These feelings get amplified for me when the subject matter taps into something from my past and resonates with my inner child. We all remember running around the playground as our favourite heroes and villains from the movies, TV and comic books. Sometimes we would re-enact scenes from the source material, but more often we would create new moments, envisioning new situations and challenges for the characters. In those moments, we were drawn in so completely that we were no longer simply spectators; we became invested in the creation of the world those characters live in, contributing to their universe, breathing life into them. In those playground moments, we became director, writer and actor all in one; we became the fanboy.
The people at Hasbro understood this long before the term was coined. Their brilliant cross-merchandising of toys and cartoons in the early to mid-'80s gave us such iconic franchises as Transformers, My Little Pony, Jem and the Holograms, and of course G.I. Joe, forever linking them to our psyches and time-honoured places in pop culture.
So when I saw the trailers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, they whet my appetite, awakening the fanboy in me, but also triggered a growing trepidation. Watching them, I began to hope and pray that the filmmakers had taken care to protect and preserve everything that I hold dear about this revered franchise, while at the same time not simply providing a re-hash of what had come before. You know -- the same, but different. But the same.
To strike out in a new direction or to stay tried and true to the original canon ... it's a dilemma that any filmmaker tackling such venerated material faces, inevitably putting them squarely into the crosshairs of a fanboy's scrutiny. There needs to be a careful balance, allowing for both familiarity and growth. Sadly, the movie doesn't quite do enough of either, and ends up touching down directly in the No Man's Land of banality.
To be fair, Retaliation is a significant improvement over its predecessor, The Rise of Cobra. A grittier and more mature tone permeates the film. The level of mercilessness is amplified in the story, which takes some bold and unexpectedly dark turns. The tech is toned down from the original to something a bit more palatable, shifting away from the overtly cartoony sci-fi elements to something more purely action-based. There were also some good performances turned in, especially by Jonathan Pryce, who clearly relished the opportunity to delve deeper into his dual role.
And of course, there are the fanboy moments -- the tantalizing reveal of a character, the mention of a piece of equipment, the glimpse of some small detail, all clearly meant to be a wink and a nod to the initiated, to say "We know this is what you came to see." Indeed, the first 20 minutes of the film managed to prove well-balanced, between embracing the familiar and wanting to take us into new territory, and I was feeling suitably impressed.
From there, however, the film is besieged by clunky missteps. The switch was sudden and palpable, as if the filmmakers felt they hit their quota for originality and then retreated to the territory of the overly-familiar. Character integration is spotty; some are well-articulated while others are summarily introduced and dismissed in mere moments, leaving you to wonder why they were even mentioned. Dialogue and humour is at times relatively tight and at others incredibly awkward (I'll give the high cholesterol gag a pass, but I cannot condone the use of the word "cyberblast". Ever.). The plot, promising at first, begins to unravel into a string of cliched devices and holes.
Once again, the fanboy in me was let down. I was rooting for this film to provide me with that feeling of being on the playground, but ultimately, I left the theatre feeling like someone who found his old box of toys in the attic and, after the initial rush of reminiscence, noticed all the nicks and scratches from overuse. The glimmer of nostalgia somewhat faded, I mentally re-packed them and put them back on the shelf where I expect they'll probably stay. At least until the next trailer.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens in theatres on March 29.