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‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ director’s wait is over

Jon M. Chu is the director of "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."
(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

Director Jon Chu only gets slightly wild-eyed nowadays thinking back to last spring when Paramount Pictures dropped its “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” bombshell.

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Little more than a month before Chu’s $130-million action-thriller was set to besiege multiplexes last June, studio executives made a rare 11th-hour blockbuster scheduling switcheroo. They punted its release from a prime summer slot into the lower-rent movie real estate of March 2013.


FOR THE RECORD:
“G.I. Joe”: An article in the March 30 Calendar section about Jon Chu, director of the movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” reported the film’s production budget as $185 million. According to Paramount Pictures, the studio that released the film, its production budget was $130 million. —


The studio said those added months would allow 3-D effects to be added to Chu’s movie (a sequel of sorts to 2009’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”), thus maximizing the new film’s foreign box-office potential. But within hours of the announcement, Hollywood’s rumor mill was operating full tilt with chatter about disastrous test screenings and demands for costly reshoots. And Chu, 33, began to wonder if his career would tank.

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PHOTOS: Scenes from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’

“Literally, my heart just sunk,” he recalled. “What does this mean? You don’t know if they’re genuine about this or if it’s an excuse to shut your movie down.”

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Inspired by Hasbro’s cherished, kung-fu-gripped action figure, and costarring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis as special-ops soldiers, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” finally reached theaters in wide release this week. By several accounts, it’s still very much the film that Chu envisioned when he pitched Paramount on the project in 2011 — a bombastic mash-up of ninjas, commando grunts and “Dr. Strangelove"-style geopolitical intrigue — albeit with 3,000 more “dimensionalized” shots than before and facing less-than-stiff competition in the movie marketplace.

According to tracking surveys, “Retaliation” should get off to a solid start, grossing up to $50 million domestically through Sunday, on par with the first-weekend haul for “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” four years ago. Both the studio and Chu acknowledge that pushing back the opening of “Retaliation” jaundiced expectations, but Adam Goodman, president of Paramount’s film group, disputes that the delay amounted to a no-confidence vote for Chu.

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“It’s a vote of total confidence,” Goodman said. “Strategically, we felt we’d have a better opportunity moving the movie to the date we have now. It wasn’t a particularly popular move. But we will do whatever it takes to protect the longevity of these franchises. A well-playing ‘G.I. Joe’ doesn’t work as much for us as a hit ‘G.I. Joe.’”

Laying waste to any notion that a movie focused around ninja assassins should be mutually exclusive of America’s military-industrial complex, “Retaliation” finds the Seal Team Six-esque Joe squadron outnumbered, outgunned and scrambling to regroup in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. The terrorist organization Cobra has kidnapped the president of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) and wiped out all but four of the Joes in an ambush.

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PHOTOS: Hollywood Backlot moments

Stung by the murder of team leader Duke (Channing Tatum), the remaining Joes (Johnson, D.J. Cotrona, Ray Park and Adrianne Palicki) enlist retired Gen. Joe Colton (Willis) to thwart an intercontinental ballistic missile attack that will enable Cobra’s diabolical bid for global domination. Along the way, there’s a ninja face-off pitting an Uzi machine gun against knife-blade throwing stars, and London gets decimated by a bomb-shooting satellite.

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Chu was hardly the no-brainer choice to direct “G.I. Joe”; after all, his filmography is distinguished by dance- and music-related movies — “Step Up 2: The Streets,” “Step Up 3D,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” — and he boasts zero experience with action-adventure. But having grown up playing with G.I. Joes and possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of Joe ephemera, he sold Paramount by spelling out a vision for the movie that would effectively reboot the franchise and “connect all the G.I. Joe brands” — from the jingoistic, 12-inch action figure line launched in 1964 on through to the ‘80s introduction of G.I. ninjas.

Goodman began tracking Chu while he was at USC’s film school and became convinced he was the right man for the job after Paramount released Chu’s Bieber rockumentary “Never Say Never.” (That film grossed nearly $100 million worldwide.)

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“Based on our earlier conversations, I found it more surprising that Jon was doing movies about dance — I know him first and foremost as a fanboy,” Goodman said. “I understood that this guy had a love for comic books and video games and things that are nostalgic in the best possible way. We had done a movie with him prior to this that he brought in under budget.... So giving him a movie of this scale wasn’t any concern.”

Chu shot “G.I. Joe” over 75 days in New Orleans and Vancouver, Canada, in 2011, with the script calling for Tatum’s character to be killed off in the first act. During production, however, the actor blossomed into an A-list star, appearing in the trifecta of hits “The Vow,” “Magic Mike” and “21 Jump Street.”

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Chu was in post-production when Paramount decided not to put “G.I. Joe” out the same June weekend that “The Amazing Spider-Man” was headed to theaters.

REVIEW: ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’

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“They told me straight up, ‘Jon, we’re going to lose the opportunity to make this movie the best it can be if we don’t do it in 3-D. The pressure is on with “Spider-Man.” … We as a company don’t have to release a movie just because we have to. We think we can have a better spot and give you the time for the 3-D you always wanted,’” Chu said.

Hollywood’s chattering class began to speculate that Paramount had ordered Chu to reshoot the movie to emphasize Tatum; the director vigorously denies that any reshoots took place. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura said his initial shock at the studio’s decision gave way to accepting the potential upside of a $20-million 3-D conversion.

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“Your first reaction when you hear that is, ‘Really?’” he said. “The second reaction is, ‘They’re willing to spend all this money to make the movie bigger and better?’ That’s a good thing.”

Before implementing the film’s 3-D effects, Chu took a month hiatus last summer to direct a music video for Bieber and a TV commercial for Microsoft Surface. He says he returned to “G.I. Joe” with a renewed sense of purpose.

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“Did I have to go home and stare at the ceiling for a couple of weeks? Yeah,” Chu said. “And did I have to answer my family and friends? Like, ‘Really, Jon? Really? C’mon.’ Yes, that was really hard.”

“But it was never, ‘We’ll take it from here. Thank you very much.’ I never felt taken out of the process. They never made me feel like this is some ploy to kill the movie.”

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[For the Record, 5:16 p.m. March 30: A story in Saturday’s Calendar section about Jon Chu, director of the movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” erroneously reported the film’s production budget as $185 million. According to Paramount Pictures, the studio that released the film, its production budget was $130 million.]

chris.lee@latimes.com

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