REVIEW: “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”

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One of my great joys growing up was reading the G.I. Joe comic book series. The action figures, the vehicles, the cartoon series – G.I. Joe equaled big money in the late 80s and early 90s. But my favorite remained the comic book. I read it for around 100 issues and I loved the way it treated its characters, their relationships, and their storylines. So imagine my frustration when “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” hit the big screen in 2009. It was a movie ripe with potential but full of crap. The shoddy acting, the overt political correctness, and the ridiculous story supplied enough reasons to dislike the film. But for me its biggest vice was the butchering of the characters that I’ve loved since my childhood. Whether it was poor research or poor creative decisions, I don’t know. But I do know I despised that movie.

Four years have passed and now Paramount Studios have given us a sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”. This time around they dangle Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis like a carrot in front of a horse, trying to convince us that this movie aims to be better. Well, actually it is better but I’m not sure that’s saying much. One thing that stood out was that it did attempt to be a little more faithful to the comic book source material than the previous movie. There are several tips of the hat and even a side story straight from the pages of the print series. Unfortunately the side story will make absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t read it and this leads to the biggest problem with this entire project – the lame and often times amateurish writing.

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The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film. Zartan is masquerading as the President of the United States while Cobra Commander and Destro are in some sort of cryogenic stasis in an underground government prison. But Cobra has a bigger plan at work that of course includes world domination and extinguishing the G.I. Joe team. Meanwhile, the Joes are out doing what they do, thwarting terrorist attacks, retrieving stolen nuclear warheads – you know, standard Joe stuff.

Duke (Channing Tatum) is back and he’s the man in charge. He shares a bromance with his best friend and team heavy machine gunner Roadblock (Johnson). We also get the seemingly loose cannon Flint (D.J. Cotrona) although they completely abandon his loose cannon angle. Then there’s the gorgeous but able Lady Jaye (played by the gorgeous and occasionally able Adrianne Palicki). And of course there’s the super cool and personal favorite Joe of mine Snake-Eyes (Ray Park). After the team is decimated by a Cobra attack sanctioned by the bogus president, the few surviving Joes are forced underground where they must put together a plan to expose Cobra and avenge the death of their comrades.

The movie is really just a series of action set pieces linked together by a few strands of plot. But did anyone honestly go into a G.I. Joe movie expecting anything deep? The story is adequate enough to move this action-oriented film along. It’s when the story tries to branch out into side stories that things begin to get messy. The most obvious example is a side story dealing with Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, and the events of their connected pasts. As a fan of the comic series I smiled as I remembered reading this story from the books. But in terms of this movie, its incorporation into the main story is horribly done. It comes completely out of the blue and instead of gelling with the main narrative, it violently collides with it. There’s no sense of place and there’s no real connection at all.

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The poor writing also shows itself in some of the character’s underwritten subplots and in some of the corniest dialogue you’ll hear all year. Some of the jokes and attempts at humor are nothing short of cringe-worthy. There were times, particularly in the first half of the film, where these lines felt so awkward and disingenuous. Then there was the macho military banter, again mostly in the first half of the film, that was so incredibly silly and fake. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting this on paper and thinking it sounds good. It’s also hard to take any of these characters seriously while you’re constantly face palming due to the goofy dialogue! Thankfully a lot of this subsides as the movie goes on.

As with many of this year’s movies we’ve seen so far and that are on the way, the action is the big focus. It’s pretty relentless so be prepared to be bombarded with bullets, blades, and explosions. For me, this was the film’s strong point. I thought the action sequences in the first film did nothing to save it from its serious flaws. The action sequences in this film are actually pretty good and they did help me get past some of this movie’s shortcomings. They also translated well in 3D, something that was a pleasant surprise considering my usual dislike for the technology. But like other movies with such heavy dependence on CGI, things sometimes feel too synthetic. There’s a wildly entertaining ninja showdown on the face of a huge mountain. But as fun as it is, it’s still hurt by its absurdity and obvious computer generated visuals. The action is also helped and sometimes hurt by Jon Chu’s direction. Now I was happy to see a new director on board after the first debacle. But I’m hard-pressed to believe that a director known for the “Step Up” series and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” was the best choice.

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The Rock is intended to be the big draw here and while he’s big on charisma, he’s not when it comes to emotion. But is that just something that comes with casting him or was he handcuffed by the material he’s given? Another draw was Bruce Willis but this is clearly a check cashing role for him. His short screen time adds a few mild snickers and he serves as a plot hole filler (kind of) but that’s about it. Tatum is as forgettable as usual but again the material does him no favors. I think Jonathan Pryce may be the most fun actor to watch in the film. He plays around and has fun as both the president and Zartan posing as the president.

So after all of that what’s my conclusion on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”? Is it as awful as I anticipated? Nope, not even close. Is at a good movie? I don’t think I can go there either. Let me just say it’s a better movie than its predecessor and at times can be entertaining. I enjoyed the attempt to add a pinch of realism to the story and I liked some of the money moments such as Snake-Eyes vs Storm Shadow. But in the end “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” seems content to be a better movie rather than a really good one. Granted it’s aimed at an audience made up of teen boys and nostalgic men and it’ll score some points there. But nostalgia only carries me so far.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Red Dawn” (2012)

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I have no problem saying I was a big fan of 1984’s Red Dawn. And whether it’s the nostalgia, the good action, the interesting storyline, the movie still holds up for me today. Now I grant you the politics are outdated and the cheese may not appeal to newer audiences as it does for many of us who grew up during those days. But I still find it to be a rousing good time despite its occasional silliness. That appreciation for the original film combined with what I saw from the first trailers had me concerned about the 2012 remake. Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to remakes and let me just say that this new Red Dawn will do nothing to change that.

Now if you’re unfamiliar with the original story that’s ok. The new version only incorporates the general idea and a few of the names. Most everything else is new but certainly not better. The film starts by introducing Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), a Marine on leave in his hometown of Spokane Washington. We also meet his brother Matt (Josh Peck), a high school football quarterback who doesn’t have the best relationship with his older brother. The movie also chunks in a few more introductions including Matt’s girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), one of Jed’s old schoolmates Toni (Adrianne Palicki), and the boys’ father Tom Eckert (Brett Cullen). All are awakened one morning by an all out military assault on their town. Now don’t even try to use your brain to figure out how the enemy got that many planes, ground forces, and Humvees in the area undetected. The explaination is laughable. In fact, it’s best just to turn your brain off at the opening scene. I mean it seems like the filmmakers certainly did when they were putting together this crappy concoction of errors.

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This Red Dawn attempts to modernize the politics and the characters while telling the same basic story. Instead of Cuba and Russia from the 1984 film, this time North Korea is the occupying force that attacks the United States with a little help from Russia although how they’re associated is never adequately explained. In fact all we get is news footage during the opening credits which supposedly sets the deteriorating political climate of the world. Aside from that, the invading army is nothing more than a nameless, faceless force showing nothing in terms of motivation or incentive. They just supply our group of young heroes with people to kill. Their arrival causes chaos in the city but Jed, Matt and a few of their friends are able to escape up into the mountains. From there they form into a group of rebels that wages guerrilla war against their occupiers.

I know this sounds silly but the original movie actually did this quite well. It took a small group of scared young people, fleshed them out, and over several seasons turned them into pesky guerrilla fighters mainly focused on survival. This film takes an uninteresting group with practically no personality, zips them into combat, and soon has them carrying out complex missions in the middle of occupied Spokane. No training and very little trial and error. And in this film the North Korean army has to be the worst occupying force ever in the history of cinema. Jed and company are able to waltz right into town at their leisure, detonate C4 explosives wherever the wish, and walk right out of town with their AK47’s tucked under their jackets. And this is just for starters. Throughout the movie you’ll find huge gaps in logic, glaring plot holes, and numerous moments where all you can do is bury your face in your hands.

If I wasted time singling out every stupid moment and ridiculous inconsistency this review would go on forever. Instead let’s just give discredit where discredit is due. Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore’s script may be one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. NOTHING that they’ve added, from the new character twists to the annoying profanity, is an improvement or even on par with the original Red Dawn. It’s one of the most amateurish and laughably bad scripts you’ll find and that’s unforgivable considering it’s a remake of a movie that I felt was well written and highly entertaining. This mess is anything but that.

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And then there’s the dialogue and the performances. I was astonished at some of the ridiculous lines crossing the lips of the actors in this movie. Several times I just sat there with my jaw dropped trying to figure out how some of these scenes could have made the final cut. Whether it’s the pseudo-toughness of the kids or the rare moments where they’re trying to show emotion, the film is littered with corny and brainless dialogue. The most laughably bad scenes come with the arrival of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his two fellow Marines. Their embarrassing attempts at macho military talk left me speechless, particularly Matt Gerald. I swear he may have given one of the worst and most cringe-inducing performances I’ve ever seen. You’ll literally root for his character to be killed just to ease the assault on your ears.

Ok, enough of this. I could say so much more about this movie but I’m already sick of talking about it. In summary, Red Dawn is an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. About the only positives I can come up with are the explosions look good and Chris Hemsworth is decent. But even he is eventually buried by his poorly written character and the shallowness of his lines. Red Dawn ends up being another incompetent remake that shouldn’t even exist. It has virtually nothing in common with the original and it shreds everything that the first film did so well. I can’t see anyone who even slightly appreciated the 1984 film to find anything worthwhile in this remake. But then again I can’t see anyone who appreciates good movies to find anything worthwhile either. It’s that bad!

VERDICT – 1 STAR

For a much better version, please check out my review of the original Red Dawn (1984) .