Next week, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the sequel to a not very good movie called G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, will finally hit theaters after an eight-month delay. I have now seen G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and it's a substantial improvement over its predecessor (we'll get to that). More important, at least to me: Whereas the first movie got it's inspiration from ... well, your guess is as good as mine where it came from, the new installment is unquestionably influenced by Larry Hama's excellent comic-book series. (At least as much as it can be, having to pick up where that first movie left off.)
Some background: This particular brand of G.I. Joe started in 1982 with a series of military toys meant to compete with the incredibly popular line of 3-and-3/4-inch Star Wars action figures. Simultaneously, Larry Hama at Marvel was developing a storyline for these characters that would become the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic book. In my experience, G.I. Joe began to dominate the lives of young boys by late 1983, partly because Star Wars was done making movies for the next 16 years and we needed something new. That something new was G.I. Joe (and, a little later, Transformers).
Yeah, yeah, like everyone else, I watched the animated series, which spawned the cringe-worthy refrain that is forever embedded in our popular culture: "And knowing is half the battle." Look, the animated series was fine, I suppose. But those of us who read the Hama comic books enjoy a special kinship. Hama injected realistic dialogue (including military slang, demystified for the reader in a series of helpful footnotes) and true personalities into these characters. The first action figure I owned was Flash, but his adventures in the comic paled next to those of the Jeep driver, Clutch. Clutch was from New Jersey! Asbury Park, to be specific. (Yes, Clutch was basically Bruce Springsteen. The first issue even includes a "Thunder Road" reference.)
(Also, as a warning: if you hadn't figured this out yet, I'm going to get pretty nerdy about G.I. Joe here.)
In anticipation of the new movie, I've been re-reading the Hama comics. Before, I could remember a few specific story lines (issues #26 and #27 specifically, which reveal the origin of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow's relationship), but, for the most part, I remembered only that they were good without being able to say just why. Looking at the old comics now, it's amazing how well they hold up.
Whereas the cartoon was corny and sincere, the comic series had a tongue-in-cheek humor that gave its stories depth. I mean, G.I. Joe's secret base is hidden underground in Staten Island. Staten Island! The base (called The Pit) is in the city limits of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, but nobody is going to find them in Staten Island.
Even better, Cobra -- the terrorist organization that G.I. Joe is constantly fighting -- operates out of an anywhere town called Springfield. (This was long before The Simpsons pulled the same trick.) The best part: Cobra took over Springfield with a pyramid scheme centered on selling soap door-to-door. Their trick was to brainwash the soap-selling team into terrorists by accusing anyone who fell out of line of being "un-American."
My point is, this was a surprisingly sophisticated companion piece (put it this way: an issue that I just re-read made a Les Mis reference that I never would have understood as a child) for what essentially amounted to a toy line, and that's why those of us who grew up on the comic resented the first movie as glorified garbage. (To be fair, the fact that the production of the first film happened during the writers' strike didn't help matters.)
I've heard the argument that the first movie is "fun." At times, it is "fun" and, at first, it was "fun" to see actors playing these characters that I loved so much. That first G.I. Joe is a lot of things, but it's not G.I. Joe.
The biggest problem with the second film is that it's a direct sequel to the first film. In other words: it has to spend time cleaning up the mess left by the first movie. It's a shame that Jon Chu, along with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, weren't allowed to just start with a clean slate. So, unfortunately, there's no hidden Staten Island base or Cobra-infested city of Springfield. And, unfortunately, a lot of the best characters were not only used up but misused terribly in the first movie (the Baroness is a sad example).
Fortunately, three great characters weren't spent in the first film: Flint, Lady Jaye and Roadblock. And the new movie does a nice job of wiping out the excess of its predecessor by literally killing pretty much everyone else right off the bat.
The first issue of the G.I. Joe comic was dripping with way too many introductions and too much exposition. For the second issue, the story went small -- focusing on Stalker, Snake Eyes, Scarlett and Breaker on a mission at the North Pole. We finally had time to get to know these characters. Now, the second movie goes small (character-wise, at least) -- focusing on Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) as they try to figure out why the rest of the team was obliterated.
(Speaking of Snake Eyes, G.I. Joe: Retaliation borrows heavily from issue #21, "Silent Interlude," and issue #27, "Snake Eyes The Origin Part II," in shaping his interactions with Storm Shadow.)
Oh, and then there's Cobra Commander. Yeah, that ridiculous first movie introduced him as a disgruntled and disfigured Army veteran named Rex (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt for reasons that I will never understand), who later became something called The Doctor, who later became Cobra Commander for about, oh, five minutes. At least, I think he became Cobra Commander. I mean, he called himself Cobra Commander but he certainly didn't look anything like any Cobra Commander that I ever knew.
Thankfully, Cobra Commander looks like Cobra Commander in Retaliation. (At one point in the film someone yells "cool uniform" as he walks by.) At the end of The Rise of Cobra, he and his partner-in-crime Destro have been captured and stored in some sort of underground water cylinder. Yeah, awesome. So, unfortunately, Retaliation has to deal with all that. But once that's over, any reference to Cobra Commander having anything to do with the character we met in the first film does not exist. (Among other things, he now sports a fairly intimidating deep voice.)
In a perfect world, as a Larry Hama G.I. Joe fan, Paramount would have let Jon Chu start over. Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. But, after Chu does his best to correct the mistakes of the first film, there's a definite feel more reminiscent to Hama's comics. (And, for what it's worth, Hama was at my screening and I heard through the grapevine that he was pleased.)
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a huge step in the right direction and I hope that Chu's given a chance to make a third film. A third film in which he doesn't have to worry about having to clean up someone else's mess.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.
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