Despite mixed responses from critics and moviegoers, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra scored over $300 million at the global box office. As a result, it did not come as surprise when Paramount Pictures announced that a sequel was on the way. However, for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura went back to the drawing board - enlisting the help of Step Up 3D director, Jon M. Chu for a half-sequel/half-reboot with a gritty military tone.
Chu made drastic cuts to the original film roster, retaining only a few key players, filling the cast with fresh faces in iconic Joe and Cobra roles. Instead of a traditional sequel (such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) or reboot (like Man of Steel), Chu and Bonaventura went back to basics for Retaliation - attempting to remedy criticisms from Stephen Sommers' original entry while at the same time bringing back the elements (and characters) that were well-recieved the first time around.
Last year, we had a chance to chat with Chu and Bonaventura during group interviews on the Retaliation set. You can read our full G.I. Joe: Retaliation set visit report as well as interviews with Dwayne Johnson (Roadblock) plus Ray Park (Snake Eyes), Byung-hun Lee (Storm Shadow), and Elodie Yung (Jinx) right now. Make sure to check back in the coming days as we post further interviews including Ray Stevenson (Firefly) and DJ Cotrona (Flint).
Check out the latest trailer for G.I. Joe: Retaliation below:
Fans initially balked at the notion that Chu, best known for directing the 3D Justin Bieber concert film Never Say Never, could lead a gritty and violent G.I. Joe adaptation. However, even though Retaliation is Chu's first foray in directing blockbuster action, the filmmaker might be an ideal choice - since, unlike veteran directors and producers, he actually grew up watching the iconic 1980s cartoon series. As a result, Chu genuinely understands what made the characters so memorable on TV and in the comics - with a vision for how to make them equally impactful in a modern live-action film.
NOTE: The following is an abridged (and more concise) version of the interviews. You can read the entire transcript from our conversation with Chu and Bonaventura:
Jump into how you got on this gig? Was it something you went after?
Chu: Yea, I was finishing up my other movie and I always loved action adventure. It (the genre) is something I always wanted to do. Obviously, I played with Joe's as a kid and loved them. To me, it was an opportunity to do something cool with Joe. I was talking with Adam Goodman at the time and it happened to be the moment they were looking for a director. He asked what I liked about it and I told him how when I was a little kid I would take them out into the backyard and play in the mud, dirt, and the water. I loved the aesthetic, which was week long adventures in my backyard and I love the idea of making a movie like that cause I don't think we have a lot of those movies, like fantasy style with hard action.
You aren’t known for being an action director so was selling yourself to the studio difficult?
Chu: Yea, going after any movie there is a lot of competition to try and get it. To me, it was more about “I've always loved movement”. Storytelling and movement without words. Even when watching John Wayne on the porch or Cyd Charisse taking off her jacket and she reveals her red dress all those things communicate so much more than paragraph dialogue could, and that’s what I’m fascinated with. Convincing them to hire me for the job I guess was just my expressing my passion for the characters and how we want to make it human while also grounding the characters. Make them individuals because that’s what I love. My Roadblock is MY Roadblock. He was a person with a personality and with a different uniform then everyone else who had an arm missing and that shipment in was really cool to me.
Is it difficult to step into a world that another director has defined, with some of the same cast and iconography, to define it in your way as well?
Chu: Again, Yes and No. There are some things we definitely knew which we couldn't abandon. My idea of what GI Joe is is a little bit different than that and how I have always fantasized about how Joe would be. Since we are starting from a different part of the universe we were able to make it fresh. Of course, when you put someone like Dwayne, Willis, and these guys in there, it changes up the whole vibe. So no matter what, where we started it the tone was going to be different. I never really thought we had to tie into anything visually from the first movie. Not that I had anything against it, just isn’t my style. So like the costumes and stuff we were able to refresh everything. Also, in the tradition of GI Joe every time they release a new version the characters would get a new costume.
Bonaventura was quick to back Chu's vision for Retaliation - asserting that, more than anything else, the filmmakers have focused on adjusting the series' tone. Where as Sommers' Rise of Cobra was a cartoony, CGI-heavy, adventure, Chu's Retaliation is presented as a down and dirty military film - set in a world where the lines between science fiction and reality are blurred.
Can you talk about the difference between this and the first film?
Bonaventura: I think tone is probably the biggest difference. Paramount came to me with John as the way to do it and looking at his past work I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of what he’s done and how that would apply to what this was. And so we really talked a great deal initially about, one, he grew up with Joe and he really understood it and so I knew immediately that he had an internal grounding in it that was really good. It wasn’t a fantasy to him. It was part of his childhood. So there was this innate understanding and we talked a lot about tone and what he liked and what he liked about Joe growing up and what he would try and apply to it today - versus what we had done originally. And so we kept talking about how do you give this thing as much intensity on a physical level and still play within the boundaries of what it is. The script we had developed prior to him joining on, which pretty much stayed the same, we kept making it better but we played a lot more Kung-Fu in this movie. The storyline between Snake and Storm is… there’s two storylines that are going on: the Joes as well as Snake and Storm and these storylines then converge. So you spend a great deal of time in that world as you can see. It was great to get The RZA to be the Blind Master – one of our favorite casting choices. And I think we had a hell of a lot more time to prepare this movie than the last one and so the costuming and the sets have reflected the amount of time we had.
You’re walking a fine line between rebooting and sequelizing this round – how do you walk that line in terms of trying a different tone this time but you really want people to enjoy the first movie?
Bonaventura: It is tricky. I was trying to think back when we started first talking about the fact we were going to try to, I’ll say, reenergize the cast – if anybody had really tried that in a way. I think either people abandon everything and start over or hold onto everything. I couldn’t think of one and I’m sure you guys probably know better. There’s probably one you’ll figure out but I think in a way the Jonathan Pryce story grounds the movie. Because having the President of the United States, those of us that saw the first movie, know where he’s starting out in this movie - and those of you who don’t have a good surprise. That’s such a jewel, when have you ever had that opportunity to play the White House that way? So we wanted to hold on to that. Then we also said, you can’t just have one or two of those elements you have to have a few of those elements. So we, by process of elimination or by process of feeling our way through it, came to this sort of balance. It’s interesting because, I’ve watched a lot of the footage, and it doesn’t feel like we’ve stepped away and yet we have. It’s a really interesting thing. I can’t really explain it because it was a sort of ‘feel your way through it.’ One of the things we wanted to do was we wanted to try to bring an uptick of machismo to the cast and with Rock and Bruce we sort of got a lot right there. Boom. But at the same time when you look at some of the secondary characters now, like Walt Goggins who is a great actor and he has a really fun role. Joe [Mazzello] is in there – and the RZA. I think all of those things have brought a different flavor, and at the same time, it’s Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and we’re fighting the same battle – a new and improved Cobra.
Since you guys are going for a PG-13, can you talk about the level of violence that we might see or not see on-screen?
Bonaventura: It’s more violent as a movie, sure. You know, like all these big PG-13 franchises, we walk the no blood, little blood, heavy impact. That’s what we did with ‘Transformers’ too. I think it’s interesting, for me having my time at Warner Bros. making all those action pictures, if it wasn’t horror it wasn’t cool. I find it fascinating that this is where we are today, and what you’re allowed to do with PG-13 now is much different than what you could do back then.
Are you going to be explaining away some of the missing characters from the first one, like Destro, since we’re not expecting him to be in this one.
Bonaventura: Don’t be so sure. You never know. I think we’ll explain a little bit and I think also the universe is so big you can’t really deal with everybody. So, there’s definitely a move in the movie where we reduce the number of people that we are trying to deal with. But you know for instance, Bruce’s character is the original Joe, Joe Colton. So, that’s another Joe that we’ve added to the mix and it’s really kind of a fun intro you get with him in the movie. And that was one of the things with his character in particular - one of the experiences I had on the first movie was… there are those people who grew up with the 80’s Joe and there’s the people who grew up with the Joe before the 80’s – and the people before the 80’s were, ‘What the hell is this?’ a little bit. You know, they liked the movie but they were kind of like, ‘Where’s my Joe?’ Bruce is their Joe. You know, it’s a very conscious nod to my age group who grew up with it. Bruce did too. He had some funny stories about what he did to his G.I. Joe action figures – as do we all I’m sure. In a way bringing him into the movie and by bringing that sort of, I’ll call ‘down and dirty ethic’ of that simple thing called Joe. It also, again, gave it some gravity. It is kind of fun though. You see his house like, you know, he lifts up the stove and there’s all those guns underneath and basically anything you open in his house or anything you lift up, the cushions on the sofa, anything, there’s guns underneath. So, he may be semi-retired but he’s ready for action.
Are past characters obliquely mentioned? Like, ‘Scarlett and Ripcord are off on a mission.’ Or are they just never mentioned?
Bonaventura: They’re never mentioned. One of the things that, when you try to do what we’re doing – which is this weird amalgamation – when you start referring to things off-screen, particularly if you haven’t seen the first movie, it’ll start to be like, ‘What?’ You know what I mean? So we tried to keep everything right in front of you. Because it was enough of a challenge to add so many new members, that trying to deal with the old members would have really been a mind drain for us, I think. We just couldn’t. It was like, ‘this is our world.’
However, just because a number of Rise of Cobra characters do not make an appearance (or even get a passing mention) in Retaliation, that doesn't mean Chu isn't open to the idea of bringing certain members back in a possible G.I. Joe 3.
Were there a lot of difficult conversations about deciding who was coming back for this movie? Some people are discovering this solely from the first movie and really like those characters...
Chu: Totally and I love those guys. They’re story-lines I'd love to put in with many different characters. When you focus in on the movie and the journey we were following. There was just too many characters ultimately. Also, we wanted to discover a different part of the GI Joe world. Throughout Joe history that has always been a favorite of mine to jump around.
Would you bring any of them back? Or do they not fit with your style? Some of them were portrayed very campy.
Chu: Yea, definitely there are story-lines I'd love to pursue in other ones if we get that chance. For instance, the storyline between Scarlett and Snake Eyes is a classic and such a good story, It wasn’t really played out in the first one and we didn’t get the opportunity in this movie but it is so beautiful and it can be really cool on-screen. I'd love to do so in the future.
Assuming that Chu and Bonaventura succeed with Retaliation at the box office (as well as with fans), there's a good chance that Paramount Pictures will want another sequel. If so, it'll be especially interesting to see which characters the director and producer might elect to bring back for another tour of Cobra hunting.
You can see G.I. Joe: Retaliation for yourself on March 28th and check back soon for more interviews from the set. However, if you’re eager for more G.I. Joe Retaliation info right now, make sure to check out the G.I. Joe: Retaliation news archive – which includes the following featured articles along with much more:
- ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ Set Visit Report: Knowing is Half the Battle
- Dwayne Johnson Talks Roadblock in ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’; Interested in ‘Expendables’ Role
- ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’: Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, & Jinx Promise Action & History
- ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ Set Visit Preview: Gravity, Kung Fu, and ‘Yo Joe’!
- ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ 3D Conversion Preview – Was It Worth the Wait?
- New ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ Trailer Is Legitimately Exciting
G.I. Joe: Retaliation releases on March 28, 2013 in 2D and 3D theaters.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for more on G.I. Joe: Retaliation as well as future movie, TV, and gaming news.