Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Chatting with G.I. Joe director Jon M. Chu

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Ray Park and Dwayne Johnson, stars of 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation'. Photo / AP
Ray Park and Dwayne Johnson, stars of 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation'. Photo / AP

So despite it being wholly dismissed by pretty much everyone except boys under ten-years-old, I really loved 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It felt like an appropriate cinematic extrapolation of the toys I obsessed over as a youth, and a damn fine action film in its own right.

The sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation (opening in New Zealand cinemas today) is equally as awesome, despite something of a cast overhaul and a new direction for the franchise. I recently had the chance to talk to its director Jon M. Chu. Here's how it went down:

Me: I was quite a big fan of the first G.I. Joe film and I was worried that the second one was going to move a bit further away with original director Stephen Sommers not being involved, but it's a decent sequel.

Jon M. Chu: Thank you. It was a big challenge to make it a reinvention without losing the spirit of the first one because I loved the first one aswell.

So you saw it as a reinvention?

What I love about the tradition of G.I. Joe is that every few years it gets reinvented by some other person and re-interpreted and obviously I got help from a lot of great people like The Rock and Bruce Willis to bridge the gap with Channing. It was a very interesting hybrid I must admit - it was a straight sequel but it wasn't a straight reboot either, but I kinda liked that.

You're about the same age as me, did you play with G.I. Joes as a kid?

I played with G.I. Joes all the time and I mixed and matched with all the toys so I had my Joes, my He-Man and all those things together. I played in the mud; in the sand; outside my house; in the trees and the couches. I literally had week-long adventures that would continue. I'm convinced that's where I fell in love with storytelling and moviemaking.

The thing I loved about the first film is and the sequel was that they created the exact kinds of scenarios that I envisaged when I played with my G.I. Joes. Was that your goal with this film?

Yes. Definitely. I did not wanna lose the playfulness of G.I. Joe. Whenever it became too serious or too real, it lost the power of adventure. G.I. Joe to me was always an adventure. They weren't just a group of uniformed people going after one another, they each had their own skill set. The ninjas. The military. Half-espionage movie, half a Western. All these things mashed together. It was a mash-up before mash-ups existed. Getting to play with those worlds was really fun.

Speaking of ninjas, the cliffside action sequence blew me away. I'm not a fan of 3D, but I can't think of a time it's been better utilised in terms of the spatial geography of what's happening. How much thought went into planning that sequence?

So much. That wasn't something you just go out and shoot, it took months and months of planning; and months and months of shooting and months and months of post to just figure out how all the pieces fit together. When we designed it we literally took all the couches in the office and put them around as if they were mountains. I had figures of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and Jinx right there. Plus the red ninjas - I called Hasbro and said 'Send us all the ninjas you've got!'. We brought in our pre-viz team to show them where I wanted the ninjas so I literally would swing 'em across one couch to another. Then we had a mountain climber guy come in and tell us 'You need a pick-point here, a pick-poing there to do this here'. Then the guys designed the 3D mountains based on where the couches were. It was a very collaborative effort. When we went to go shoot the stuff, we went up to the mountains and shot some real zip-lining 1000 feet up in the air in these skin-tight outfits that were freezing cold. It was a long process that involved the co-ordination of many different departments.

How challenging was it dealing with the delay in the film's release [Retaliation was originally scheduled for release in June last year]?

It was a challenge really only emotionally. It's hard to be sprinting to a deadline and then be pulled back and totally shift gears to make it in 3D, which is a very tedious, long process to do it right. Luckily Paramount realised it had to take time and put in the right resources. But it was hard at first, no doubt, expecially all the rumours that were coming out online. We couldn't answer them, because what are you gonna say? We didn't re-shoot anything, we were just literally making it 3D.

So you didn't shoot any extra Channing Tatum footage [as was rumoured]?

No. It's pretty much the same movie, we enhanced some shots here and there for the 3D to work. But nothing dramatic at all.

Was it your call to remove the lips from Snake Eyes' mask for the new film?

That was the first thing I did when I got hired. No lips on Snake Eyes! I love the first movie, but I can't do the lips.

He looked cooler in the new film.

We started with Ray Park [who plays Snake Eyes] and said to him: 'What can we do to make it better for you to move around?' We wanted to feel like there was a person inside, not a creature. We must've done 50 or 60 versions of the suit in concept form. Then we probably built about ten of them. It was a major priority for us to get Snake Eyes right. And it's so hard because everybody has a different idea about what Snake Eyes should be. We talked about every piece of that suit.

Why no Ripcord? I missed Marlon Wayans.

We already have too many characters as it is, it was hard to balance so many things and we wanted to make way for this new wing of the G.I. Joes. You never know in the future what might happen, I think we left it open that there are Joes still out there. We'll see what happens.

Considering he was the main bad guy in the first film, Destro's exit in this film is somewhat ignominious.

Destro had his time. We really wanted to focus on Cobra Commander, I needed to establish a lot of things for Cobra.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt [who played the role in the first film] was never a possibility for Cobra Commander?

From the very beginning when we were talking about it, he was doing other things and wasn't available. Cobra Commander is a big figure in the G. I. Joe world and we wanted to establish him with the silver mask. It was a long process too, trying to figure out his look.

Your background in musical and dance films [Chu directed Step Up 2: The Streets; Step Up 3 and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never] - does that inform how you choreograph action scenes?

Yes and no. The main thing it does is help me realise that it's not about the moves necessarily. It's all about how you use the space; what story you're telling; what drives the character; what objects you're using - because that's more interesting and creative than anything else. How the camera interacts with the action - whether it counters it or supports it, or goes against the movement. The movement isn't just the actual moves, it's about the attitude. If John Wayne walks out and leans on the side of a wall, he has an attitude that says more about his character than a paragraph of dialogue ever could. Same thing when Bruce Willis walks out with his gun and he doesn't give a s**t. That shows you that he knows his stuff so well, he doesn't have to try. Even Snake Eyes, he doesn't have any voice yet he has this character; he has this fun personality - he can give people s**t and joke around. Was it because I did dance movies that I could do that? Probably not, but it was nice to have that experience so I didn't get caught up in other things.

I enjoyed how this film further developed the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow storyline.

I think they deserve their own movie.

To finish up on, which action movies inspired you as a film fan when you were growing up?

I grew up in the Amblin era so Indiana Jones and all those films were really fun. Even just cartoons and stuff. I love that there was a humour and a fun to the action. Die Hard obviously. All those movies, and even as I got older, the Hong Kong films and Stephen Chow stuff just gave a sense of brevity to the action genre that I loved. I loved that fun, playfulness. That's why I go to the movies - to escape and go on an adventure.

Amped for the second G.I. Joe film? Did you like the first one? Comment below!

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