Director Chu thrilled to play with big toys for 'G.I. Joe Retaliation'
Filmmaker envisioned telling 'Joe' stories as kid
For director Jon M. Chu, directing "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" wasn't just a job, but a movie adventure that recalled the days of his youth. A big fan of the iconic Hasbro action figure line, it shouldn't come as a big surprise to hear that Chu was plotting out the film years ago, shooting Joe figures and any other toys he could get on with his dad's video camera.
"My friends and I would all convince our parents to get different figures, so when we got together we had the mega-collection," Chu told me in an interview Thursday. "I had my dad's video camera and we'd shoot these things. I also did animation, which I shot on Super 8, and shoot the toy stuff on High 8 on video. I still have all that stuff and it's pretty crazy to go back and watch it."
These days, of course, Chu, 33, is playing with lots of big toys with "G.I. Retaliation," the sequel to the 2009 hit "G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra."
"The tank in the film is ginormous and The Rock is ginormous," Chu said, laughing, referring to the film's star Dwayne Johnson. "I would literally get chills making the film. Thinking about that sense of play when I was younger, that's why I fell in love with storytelling. I would film week-long, epic adventures in my back yard, go to school and come back to continue making those stories. In my head, I've been making this movie since I was 8 years old, so it's pretty cool to be on set and witness it right there."
New in 2D and 3D theaters nationwide, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" continues the story of "The Rise of Cobra," where the villain Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) continues to masquerade as the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce), all in an effort fulfill COBRA's master plan of world domination along with shielded Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey steps in for Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
The Joes, meanwhile, are facing an uphill battle in stopping them. Taking command of the unit after most of them are slaughtered in an ambush, Roadblock must rely on the skills of Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) to reveal the presidential imposter before he begins to destroy major countries all over the globe. Also, fortunately, Roadblock knows where to locate the original Joe -- retired General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis) -- to help them in the fight, too.
Since it's been four years since "The Rise of Cobra," Chu has the unusual task of creating a sequel to continue a story left hanging in the balance, yet taking the opportunity to make the franchise his own.
To begin with, the film -- scripted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick ("Zombieland") -- introduces a new core cast with "Retaliation," as the star of "The Rise of Cobra," Channing Tatum (Duke), makes a supporting appearance before an early exit. The only characters, in fact, from the first film to have pivotal roles in "Retaliation" are Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee).
And while many others from "The Rise of Cobra" don't appear in "Retaliation" at all, Chu said he wasn't about to forget the events of the first film, mostly out respect for its director Stephen Sommers.
"I think if it was some other filmmaker it would have been easier to just clean the slate, but Stephen Sommers is just a master at what he does," Chu said. "He did an amazing job in the last movie, especially in establishing so many new G.I. Joe fans. So the pressure was on, because I was wondering how I was going to match the guy who did 'The Mummy' and has had an impact on popular culture?"
At the same time, Chu realized he had to make the film his own, and for him, it had to come from a personal standpoint.
"It was as about why I loved G.I. Joe the brand," Chu said. "The brand has lasted so long because people have continued to reinvent it. That's what G.I. Joe is. It was mashed up before mash-ups ever existed. It had ninjas and COBRA Commander mashed into it, yet it started as a 12-inch figure because of the Korean War."
"So my approach was, 'Let's connect all those dots. Let's connect the movie dots with the cartoon dots, with the comic books and the original action figures' to try to show how it all connected," Chu added.
Set in modern day, there's no question "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" has a very contemporary ring to it, and in fact, some very pointed references to North Korea illicit laughs because of the country's current onslaught of outlandish threats against the U.S.
Chu said the shots at North Korea in "Retaliation," given the long and elaborate nature of the filmmaking process, work because of happy accident, rather than design.
"We shot the film a year and a half ago, so obviously (the tension) was around. But to actually have the movie come out when they are rattling that cage is pretty awesome," Chu said with a laugh. "Reese and Wernick put that stuff in there. It set the tone of the film. G.I. Joe has been a satire that played with world things, but didn't take it seriously -- instead flipping it on its head and making fun of it. It was a 'Dr. Strangelove' for kids in a weird way. So we played around with the idea of that."
Speaking of playing around, Chu said his experience of making "G.I. Joe" wasn't complete until Hasbro came through with a big promise -- a G.I. Joe action figure of the director.
"The No. 1 thing, as soon as I got the job, I was, like, 'I get an action figure, right?' They were like, 'Yeah, yeah, sure, sure,'" Chu said laughing. "They did a whole scan of me at Hasbro when I was there, and they sent me my action figure, which is a one-of-a-kind. I have it on my shelf at home, sitting next to Snake Eyes and Roadblock. Getting the figure alone was worth the job. They could have given me that for the payment."
As for a G.I. Joe code name, Chu said it wasn't listed on the action figure's package, but he did earn one on the set with the cast and crew.
"On set they would call me 'The Train' because my last name is Chu," the filmmaker beamed. "It was like, 'Either get on the choo choo, or get off.'"
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