Trapped Inside Themselves
“I’m not here to sell you anything. Except, maybe, hopelessness.” It’s hard to tell, when Walt Goggins shows up in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, whether you should feel relief or horror. He’s playing Nigel James, goony warden at one of those ridiculous maximum security high tech facilities so popular in boys’ blow-up fantasies, buried deep underground in a onetime mineshaft where temperatures, Nigel smirks, can reach some 120 degrees. Like all such facilities, this one houses worst-of-the-worst supervillains, here floating in huge jugs full of fluid that leaves them conscious but paralyzed. Even as Nigel points and preens—“This room is awesome!” and “They’re trapped inside themselves!”—you’re treated to closeups of their helmeted faces, eyes rheumy and fuming.
And so you know: Nigel is doomed.
Of course, the villains must be loosed and must threaten the world with decimation, so that the G.I. Joes will be required to save it. And of course, the villains must make their escape from Nigel’s jugs in extreme fashion, destroying the facility and leaving their smug jailer in a heap on the floor, bloody and broken, duly punished for that smugness (which isn’t to say they don’t celebrate their own sort of smugness). Still, and even though Nigel does seem deserving, you might feel a twinge of sadness as he’s dispatched for Goggins is—as always—a terrific jolt of wit and bleak comedy. Ah well.
Such wit isn’t really what G.I. Joe movies do. Their business is violence, cartoonish and colorful and overkilled in every possible way. The little respite named Nigel is just that, a little respite before you’re back to the spectacular spectacular, this one featuring lots of boys bonding, lots of vehicles crashing, lots of everything exploding, and a smidgen of father-daughter tension. The Joes constitute the elitest of elite fighting forces, their name a term of some endearment because, well, because they’re based on the Hasbro toys.
The Joes’ origins as dolls is at once irrelevant and crucial to the movie franchise, initiated in 2009 with G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, as it appeals less to kids who might deploy the action figures or know the 1985 animated TV series, than to viewers used to comic book movies, where superheroes all have special superpowers and sometimes join together in order to provide consumers with a team full of types—each available as a toy, by the way.
These types don’t tend toward the creepy humor of a Nigel. Rather, they tend to have square jaws and broad chests, humungous weapons and remarkable, if incidental, martial arts skills. The one holdover from the previous movie, Duke (Channing Tatum), helps to introduce the rest, including his best buddy Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), with whom he spends his precious few off-hours, playing videogames and wrestling with Roadblock’s two young daughters (it’s unclear where their mother might be, or whether they were conceived in some immaculate fashion). Following some adorable living-roomy camaraderie, the guys head out on a mission to Pakistan, where the president has been killed: little can they know, as you do, that the mission is a trap.
You know this because the movie over-explains pretty much everything, providing you with more information than the Joes have in order that you might… I don’t know… feel smart, anticipate trouble? guess at solutions? be prepared for the big fat explosions that pass for plot. It hardly matters that you know the dead Pakistani president is a ploy to draw the Joes into a big fat set of explosions, first, their own, done to the supposed bad guys, and second, the supervillains, done to the Joes. This sets up the retaliation of the title, because the surviving Joes are really mad they’ve been fooled. “We’re going to find the man who did this to us and we’re going to kill him,” says Roadblock. And you believe him.
Their being fooled is understandable to you, because the supervillains (who have their own team) have replaced the US President (Jonathan Pryce) with one of their own, Zartan (Arnold Vosloos), wearing a micro-technologied mask that fools everyone in the awfully hapless US government. No one in the movie knows—though you have a good idea—that Zartan and the cronies he breaks out of Nigel’s underground facility, including the super-supervillain Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey), mean to blow up the world, or at least those portions of it that don’t submit to their will. All the portions—submissive and not—are embodied by men in suits who meet at an Atomic 8 Summit, all arriving with their briefcases full of nuclear launch codes and big buttons, so they might blow up each other’s nations as they decide in a matter of seconds.
As much as they’re set up to act out a terrible possibility, these men in suits are about as dull as can be, and so speak to the move’s essential problem, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lack of there, there. Conceived to sell a general rah-rah notion of US action movie heroics, whether by way of ninjas and soldiers (and the RZA, whose goofy performance as the Blind Master may alone be worth the price of admission), the movie is from jump a middling, pre-summer-season entertainment. This entertainment takes the Joes—whose number includes Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Jinx (Elodie Yung), suggesting that girls are allowed so long as their names begin with J—from one exotic and expendable location to another, wearing UnderArmour and saving the world by demolishing buildings, shattering mountainsides, and burning up everything else, a kind of insistent mayhem personified by the retired general they visit when they finally figure out that everyone in the White House is likely compromised, Colton (Bruce Willis), whose entire suburban home—kitchen, garage, bookshelves—is a secret arsenal that might impress Sarah Connor.
Colton is Bruce Willis, utterly: in addition to the guns, he’s got the scrunch face and a few John McClaney words of wisdom, as well as a hardwon familiarity that goes a long way toward characterization, in lieu of actual characterization. He makes a few cracks about Roadblock’s size, as well as Jaye’s girlness, and oh yes, the supervillains’ supervillainy scheme. Colton doesn’t so much make up for the early and inevitable loss of Nigel, as he gestures toward Walt Goggins’ own career trajectory. For a long time, Willis has been a welcome, wry, and self-aware figure, capable of playing terrifically dumb or cocky men, but also, always inviting you to feel part of the process, to acknowledge the game you’re playing, in feeling so entertained by pain and chaos, violence and vulnerability. It’s small solace in a large and overwrought Joes movie, but it’s something.