characters. Worse, characters are introduced throughout the movie instead of all at once, which leads to some pretty thin characterizations. Perhaps its unfair to expect every character to have their moment in the spotlight, just because movies like The Avengers did that so well. Still, even the major characters fail to show a lot of growth, which is a missed opportunity. I hate to give examples for fear of spoiling anything, so I’ll just repeat that sentiment: Retaliation is great, but has its share of missed opportunities.
Acting: It’s a credit to the actors that, even with their limited dialogue and character development, that each character is at least strongly presented. We know who they are, what they are capable of, and those characterizations are consistent. Dwayne Johnson again proves he can carry a movie as lead, even though his portrayal of Roadblock is a little more serious than my tastes. It is a serious situation for the GI Joe team, so it’s understandable. Zartan is technically played by Arnold Vosloo, but it’s Jonathan Pryce’s portrayal of the President as impersonated by Zartan that steals the show. He’s so charming and maniacal, really relishing in his position of power, that its easy to forget that Cobra Commander is really in charge of everything. The Commander is not portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as he was in The Rise of Cobra, rather, duties are split between body actor Luke Bracey and voice work done by Robert Baker. His screen time is brief, yet his presence is so menacing, which really adds to his cool factor. Adrianne Palicki plays Lady Jaye, and she shows the most character development. Bruce Willis appears late in the movie with a dry sense of humor, serving as some needed comedy relief, such as it is. Really, the only “bad” actor in the movie that I’d have to point a finger at, would be Rza and his cheesy voice over narration as Blind Master. I’m rolling my eyes again, just thinking about it. Over all, Retaliation features some decent acting that’s held back by some missed opportunities.
Visualization: Retaliation was scheduled to be released last June, but the studio’s story is that they decided to delay its release to do post-production 3D conversion. Rumors add that the previous version of the film didn’t test well with audiences, so they took the extra time to film additional scenes. I have to wonder if further cuts were made to existing material, as the action sequences don’t get enough chance to breathe. The camera is often pulled in too close and the scenes are full of quick edits instead of longer, fuller takes. The choreography seems very well done, and we know actors like Ray Park and Byun-hun Lee (Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow) are very capable fighters, yet we don’t get to see their potential. Even Dwayne Johnson appears to be amateurishly brawling with Ray Stevenson (Firefly) instead of delivering convincing special-forces trained fights. The standout sequence, the ninja fight on the side of a sheer mountain side, is really the most memorable use of the IMAX format. The 3D conversion was just as effective as other movies that use that technique, with sufficient scenes of bullets and ninja throwing stars flying at the audience. I’d have to admit, though, that neither are essential to enjoy the movie. I appreciate the grounded, “realistic” approach to Retaliation, and it’s easy to point out how great it looks with its reliance on practical effects instead of heavy CGI use. If anything, I feel the most disappointment because the choreography, practical effects, and well directed action sequences SHOULD have had better camera work to show it all off. It’s not impossible to follow, but it could have been a lot better.
Sound: Perhaps the biggest benefit of seeing Retaliation in an IMAX theater was the high volume those theaters provide. It was LOUD. This served the sound effects well, but made the annoying soundtrack even more obnoxious. Retaliation would have worked better with some sort of “theme” music. Something timeless and epic to show the different moods of the different scenes, yet tie them all together with variations of the same theme. Instead, we had to suffer through bombastic, cliché heavy metal riffs and cheesy hip hop music that just felt really out of place, and it was all easily forgotten and ultimately, meaningless. An epic score could have elevated the movie to greater heights, instead, its just one more missed opportunity.
Conclusion: Appreciation for Retaliation may vary. For me, the faithful comic book adaptation helps me overlook its shortcomings, and my insistence that it missed opportunities is just a desire for something even better. Others might not be able to overlook these flaws, but even they should have a great time with a competent, well made action movie. There might not be a deep plot or complex characterizations, but even non-fans can follow the story and appreciate the action. Anyone that watches Retaliation can cheer for the good guys, and maybe even cheer for the bad guys. (Seriously, Jonathan Pryce steals the show.) Go Joe!
GI Joe Retaliation hit theaters March 28th, is rated ‘PG-13’ and runs 110 minutes.