When is violence okay for kids? In the mind of the Motion Picture Association of America, violence without blood is a lesser form of violence that kids won't find disturbing. Films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation illustrate how bizarre that distinction is, since Retaliation involves dozens of people being shot, blown up, sliced with swords, beaten, and falling to their deaths. It's just that all of that violence happens without blood or gore -- shot or sliced people simply fall over, the moment of death happens off camera, and dead bodies are clean and intact. But is hiding the effects of lifelike violence really the best way to present it to kids? And is the growing trend of movies like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which are largely aimed at an international audience, making big action movies worse? Watch my ReThink Review of G.I. Joe: Retaliation below (transcript following).
Last week, I praised Olympus Has Fallen for having an appropriate amount of violence and bloodshed for a movie of its subject matter. That earned the film an R-rating, as it should, instead of trying to lure younger audiences by going for a PG-13. This week, we have virtually the opposite scenario with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film full of guns, explosions, violence, and death, yet is scrubbed clean of blood and other realities of actual violence to supposedly make it appropriate for kids.
2009's equally bloodless G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra introduced us to the elite international special forces group, the G.I. Joes, and showed the creation of the international terrorist group known as Cobra, ending with Cobra's master of disguise, Zartan, taking the place of the American president, played by Jonathan Pryce. In Retaliation, after the imposter president attempts to wipe out all of the Joes so a revitalized Cobra can implement their plan to take over the world using space-based weapons, it's up to a new group of surviving Joes to figure out the plot and stop it.
Now here's a SPOILER ALERT, or really more of a warning. When I say a "new group" of Joes, I mean it, because Retaliation seems to be the sequel that no one wanted to come back for. Channing Tatum, who's clearly moved on to better things, returns as Duke just long enough so using him in the film's advertising isn't a complete lie. Marlon Wayans as Ripcord, Sienna Miller as the Baroness, Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander, Rachel Nichols as Scarlett, Christopher Eccleston as Destro, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Heavy Duty, Saïd Taghmaoui as Breaker -- all gone. So if you're a fan of these actors or their characters, you're in for disappointment if you see Retaliation.
However, the film's two most interesting characters, the feuding ninjas Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (played by Ray Park and Korean hunk Lee-Byung Hun), are back being badasses and filling out their mythologies. The surviving Joes are Roadblock (played by Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson), Lady Jaye (played by Adrianne Palicki), lady ninja in training Jinx (played by Elodie Yung), and Flint (played by D.J. Cotrona), who spends most of the movie seeming befuddled that he's in a movie. Bruce Willis also joins the team as General Joe Colton, confirming that Willis will be in just about anything if it's not too much work and you pay him enough. New bad guys include Ray Stevenson as Firefly, Luke Bracey as the masked Cobra Commander, and lots of nameless Cobra minions sent to bloodless deaths in droves.
Of course, the G.I. Joe movies are meant to essentially be live-action cartoons, not a realistic take on how an elite fighting force using next-generation technology would fight an international terrorist organization. But why is it that the conservative, often puritanical MPAA thinks that kids should only see movies where mass violence starring live humans, not cartoons, is turned into a bloodless farce? If we're worried that kids see too much violence, isn't it better to make movie violence as awful, scary, and detestable as it is in real life instead of trying to sanitize it by making every death bloodless or something that happens just offscreen?
This take on violence isn't the only thing that makes G.I. Joe: Retaliation a crummy movie. Retaliation should be labeled "Made for children and non-English speakers," meaning that the action is big, but the story, acting, and characters are lame and simplistic since kids and foreign viewers reading subtitles and looking for Hollywood spectacle supposedly won't care, and the cast seems to be chosen more for international box office appeal than performing talent.
But I still hold to the idea that big movies don't have to be dumb, and they certainly don't have to display their mercenary goals on their sleeves. Some of the action in Retaliation is decent, but the lack of blood and pain also means a lack of stakes, consequences, and tension. If you like dumb, mindless action, G.I. Joe: Retaliation might satisfy you, but when there are so many great and compelling action movies out there, all of us should be expecting a lot more.