By Brian Truitt
Dwayne Johnson is bound to defend the honor of the G.I. Joe franchise, even from invasion by frozen yogurt.
During the first week of filming at an old gravel mine near Baton Rouge, the muscular actor and the rest of the crew of the big-screen sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation (in theaters Thursday) were fighting through exhaustion and 120-degree temperatures. They were maintaining the requisite level of action-movie machismo during the August 2011 shoot, but then director Jon M. Chu ordered Pinkberry for everybody.
"He just gave me the dirtiest look," Chu recalls. "Like, how could you have ordered Pinkberry?!"
Johnson wasn't amused at the time, but he chuckles now at the memory, and co-star D.J. Cotrona jokingly takes the side of his massive fellow thespian: "We're trying to make it gritty and a hard-core movie, and Jon brings friggin' Pinkberry on set. It just threw the whole vibe off. Dwayne was trying to protect the integrity of the film."
More so than icy fat-free treats, camaraderie and character have long been attributes of G.I. Joe, the toy action figure from the '60s that spawned a military-themed universe of comic books, toys and cartoons pitting America's top special operatives against the evil terrorist organization Cobra.
REVIEW: Retaliation finds surer footing this time
Now, 31 years later and with the franchise needing a creative infusion after a so-so first cinematic effort in 2009, two men lead the Joes into a new era: Chu, 33, a life-long Joe nerd whose filmography includes a Justin Bieber documentary and a couple of dance movies; and Johnson, 40, a pro-wrestling champ better known as "The Rock" who's quickly becoming Hollywood's go-to player for jump-starting movie series.
"Like Jon, I grew up on G.I. Joe," says Johnson, who stars as the Joes' heavy-machine gunner Roadblock. "I had a massive collection of G.I. Joe and Star Warsaction figures, and because I was an only child, they were my family and my friends."
While kids have been playing with G.I. Joes since Hasbro introduced the military figures in 1964, whole new generations grew up on the colorful personalities and rivalries between Joes and Cobras. That conflict was the centerpiece of a relaunched '80s toy line; a Marvel Comics series by writer Larry Hama (a Vietnam veteran responsible for many of the Joes, including the silent ninja assassin Snake Eyes); and cartoons in which Cobra troops couldn't hit the broad side of an aircraft carrier.
Those battles switched to the big screen when director Stephen Sommers' G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra arrived in 2009. Yet the box office was not spectacular. In fact, foreign markets seemed to dig this bunch of American heroes more than Americans did: The film made $150 million domestically and just a smidge over that internationally.
More importantly, it wasn't what hard-core Joe-philes were expecting.
Chief among the gripes for Justin Bell of the G.I. Joe fansite GeneralJoes.com: a grating soap-opera subplot connecting Joe leader Duke (Channing Tatum), the Baroness (Sienna Miller) and Cobra Commander (a disfigured Joseph Gordon-Levitt), plus too much science fiction. "There was nothing in there to really connect (fans) to the Joe of their past."
So when Chu was hired to direct the sequel in early 2011, he was left with only a few returning actors - Tatum, Ray Park (as Snake Eyes) and Byung-hun Lee (as Cobra ninja Storm Shadow). But he had a determination to make the Joe movie he wanted to see: Now broken out of his prison, the silver-masked and nefarious Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) has his master of disguise, Zartan, undercover as the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce), and his first step to world domination is wiping out the Joe team in a surprise attack.
Surviving soldiers Roadblock, Flint (Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) are the only ones left to stop Cobra, and they reach out for help to their ninja pal Snake Eyes and the original Joe himself, retired general Joe Colton (Bruce Willis).
"I get what G.I. Joe is," Chu says. "It was the mashup before mashups ever existed. It was part 007, part military, part Western, part martial-arts movie, all mashed together."
Still, fans were skeptical at first of Paramount's decision to sign the 33-year-old director, whose career highlights include Bieber's Never Say Never, Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D. "All you have to do is have Justin Bieber near your name, and you're all of a sudden hated by thousands of people across the world," Bell says.
G.I. Joe producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura also initially questioned whether Chu was the right guy for the job. "I was like, 'Well, wait a second. How does that work? Why would the guy who does those movies be a natural fit?' " he says.
The producer was won over in the end by Chu's sheer fandom. He even went to bat for the director when Chu wanted to spend $1 million to buy a real Russian tank, tear it apart and build a Cobra H.I.S.S. (short for High Speed Sentry).
Watching it fire its turret guns brought out the little kid in Chu, as did the 10-minute mountaintop sequence featuring Snake Eyes, female ninja Jinx (Elodie Yung) and a slew of bad-guy Red Ninjas. For that, he asked Hasbro for a bunch of action figures and conceived the entire scene using plastic men, chairs and couches in a giant room.
"When I see the sequence now, I just see, like, oh yeah, that was that desk lamp we used as the edge of a mountain," Chu says. "It came full circle. I definitely did that as a kid. I'd probably still do it and won't tell anyone."
The filmmaker wasn't the only one on set brought back to his youth. Cotrona, who admits he's "neck-and-neck" with Chu in being a G.I. Joe geek, is playing his favorite character from when he was a tyke, and Palicki says she often stole her big brother Eric's Jinx figure. "I wanted to be a ninja," she says. "Who doesn't, by the way?"
Johnson, though, is a larger-than-life action figure himself, and while he handed Chu never-ending grief about his Bieber and dance movies, the actor instilled a sense of confidence in the director.
"He would crawl on the floor as we're doing stunts in the desert, and his elbows would be bleeding and he'd be totally fine with it," Chu says. "We grew really, really close in those times."
Johnson also infused the movie with needed manliness and charisma, di Bonaventura says. "His scale is so insanely incredible as a human being. You feel the humanity, the testosterone, the humor. It's the trifecta."
In addition to the power in his sizable biceps, Johnson brings box-office brawn to G.I. Joe. The star most recently helped the bottom line of Fast Five two years ago, and now he's a major part of the upcoming Fast & Furious 6 this summer.
Johnson's found a calling as a sequel spark plug, "but that's actually helped revive his career as well as these struggling franchises or franchises that have hit a lull and needed something to spice it up," says Jeff Bock, box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation "can't do $300 million again. It has to get up near $400 million to $500 million, or this is not going to be a trilogy."
Johnson provides a powerful presence, but even he can't solve some of G.I. Joe's biggest problems.
There's a definite generational gap when it comes to fans. They're mainly adults in their 20s to 40s still feeling the nostalgia of the original comics and animation.
"I take my daughter to school, and kids have Transformers backpacks and they're bringing their Transformers. They're not bringing their G.I. Joes anymore," Bock says.
Retaliation is also trying to bounce back from a delay to add high-quality 3-D to the movie. After being scheduled for a June release, it was pulled, even though a marketing blitz was fully in play and tie-in action figures were already on toy shelves.
"We asked the hard question: Are we the best movie we can possibly be right now? Everyone around the table agreed we could be better," Johnson says.
Many fans felt like the rug was pulled out from under them, says Fran O'Boyle ofHisstank.com. In the long run, though, "the extra exposure and marketing the film received is going to help, and we get the extra bonus of 3-D. Everybody's energy level is back up, and there is a very positive vibe."
Chu feels it's part of the tradition of G.I. Joe to reinvent itself every few years, and the director hopes his iteration excites today's youngsters and children of the '80s as it has the little Jon Chu inside him.
"Each of those specific characters was a part of who you were as a kid: the rebel, the party guy, the serious smart one. Whatever day you felt like you could be that guy, even Snake Eyes the silent assassin, you could be any of those things," says the director, who's raiding his toybox again for a new Masters of the Universe movie, starring He-Man and his fantasy friends from yesteryear.
"Literally, I'm kind of living my childhood dream right now. I'm not gonna lie.''