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February 03, 2012

‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’: Bruce Willis takes command

Posted in: Movies

Dwayne Johnson (left) plays Roadblock and Bruce Willis (center) plays Colton in "G.I. Joe Retaliation." (Paramount Pictures)

The invasion is underway — “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” won’t arrive in theaters until June 29, but the commando sequel is already trying to win hearts and minds with the new commercial that airs on Super Bowl Sunday during the big game on NBC. It’s a film that will be driven by action and sprinkled with comedy, according to producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, but it also aspires to bridge an interesting pop-culture generation gap.

When the first film in the franchise, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” arrived in theaters in 2009, di Bonaventura heard from plenty of confused people — the common link was that most had grown up in the 1960s or 1970s when G.I. Joe was a brand name synonymous with the 12-inch-tall military-man toy that introduced the term “action figure.” They were all unaware of the 1980s reinvention of the brand — in Marvel Comics, toys and animation — that used G.I. Joe as the code name for an elite, high-tech military force.

G.I. Joe, old-school version (Los Angeles Times archives)

“One of the things that everybody kept asking was, ‘Who is Joe?’ Most of us who didn’t grow up with the comic books or the animated series hear the name and think of a single person, not a group,” di Bonaventura said. “People who did grow up with those comics think of it as a plural… I was someone who grew up with the action figures, so when I saw the animated series I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ That wasn’t the Joe in my imagination.”

Viewing that schism as a story opportunity, the new movie melds the mythology of different eras by presenting G.I. Joe both as a group and as an individual. Veteran action star Bruce Willis joins the franchise as General Joseph B. Colton, the “original G.I. Joe,” and a character that actually appeared a few times in the later issues of Marvel’s military tales. Now the character moves to the very center of the on-screen universe.

“In this movie putting a face on who Joe is — in Bruce Willis — and that idea of having the original Joe is great for the audience that doesn’t know the Joe of the 1980s but knows the Joe of the 1960s and 1970s,”  di Bonaventura said. “There’s a combination of these things coming together in a really great way.”

Willis joins Dwayne Johnson as the two major cast additions. Channing Tatum, meanwhile, returns as Duke and shares the screen with Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, Ray Stevenson and RZA.

“We have a couple of advantages: Channing is a bigger star [than he was when the first was released], Bruce is a well-established star and Rock is a well-established star,” di Bonaventura said. “That’s a big advantage over the first movie. That positions us in a way that we can say to the audience that we’re trying for a certain kind of film.”

The arrival of Johnson is interesting — the former ballplayer and wrestler seems to be in a phase of his career where he specializes in late arrivals by jumping on moving franchises to add muscle to their sequels. It worked in “Fast Five” and now he’s doing it with “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” and the new “G.I Joe.”

"G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" from 1982 (Marvel Comics)

“He literally is bigger than life and I think that helps in this kind of large-scale adventure — sometimes it’s an advantage to be small and sometimes it’s an advantage to be big,”  di Bonaventura said. “In this world having the sort of physical capacity he has — on top of the ability to deliver the humor — that’s a great combination for the franchise. It’s great because [the series has] found the right tone and I think that’s so much about what the challenge of a franchise is now — finding the right tone. One of the things we talked a great deal about is that when someone gets punched, you feel the punch. It was one of the guiding principles of it. We really wanted you to feel the muscularity of the franchise, which exists in the comic books and the animated episodes. At the same time we wanted to hold on to the tongue-in-cheek humor.”

Perhaps, but the franchise has to hope that new director Jon M. Chu (“Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” “Step-Up 3D”) can take the place of demolition expert Stephen Sommers, a director with far more experience when it comes to effects-laden projects (“The Mummy” and “Scorpion King” franchises). The first movie grossed more than $302 million and that will be both a boon and a challenge to the newcomer, but  di Bonaventura says the new recruit is ready for his tour of duty.

“He’s come to this with a certain delight in dealing with the characters,” the producer said of the 32-year-old director. “Because Jon grew up with this in his DNA, there’s a confidence that he has shown as a director that shows in the film; an understanding of these [characters] that the fans are going to appreciate as well.”

– Geoff Boucher

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