For G.I. Joe fans, it's something of a miracle that a sequel to the 2009 series-starter Rise of the Cobra came to be. The movie made a decent amount of money at the box office — nearly $150 million — but came with an equally sizable price tag. The reviews were mixed. The first Joe was a success, but unlike most breakout blockbusters, it's franchise future was murky.
Slowly but surely, a sequel came to fruition, and now G.I. Joe: Retaliation is hitting theaters this weekend. For producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura — mastermind behind such recent hits as Salt, Red, and Michael Bay's Transformers series — it only helped them crack the code of what a sequel to Joe should even be. "I think the honest truth is that Paramount was very unsure about if they wanted to do it or not," di Bonaventura says. Paramount's back-and-forth over greenlighting a sequel allowed di Bonaventura's development process to hone in on the elements that both he and fans demanded more attention. "I particularly, and Hasbro also encouraged this, really wanted to explore the ninja story. After the first movie, what you found was that young and old, there was no demarkation line, wanted more Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. So, partly driven by the fans, and partly by our own interests."
For di Bonaventura, the goal of Retaliation was to brings the two factions of G.I. Joe fandom into one unified blockbuster. He sees two distinct sides separated by a generation gap: the pre-1980 fan that grew up with the All American Joe and its militaristic roots, and the post-1980 fan aware of the comic books and animated series that delved into the mythology of the characters and found an avenue to include memorable ninja characters along with the soldier types.
"I felt the Joe that I grew up with needed to find a footing in it," di Bonaventura says. "Essentially declaring Bruce Willis as the original Joe centered it on a guy you understood, as the kind of character for the generation it represented. People my age, people who didn't read those comic books or see the cartoon, they grew up with a version that, dare I say, the 'average joe' notion of a guy in army fatigues who would fight the good fight." The producer says they've found that same embodiment for the post-1980s crowd: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Roadblock.
Having clear goals for how they wanted to rejuvenate the franchise, di Bonaventura says they looked to legendary movies for inspiration on how to construct their multi-tiered story. "There's a very good movie that follows, I wouldn't say a similar pattern, but there are echos of certainly: Empire Strikes Back," he says. "Luke Skywalker goes off with Yoda and the other team is moving forward. It was a movie all of us had scene where that worked. We didn't pattern after it, but we had a sense of security. The notion wasn't ridiculous."
The framework was one piece of the puzzle. The other, having a mantra that would allow both sides of the story to exist in the same world. Di Bonaventura stands by the Rise of the Cobra as a good time at the movies, but when it came to Retaliation, he wanted a bit more grit. "I tend to like strong physicality in the movies," he says. "One of the things Jon [Chu, director] and I talked about before he even came on the movie was that I would like a punch that really feels like a punch." Through fight sequences, chase scenes, and an overall sense of realism whenever possible, di Bonaventura and Chu set out to make a Joe movie that wouldn't just wow the eyes, but feel like something. "There's a gravity that's brought to the table if, when you do something physical, you really feel that punch," the producer says. "What we did with the ninja world is we took the mythology of it extremely seriously. That gave it its grounding."
With Retaliation in theaters, di Bonaventura is looking ahead, knee deep in a lengthy list of in-development and shooting projects. Next up: Transformers 4, which the producer describes as "identifiable," but with a fresh story. He applauds director Michael Bay for returning to the franchise and departing from what has been undeniably successful for three straight movies (just look at the box office numbers for evidence). The biggest change fans will see in the upcoming robotic adventure is a switch in star power. Obvious, since Mark Wahlberg is subbing in for Shia LaBeouf — but the change has a ripple effect on the themes of the film.
"Mark Wahlberg comes on as a big star," di Bonaventura says. "So you have to have a human character who has a different kind of weight. That was the challenge: to have a character who could stand up to being an established star. Shia [LaBeouf] did a great job, but he was a rising star who ended a star. Mark comes in as a star and an older — not older, but older than Shia — character. He's a man. The human element of the story has been dramatically affected."
Balancing his big studio work with passion projects, di Bonaventura is still hopeful for the long-gestating film The Mission to get the greenlight. Described as a hostage movie about two men who take on an "absolutely impossible task against every possible odd, every possible government," and pull off an "extremely dangerous, clever, ridiculously ballsy rescue." It's not an easy sell, but di Bonaventura isn't worried. "There were a few movies I made as an executive — Three Kings, Falling Down, Training Day — that I'm immensely proud of that were hard to get made because they didn't fit in a neat, little box," he says. "What makes [The Mission] work is that you've got this really compelling rescue plot that you're following. What makes it work is why two people dedicate themselves to an impossible mission."
And for fans of one of di Bonaventura's cult hits Salt, a follow-up to the Angelina Jolie-starring action thriller is looking more and more promising. "It took a long time for us to find something we were excited about," the producer says, but that their current script for Salt 2, penned by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Becky Johnston, finds a way to push the identity themes of the original.
"Salt is a character with a lot more internal weight than you would typically get in a franchise movie," di Bonaventura says. "I wanted to take that further, and Sony wanted to take that further. Becky came up with a very interesting way of getting inside of who Salt is along with a wild ride." Di Bonaventura sees Salt as a trickier character than any others he's worked on in his career. She demands more attention than the run-of-the-mill action hero. "The demands of living up to a character who is constantly capable of making you believe she's on one side or another. What is she really thinking? Is she good or is she bad? She lives in a grey zone. That's what's been hard about it. Bond lives in a black & white world, so does Bourne. Salt is in a grey world. What are you supposed to believe?"
One thing that's clear form speaking to di Bonaventura is that he's not balking in the face of any challenge, whether it's resurrecting Salt, continuing the Transformers franchise, or imbuing G.I. Joe with the elements necessary to make it a functional, fun blockbuster. "What happens a lot in comic book/cartoon movies is that people get involved that sort of feel embarrassed. I've never felt that way so it always bugs me. We're making this kind of movie, guys, relax!"
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures]