Smile Politely

Do I smell an Oscar?

Every once in a while, a film comes along that absolutely defies criticism. It has such visual beauty, complexity of characterization, that even the most jaded and academic of reviewers must simply sit back in appreciation. For some generations, that film might be Citizen Kane, or perhaps Casablanca. In more recent years, perhaps Schindler’s List. I was worried, as I thought ahead to my young daughter’s future as a filmgoer, that there might not be such a zenith of moviemaking to admire so. It turns out that my worry was for nothing, for now I have found G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

In this film, in this wonder of storytelling, mankind finds itself on the brink of absolute destruction. It — nay, We — must face an enemy so horrible, so utterly terrifying that any rational human being can only cower, his last vestige of bravery whizzed down a pant leg. In moments like these, a hero must come forth, like out of the mythic stories of old, to defend humanity and toss the offending villain back into the abyss.

What a film that can boast so many heroes!

First, in a film that finally fulfills the promise of his years training with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson portrays Roadblock. Not since James Stewart’s turn as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life have we seen such a nuanced portrayal of inner turmoil from an actor of such imposing physicality. Acting against type and in defiance of his muscular presence, much like Stewart did throughout his career, Johnson (pictured, above, in a scene from his senior cabaret) uses eloquence as his weapon. Whether grieving the deaths of his fellow soldiers or avenging those deaths with the pathos of a Macduff or a Laertes, Johnson shines and makes his strongest case yet for Oscar glory. To think that this man was passed over not once but twice for roles that went to Daniel Day Lewis. What a John Proctor he would have made. And what a Lincoln. The outtakes of his screen test to play our most beloved, bearded President are worth the cost of the special edition 3D blu-ray. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Spielberg is a hack, he is no judge of talent, and he probably ruined Haley Joel Osment’s career.)

Matching Johnson beat for beat is the perennially underappreciated Bruce “The Rock” Willis. Willis (pictured, left, wearing a military-issue $1,200 suit and flaming pants) is perhaps best known for his immersive character portrayals in such beloved art house fare as Hudson Hawk and The Last Boy Scout. And Willis has scored another low-key touchdown with his work as General Joe Colton, an elder statesman to the younger generation of American heroes. Like a Falstaff to Johnson’s Prince Hal, Willis evokes the stately charm and wisdom of a 21st century John Gielgud. When he wryly observes, “My cholesterol is a little high,” he is speaking for an entire generation of film heroes. He is, in one beautiful moment, speaking for all of us. 

As if these two acting powerhouses weren’t enough for a film of this scope, this film boldly transcends genre by providing the rare example of empowered womanhood that is all too frequently lacking in so-called action films. How often have we watched, embarrassed for our real and celluloid sisters, as women are reduced to being victims or sexualized eye candy? Not so in this movie! In G.I. Joe: Retaliation, womankind is given voice by none other than Adrianne “The Rock” Palicki. Palicki (pictured, right, rocking a military-issue tank top) who may well be the natural successor to such film heroines as Katherine Hepburn and Meryl “The Rock” Streep, is only too comfortable as an equal to powerful men. She is no one’s victim, no one’s eye candy. When she puts on a slinky red dress to infiltrate the headquarters of the enemy, she is putting on a slinky red dress of equality.

For those of you who may attend films of this caliber looking for something other than catharsis, G.I. Joe: Retaliation also features a surprise cameo. Do not think less of such a great film that it would include a bit of fluff for the under-40 crowd. Even the classics have their moments of levity, their sentimental nods to the days and stars of yesteryear. And though I am loath to offer up any “spoilers,” I cannot contain my utter joy to have discovered the true identity of the actor who portrays the popular character Snake Eyes. Although the reliable Ray Park did a serviceable job in the first G.I. Joe film, the producers made a savvy move in securing the presence of a true icon to play the ninja warrior whose face is obscured by a mask. Two words, people: Jaleel White.

I know.

When one identifies as a “critic,” it is assumed that one will find fault with the medium one observes, if only for the sake of saving face or preserving one’s reputation. But to take a film like this to task for anything seems improper, bordering on cruel. I am no Pauline Kael, dismissing Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I am no smurfyblu69, blogging on Tumblr that Mark Wahlberg’s turn in Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes was “assfacey.” With respect to my esteemed colleagues, I’m just not that jaded. I love movies, and today I am a happy, happy man.

When faced with a film of such balletic grace and attention to the nuance of human suffering and triumph over adversity, one need only harken back to director Jon M. Chu’s earlier filmography to know that such a masterpiece was inevitable. As he did with his previous work, including Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Chu weaves a visual tapestry so rich with emotion that one can only hope he will finally receive the acclaim he has so long been denied.

Charles de Gaulle once said, “Nothing great will ever be achieved without great men, and men are great only if they are determined to be so.” Perhaps as a nod to this quote, in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Dwayne Johnson opines, “World ain’t going to save itself.” There’s no getting around it. These are both things that people said.

All of the stars.

See the trailer for this epic masterpiece here, and then run — don’t walk — to your nearest cineplex.

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