Why 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' Might Be the Most Expensive Political Satire of All Time

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The following article contains spoilers for "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."

People will tell you that the best part of “G.I. Joe: Ninja Mountain” is the scene with all the ninjas on the mountain. People will also tell you that the movie is not called “G.I. Joe: Ninja Mountain,” and on both of these counts people are very, very wrong (well, except for the second one). The sequence in which rival clans of ninjas play a game of keep-away on zip-lines suspended between Himalayan peaks is certainly an elegantly staged spectacle, but the highlight of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is unquestionably the dual performance of Jonathan Pryce as both the unnamed President of the United States, and the evil COBRA operative Zoltan, a master of disguise who is holding the President hostage in an underground bunker and impersonating him in public (Arnold Vosloo fits into this equation somewhere, but his appearance in the film is so brief that I swore I was seeing a weird, Arnold Vosloo-themed glitch in the 3D, which struck me as far more reasonable than Arnold Vosloo appearing in a movie for about 11 frames).

Pryce is a veritable icon of the silver screen, instantly recognizable from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and a whole bunch of other movies that tragically aren’t “Brazil,” but this appears to be the most fun that he’s ever had. Removing the American flag on his lapel and replacing it with one bearing the COBRA insignia, Pryce is cartoon villainy at its finest, and – unlike, say Michael Shannon in “Premium Rush – his hammy performance, most certainly not kosher for Passover, is actually supported by the tone of the film around him. This character of an imposter president fits very comfortably into a film world in which world leaders actually bring their nuclear suitcases to a global summit. A world in which Walton Goggins is the warden of a top secret underground prison that’s buried several miles beneath the German countryside and exists to house a whopping three prisoners. A world so ridiculous that The RZA is introduced as a blind sensei for wayward ninjas, and your natural inclination within the context of the film is to think, “yeah, that seems about right.”

And yet, for all of that, Jonathan Pryce’s Zoltan / President felt oddly familiar to me – outlandish, sure, but not entirely alien or unexpected. As I watched the film, marveling at the extent to which director Jon Chu truly owned the idea of making his movie a live-action cartoon, I couldn’t shake the idea that “Retaliation,” which almost entirely eschews the nostalgia that such films are typically designed to satisfy, was using camp as a conduit for satire.

“Retaliation’s” press notes begin with a quote from producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who addresses his excitement for returning to the world of G.I. Joe by saying, “I thought that ending the first film with the suggestion that there was an imposter in the oval office was something that was completely unique and would be an interesting thing to examine...” The 17% of registered voters who think that President Obama is a Muslim would probably agree, at least with the second part.

I was entertaining this dementedly political reading of the film (or it was entertaining me) until a pivotal scene in the middle of the film convinced me that – at the very least – my silly approach wasn’t entirely unjustified. The sequence in question concerns a fundraising event that Zartan (as the President) attends, I suppose in order to maintain appearances. The Joes are convinced that the President is an impostor (because Channing Tatum has been murdered, and this obviously goes straight to the top), and the buxom Lady Jaye (not to be confused with this Lady Jaye) is sent into the belly of the beast in order acquire some of the “President’s” DNA (not like that). Eventually, after representing herself as a reporter for Fox News and being invited to dance with the lecherous Zartan, Lady Jaye is able to pluck one of the villain’s hairs, and the Joes are quickly able to determine that the President is not the man he claims to be. It may not have been directly inspired by Donald Trump’s hilariously deranged quest to acquire Obama’s birth certificate, but – in much the same way that “The Dark Knight Rises” reflected the Occupy movement without having been informed by it – “Retaliation” is inextricably of its time.

The other day I had an opportunity to chat with Jon Chu, the film’s director, and I asked him about this reading of the film, and if any of the satirical political overtones were intentional.

“Did we discuss how political things were trying to say? No, not really. But what’s in the DNA of G.I. Joe is that we’re always using contemporary ideas and things that are actually happening. The idea that there’s a Blackwater-type group called COBRA that the government is supporting is very interesting, and not saying anything about that situation other than, those things happen in our world and it could go as far as this. It’s funny, going back to ‘Dr. Strangelove’ as a satire about the ridiculousness of our world, and what we can believe or choose to believe or not believe is a fun thing to make fun of, and have a crazy badass adventure in the middle of it all.”

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Chu referenced “Dr. Stangelove” several different times during our conversation as the film that he repeatedly turned to during production, not unlike how Orson Welles supposedly watched “Stagecoach” over 40 times while making “Citizen Kane.” While the influence of Kubrick’s masterpiece is most obvious during “Retaliation’s” climactic war room shenanigans (perhaps the cinema’s most gleefully succinct portrait of escalation), the entire film is devoted to using the ridiculousness of its world to expose the ridiculousness of our own.

The world of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” involves a sinister conspiracy that has seen the President of the United States be replaced by an agent from a foreign land, disguised as our leader but actually bent on our ruin. It’s a world in which American civilians need to line every inch of their otherwise idyllic middle-class home with machine guns in order to protect themselves, grenades in the garbage disposal because, you know, we need to fight for our freedom and stuff. It’s a world that many Americans will recognize as a reflection of their own – while roughly 83% of us see “Retaliation” as a parodic vision of our country, the paranoid delusions of a vocal minority seen to their logical conclusion, some people are going to watch this thing like it’s a Frederick Wiseman documentary.

There’s a type of American citizen who believes that President Obama is, for all intents and purposes, Zartan, and that they are General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), stockpiling their God-given weapons and just waiting for their call to arms. The film evinces nothing but the highest respect for our troops, reserving most of its sniggers for Colton, the original G.I. Joe, who has retired but nevertheless maintains a hilariously obscene cache of illegal weaponry in his otherwise modest home. While the first few reveals of Colton’s weapon cache are coded as “cool,” the montage bulldozes past “cool toys of death and destruction!” and continues to escalate until it feels like a sequence from “The Naked Gun 44 and No Quarter,” offering diehard gun nuts a fetishistic motherlode of their sacred bliss, only to immediately remind them how absurd General Colton’s enemy is (his name is “Cobra Commander” and he wears A CAPE). A funhouse mirror in the guise of a fantasy, “Retaliation” could almost be considered the NRA equivalent of “Spring Breakers.”

This might ultimately be lost on those for whom it would make the greatest impression, but this massively successful blockbuster film – so absurd that it makes the previous live-action installment feel like Cassavetes in comparison – indelibly illustrates the sort of mad villainy that would be required to validate the fear-mongering that currently exerts such a troubling influence in our country. “Resistance” inflates an ideological bubble until it’s so impossibly oversized that the slightest movement might cause it to explode all over our 3D glasses. It’s not exactly “Animal Farm” for a new generation, but its exaggerated caricature of American neuroses might just help one person to better know the world as it actually exists. And knowing is half the battle.