Shortest Version: I NEVER get excited about movies anymore, so if this one pumped me up despite its flaws, it can’t be that bad, can it?
Short Version: I expected the first movie to be a shitty “Hollywood Joe” cash-in, and I was right. I expected the same from Retaliation, and instead I got a GI Joe movie made by GI Joe fans who appreciated what they grew up with.
Long Version: Even as far back as the trailers I thought, “boy, even the trailer looks better than the shitty cash-in that was the first movie.” Finally sat down and watched it a couple nights ago and had a great time, probably owing to my childhood relationship with GI Joe. It felt like they took the cartoon and improved all the dumb shit (insipid kiddie show characters with goofy backstories, tons of lead flying but nobody getting hurt, cobra cooking up the dumbest and least menacing schemes imaginable). Cobra’s scheme is still logically flawed, but it’s actually menacing — they’re not out to start an evil fast food chain, or clone dinosaurs for the hell of it, or steal vague macguffins for no real purpose. And I got genuinely giddy seeing the classic toy vehicles realized onscreen. They used a great selection of good guys and bad guys — Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Jinx, and Snake Eyes in one corner; Cobra Commander, Zartan, and Firefly in the other corner; and Storm Shadow somewhere in-between.
Come to find out the movie apparently did worse than the first. It astounds me that this one wasn’t considered the superior in every way — yes, it’s dumb (GI Joe always was) but it actually tries to take itself a little seriously, it portrays GI Joe as a special military unit and not a goofball superhero team, the character backstories actually make sense (nobody turned to a life of evil for being left at the fuckin’ altar) and it actually has Cobra Goddamn Commander in it. It’s like nobody remembers the source material anymore, for fuck’s sake.
Second Impressions: I still love this stupid movie, so it’s official. This is the GI Joe movie I wanted when I was a kid. It doesn’t wast time with badly executed origin stories, it doesn’t make the Joes a comic relief team with superpowered armor, it doesn’t wait ’til the end of the movie to show the villains as we know and love them.
Here’s the essential identity of the two films:
Rise of Cobra: GI Joe is a bunch of goofballs with superpowered armor.
Retaliation: GI Joe is a special military unit with advanced military gear mostly grounded in reality, sometimes bordering on lucidrous and unnecessary.
Rise of Cobra: The villain is (mostly) Destro, one of the most iconic villains in the Joeverse, instantly recognizable for his silver helmet…which he never wears in the movie. At the very end, he gets some sort of nanites injected into him that arbitrarily turn his whole head metal. Why they couldn’t have him wear his heirloom helmet the entire movie — a movie that’s supposed to be marketed towards fans who KNOW the character for wearing a silver helmet — is beyond me, except that the producers were totally out of touch and just wanted a franchise that would make an easy buck on brand name alone.
Retaliation: Firefly wears his fucking mask. It almost didn’t happen, but thankfully Ray Stevenson gave a shit about the character and insisted that he wear it for several scenes, and for his introduction. Stuff like that shows the people who worked on the movie gave a shit, unlike the first crew.
Rise of Cobra: Cobra Commander isn’t even IN the damn thing until the very end: he spends the entire movie as some schmuck we don’t even care about.
Retaliation: Cobra Commander escapes from prison in the first act, and gets to actually be part of the story, glorious costume and all. Forgiving the fact that he contributes presence and nothing else to a story that Zartan and Firefly could easily have carried all on their own (but then we wouldn’t have that badass prison escape sequence, so I guess I can live with it).
Rise of Cobra: The whole movie is a badly handled origin story from end to end (such as Baroness’s origin of turning to a life of evil for being stood up at the altar, which destroys her credibility as a villain, and makes her little more than a child having a tantrum). It was done this way under the arrogant assumption that A) they can do whatever they want with the source material as long as it has the brand name stamped on it, and nobody would know the difference (hint, Hollywood: we know); and B) that this movie is setting the foundation for what will OBVIOUSLY be an immensely successful franchise, so we can afford to waste an entire picture on a really terrible origin story nobody cares about.
Retaliation: There’s no origin story bullshit. The plot is already in progress, our characters are already established as good guys or bad guys who are what they do, and we get to see a lot of shit blow up and a lot of people get beaten up. It’s an 80s GI Joe kid’s wet dream seeing this action on the big screen, even if it does suffer from shaky-cam half the time (I suspect only one of the unit directors was guilty of this, because it’s easy to tell what’s going on in the ninja sequences).
I do have to question the purpose of Flint’s inclusion, though. Cobra Commander’s presence as a villain is sort of arbitrary, but it kind of always was, and I guess they were making up for his absence in the first film by letting him strut around. Jinx I can understand since she gives Snake Eyes backup during the kidnapping of Storm Shadow, even if character-wise she contributes nothing (again, GI Joe characters are what they do, so minimal to nil backstory is fine). I can’t justify Flint’s existence in the movie except for a few cool combat maneuvers that either of the other Joes could’ve pulled off. He really only serves as a recipient for Roadblock’s and Lady Jaye’s backstory bits, but either of those characters could’ve served the same function he does. He really didn’t need to be there at all.
I’m also really saddened by the lack of Arnold Vosloo as Zartan, especially after such an awesome performance in Hard Target.
But then I’m nitpicking a movie that proposes a a five-year-old’s idea of nuclear disarmament. Which is still awesome in the ludicrous way only GI Joe can be.