G.I. Joe: Retaliation (US - BD RA)
Gabe liked the Real American Hero more when he wasn't frowning all the time...
Previously on G.I. Joe: The Joes defeated the evil, international terrorist organization known as Cobra. The leaders, Cobra Commander and Destro are locked in a maximum security, brain-freezing water prison (I guess), but super ninja Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) are still at large. Unknown to the Joes, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by Zartan who, along with Storm Shadow, has put a plan into effect that will free Cobra Commander and ambush the Joes in one fell swoop. The Joes that survive the massacre, Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (DJ Cotrona), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park), find themselves framed for treason and are forced underground where they plot their revenge.
Michael Bay’s original Transformers was a stupid movie, but also kind of an interesting experiment in audience expectations. Hasbro had been making money hand-over-fist from the toy-based franchise, including a very popular run of cartoons that span nearly three decades, so a movie seemed a forgone conclusion. But who knew mainstream audiences would be susceptible to the charms of cars that turn into giant robots? Beyond morbid curiosity, of course. After Transformers became a hit, Hasbro and Paramount put a sequel into production, alongside another toy-based, live-action feature – G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which was directed by Deep Rising and Mummy series director Stephen Sommers. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was released alongside Rise of Cobra in the summer of 2009. Besides being indomitably badly written and borderline racist/misogynistic, Revenge of the Fallen was needlessly mean-spirited and violent (though not nearly as mean-spirited and violent as the third film in the series). Rise of Cobra, on the other hand, was a comparative breath of campy fresh air. Sommers knew he was making a silly movie and his shockingly star-studded cast knew they were playing animated action figures. It wasn’t a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a pretty entertaining one, at least given the constraints of a movie based on a jingoistic ‘80s cartoon series.
The Rise of Cobra was a big enough hit to put a sequel into production, but apparently not a big enough hit for the producers to leave the formula alone. Every piece of news concerning G.I. Joe: Retaliation marked the sequel as a practical reboot – most of the original cast would not be returning and Sommers would be replaced by Jon M. Chu, a director known almost exclusively for making dance movies, like Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. But the staff changes weren’t even the weird part. One month from the film’s June 2012 release, Paramount suddenly announced that they were pulling the film for the sake of a 3D post-conversion and would not be releasing it until March of 2013. Such a move was basically unprecedented, as far as I know, and rumours quickly circulated concerning the film’s qualities and the assumption that producers wanted to include more Channing Tatum (which, apparently, wasn’t true). Weird productions don’t necessarily equate bad movies, or rather, no more than screenplays based on a toy line do, but there was very little about Retaliation that inspired faith, least of all the fact that Paramount and Hasbro clearly noticed that the darker Transformers sequels made more money than the generally sunny The Rise of Cobra.
Well, Retaliation ends up being another not terrible movie, but, just as I suspected, it has almost none of the goofy fun of Sommers’ original. Almost everyone involved (a couple of actors aside), is taking this toy line-based movie way too seriously. Things start out charmingly enough, with Duke and Roadblock playing videogames and wrestling with Roadblock’s kids, but the light-hearted stuff is quickly overridden by real-world military issues – as if connecting the G.I. Joe universe to the Korean demilitarized zone and the nuclear threat of Pakistani rebels somehow makes it more relevant. There are decent nods to the ‘toyfulness’ of the source material, largely in the cool little war gadgets the characters use, but Retaliation is more comparable to ‘real world’ military action movies (James Bond movies, the Mission Impossible series) than it is to something you’d expect from the title ‘G.I. Joe.’ The pervasive tone here is stone-faced, from the moody photography, right down to the mournful music that undercuts some of the more amusing interactions, artificially marking them as tragic. Rise of Cobra had its share of melodrama, but Sommers and his gang treated it all as you’d expect from a Saturday morning cartoon serial. It was amusing, not dour (I say this, assuming Sommers achieved his intended tone).
Chu’s action direction leaves quite a bit to be desired. This isn’t surprising, considering his Step Up films were woefully over-edited to the detriment of the efforts of talented dancers. Here, it appears that his stunt team has choreographed some impressive shoot-outs and bouts of hand-to-hand action, but the choppy cutting and shaking camera makes it difficult to verify. In fact, the bulk of the action is so shakily shot and edited that it’s hard to believe the same guy had anything to do with the film’s centric set-piece, which features Snake Eyes and his buddy Jinx battling a small army of ninjas on a snowy mountainside. One possible explanation is that Chu pretty does well with the film’s special effects, much better than Stephen Sommers has ever managed, and the epic ninja fight is really effects-heavy. It’s possible that he needs to be limited by technology to pull off something that makes visual sense. It’s also possible that Digital Domain’s effects people, 2nd unit director (George Marshall Ruge, who worked on the Lord of the Rings films), and storyboard artists were in greater control of this sequence.
I don’t think anyone is surprised that Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s plot doesn’t really make much sense, but I am a bit surprised by how dull it is. There’s very little downtime to speak of and, generally speaking, the pacing is tight, but, even at a fast clip, I found it difficult to maintain interest. The writers put themselves in a particularly difficult position early on by splitting their story between the main plot and Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow’s subplot. The two storylines never gel and the cool factor of the ninja stuff (which actually feels more related to the first movie than anything else that happens) makes it painful to cut back to the Joes and their boring plight. The writers are pretty good at writing the kind of grandiose/dopey dialogue that we expect from our larger-than-life action heroes and villains, but their attempts at natural, dramatic discussion and levity are awkward at best. The funniest/most idiotic example is an utterly tone-deaf sequence where Lady Jaye describes her feminist stance on women in the military while Flint (and the audience) watches her undress in the reflection of a tube TV. I use the phrase ‘tone-deaf,’ because I hope it’s the case; the only other possibility is that Chu, Reese, and Wernick are pointedly satirizing the idea of the typical strong female lead in just about the most misogynistic way possible. I do have to give them some credit for the sheer scale of the third act threat (sorry, London). It’s clear they had a neat concept in place – they just weren’t sure how to make it happen.
Dwayne Johnson might be the best actor of his kind working in Hollywood today and he practically carries a lot of Retaliation on his charisma alone. But one Dwayne Johnson does not equal one Joseph Gordon-Levitt and one Chris Eccleston, both of whom were a scenery-chewing blast in Rise of Cobra. Gordon-Levitt isn’t exactly needed, I suppose, since Cobra Commander is wearing a mask and speaking in a modulated voice most of the film (though Chu does choose to show his non-Gordon-Levitt face at the beginning of the film for some reason), but cutting Eccleston’s Destro out of the mix smells like sour grapes, apropos of nothing. Channing Tatum is notably less wooden than he was the first time around, too, but all for naught, since he appears in the film for about 10 minutes, tops. Bruce Willis continues making a joke out of himself, playing the exact same curmudgeony, gun-toting old fart he played in Expendables 2 and A Good Day to Die Hard. It’s depressing (thank God for Looper and Moonrise Kingdom). Bit-part appearances from the likes of Walton Goggins and Ray Stevenson (with a hilarious Southern accent) perk things up and any movie that makes Lee Byung-hun a couple bucks is okay in my book. But the film’s all-star is Mr. Jonathan Pryce, who gets to play a dual role that allows him to flex his cruel baddie and sorrowful good guy muscles. The film’s two women, on the other hand, don’t have much to do – Adrianne Palicki is here purely for the sake of oogling her underdressed body and I’m pretty sure Elodie Yung only has three lines.
Since it was not originally intended as a 3D release, G.I. Joe: Retaliation was shot on 35mm film, not one of the various digital HD/3D camera rigs. The film base does show in a fine grain mesh, but there aren’t many other film-based artefacts to report (no real edge enhancement, for example). The overall look is pretty dark and this darkness does cause some of the deep blacks to crush detail levels and create slightly blobby detail levels. When the image is light enough to discern textures are plenty sharp and complex without any notable compression or sharpening artefacts. I’m actually confused as to why Chu and cinematographer Stephen Windon bothered with film at all, though, because they’ve digitally graded the material so much that it looks like shooting straight digital would’ve been a lot easier. The daylight sequences are coated in orange with their highlights blown-out. The nighttime and interior images are caked in brown with hyper-colourful blue elements that turn every bit of white (including Jonathan Pryce’s hair) to turquoise. These hues are a bit unseemly, but, in the transfer’s favour, they are tightly separated and/or smoothly blended where needed. The biggest problem is low-level noise on the warmer hues when the image is at its darkest, similar to Paramount’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol transfer (which was also film-based).
Paramount continues being the one major studio that fits the majority of their new releases with Dolby TrueHD, rather than DTS-HD MA audio codecs and G.I. Joe: Retaliation is no exception. This track is presented in robust 7.1 surround. There’s nothing negative to report here in terms of center channel dialogue compression. The big blow-up battle moments are all thoroughly spectacular as well, beginning with Cobra’s first act sneak attack on the Joes. Here, the sound designers focus on creating unique and eclectic gun and explosion sounds while maintaining a very wide and dynamic depth of field. Even more impressive is Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s throw-down at the middle of the film. In fact, if there’s one thing that sets Retaliation apart from similar films, it is the sound design of this one brief ninja-on-ninja fight with its ringing metallic weapons, flying bullets, and spinning shuriken. The exploding fireflies are another audio highlight – they buzz throughout the channels before exploding with a particular electronic-sounding boom. Henry Jackman’s score is a bit silly (very ‘90s-ish), but is also given a very big presence throughout the channels, including heavy percussive LFE throb, directionally enhanced electronic augmentations, and some very punchy brass.
The extras begin with a commentary track featuring director Jon M. Chu and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. This is a low-energy track. Like, nearly comatose. It’s not that Chu and Bonaventura aren’t doling out enough behind-the-scenes info – they just sound like they’d rather be somewhere else. Curiously, they seem to think that they made a ‘fun’ movie and that they let the audience know that they were in on the joke, but mention this just before discussing the important ‘weight,’ including real-life political events in their action figure movie. In fact, dull tone aside (and the energy does increase as the film ticks by), this track is sort of a vital to understanding what went wrong with the film – the filmmakers truly thought they were achieving all of the things they utterly failed to achieve. Chu keeps describing super-complex stunts as they flutter by before we can fully appreciate them, signifying that he thought that amount of screen time was satisfactory. He then goes on to describe steps in costume design that were set up to differentiate characters on-screen, which doesn’t matter, because the photography is so dark and moody. The best bits are the ones when Chu and Bonaventura talk about their supposedly strong female characters. There’s little direct discussion concerning the decision to hold the film out of theaters for an entire year (besides the brief mention of the 3D conversion), but there is talk of arguments with the studio concerning stylistic choices, including the process of developing the film’s prologue in order to ensure that scenes they’d already shot made sense to people who hadn’t seen the first film.
Up next is a rather comprehensive behind-the-scenes documentary entitled G.I. Joe: Declassified (1:16:00, HD). It is broken into eight parts, beginning with Mission Briefing, a look at pre-production, including hiring Chu, screenwriting, previsualization, locations, sets, production design, and costume/make-up tests. Deployment covers stunt training/rehearsal and second unit shooting. Two Ninjas focuses on the construction/design of the massive Dojo set, the film’s ninja characters, costume design, and shooting the ninja fights. The Desert Attack sort of speaks for itself and covers the process of shooting the massive action sequence towards the beginning of the film. Cobra Strikes is all about the film’s various villains, including concepts, costumes, actors, and the various Cobra-themed sets. The Lone Soldiers, in turn, is all about the surviving good guys and the concepts, costumes, actors, and sets that surround them. The Monastery covers the filming of the movie’s one genuinely cool sequence, including choreography, design, previz, and special effects. Fort Sumter finishes things up with a look at the film’s chaotic action climax. Interview subjects include Chu, Bonaventura, executive producers Erik Hawsome and Herb Gains, Hasbro execs Brian Goldner, John Warden and Aaron Archer, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, military adviser Harry Humphries, stunt coordinator Steve Ritzi, production designer Andrew Menzies, costume designer Louise Mingenbach, visual effects supervisor James Madigan, and cast members Channing Tatum, Dwayne Johnson, Joseph Mazzello, D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, RZA, Elode Yung, Lee Byung-Hun, Ray Stevenson, Jonathan Pryce, and Bruce Willis.
The disc also features three deleted scenes, the first two of which probably should’ve been left in the final film for the sake of plot (4:00, HD), and has an option for either Cobra or Joe-themed menus.
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a dumb movie that occasionally succeeded, because it knew it was a dumb movie. It was, at the very least, entertaining in parts. G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a dumb movie that almost never succeeds, because it takes itself far too seriously. Minus one really cool central set-piece, it is almost entirely devoid of fun. It’s a little difficult to gauge the image quality of this Blu-ray, because the film is so ‘gritty’ looking, but the transfer certainly is vivid and well-textured. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, on the other hand, is absolutely fantastic, and the feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary is better than the film deserves.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 30th July 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English DVS, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French, and Portuguese
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Extras: Director & Producer Commentary, G.I. Joe: Declassified Documentary, Deleted Scenes, DVD Copy, Digital Copy, UltraViolet Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, D.J. Cotrona, Lee Byung-hun, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce, Ray Stevenson, Channing Tatum
Genre: Action, Adventure and War
Length: 110 minutes
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