(John M. Chu, 2013)
It can be tricky to define, the difference between stupidity and silliness. And while the G.I. Joe films both seem monumentally stupid, in reality they're merely silly. They don't aspire to intelligence, don't feature great, tight plotting, or acute characterisation or jaw-dropping cinematic invention. But then they don't have any pretences about themselves either. All they try to do is tell the sort of ripping yarn a 12 year old boy might like. The first G.I. Joe film, Stephen Sommers' G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, was an almost hallucinatory piece of pre-adolescent pulp delirium, based quite faithfully on the Marvel Comics inspired by the Hasbro toyline featuring a range of International soldiers who form a fighting force to oppose the vicious sci-fi terrorists of the Cobra organisation. Those comics mix science fiction technology, war story characterisation and plotting with a hint of soap and a fair portion of ninja action. Sommers copied all that, stuffing his movie with villainous masterminds, lots of groovy masked men, humungous explosions, tons of martial arts, a flashback to a characters origin every ten minutes or so, ultimatums delivered to world leaders, action scenes in exotic corners of the globe, crappy comedy, and hot bad girls in bondage gear who had good hearts underneath.
Chu isn't quite so gleeful in his range, telling a tighter, duller, more conventional story of the Joes double-crossed, mostly destroyed, then seeking revenge. He retains a few of the first films more successful elements, including the rival ninjas, raised and trained together, who formed the fan-favourite geekbait of the comics glory years (played by a charismatic Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow and Ray Park under a mask as the mute Snake Eyes). The best scene in the film - perhaps in both films - is the extended action sequence as Snake Eyes and new protege Jinx attempt to kidnap Storm Shadow from his Himalayan retreat, filled with thrillingly vertiginous shots of ninjas balletically battling on ropes hung from cliff-tops, all of it shot with a clear elegance and rhythm that serve as a reminder that Chu made his name as a director of musicals, of a sort.
The plot revolves around a good old-fashioned quest for global domination and is foiled through good old-fashioned firepower, with the biggest scenes in the film decorated with huge orange explosions and shouting, gurning figures in motion. Those characters have loose personalities but absolutely no depth or emotional weight - Dwayne Johnson's Roadblock seems to willingly abandon his family in his quest for revenge, Adrianne Palicki's Lady Jaye is saddled with ridiculously shallow daddy issues which are brought up through her spats with Bruce Willis' Colonel Joe Coulson, while the villains are just several shades of pure, insane evil. The story is formed by a series of escapes, attacks and scenes where people plan escapes and attacks, but it all looks slick and pretty when it needs to, and Chu keeps it rolling and making sense (for the most part).
If it lacks the sense of fun of the first film, its still somewhat refreshing to see a blockbuster so lacking in pomposity and so unafraid of seeming so utterly silly. This, after all, is a film unafraid of using RZA as the sensei of a ninja clan, depicting the destruction of London, having its heroes shoot remote control bullets, and giving Walton Goggins a scene-stealing cameo as the warden of a cryogenic prison deep underground in Germany. The G.I. Joe films are willing to try anything crazy in the hopes that something will work, and that's an endearing quality.