For many kids, G.I. Joes are fun to dismember. It does not matter whether they’re the larger figures, or those tiny ones where their legs and torso are bound by a thick rubber band: the average G.I. Joe toy is a canvas for a kid’s (often sadistic) imagination. G.I. Joe: Retaliation internalizes the freedom offered by the toys’ banality, and sees the universe as an opportunity to expand on a particular vision. I don’t want to get too deep into auteur theory — parts of the film are breathtaking in their inanity — but director Jon M. Chu embraces the gleeful stupidity like an imaginative kid might.
There is no need to see G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra before Retaliation since Chu and his screenwriters only preserve a modicum of continuity. There is even a prologue during which a disembodied voice literally lists all the heroes and villains, as well as their combat specialty. After Duke (Channing Tatum) leads Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and the other Joes on a successful mission in Pakistan, an aerial assault leaves all but three left: Roadblock, Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona). Roadblock intuits that something up with the President (Jonathon Pryce), and he’s right: Cobra operative Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) is impersonating the President so that Cobra Commander can take over the world. It’s up to the remaining Joes, including Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and a retired general (Bruce Willis), to break out the proverbial whoop-ass.
The plot is gets even more ridiculous, but Chu knows how to go over the top so that it works in his favor. When RZA shows up as a blind martial arts master, we’re firmly in camp territory. By loosening the action from its realism, Chu and his actors can have some fun. There is a hilarious, weirdly captivating sequence in which Snake Eyes contends with evil ninjas while dangling from the side of a mountain. The physics make no sense, yet it works from moment to moment since their agile parabolas give a pause from all the violence. The hand-to-hand combat is edited shrewdly, although the 3D occasionally distorts the image beyond basic coherence. Chu is at his best when there are explosions and mayhem, which is often. His eager cast, all of whom are likable or silent, strike the right note as comedians rather than heavies. Walton Goggins, already becoming one of the most reliable character actors, steals the show as an overeager prison warden.
Olympus Has Fallen (TMT Review), a movie for which I wrote a negative review, has a passing semblance to G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Both feature action tropes, a President and peril, and the awesome destruction of a major city (DC for Olympus, London here). Yet Olympus does not work for the same reason Retaliation does: Chu knows his place, and has no pretense for dour, serious entertainment. Like a kid in a basement full of action figures, he thinks it’ll be awesome if hero A does this to bad guy B. The kid does not think much about how one moment coheres to another, and neither does Chu. Through stylized violence and sheer mind-numbing audacity, Chu disengages his audience’s cranial steam and forces them to have fun.