This article contains spoilers for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”
People will tell you that the best part of “G.I. Joe: Ninja Mountain” is the scene with all the ninjas on the mountain. People will also tell you that the movie is not called “G.I. Joe: Ninja Mountain,” and on both of these counts people are very, very wrong (well, except for the second one). The sequence in which rival clans of ninjas play a game of keep-away on zip-lines suspended between Himalayan peaks is certainly an elegantly staged spectacle, but the highlight of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is unquestionably the dual performance of Jonathan Pryce as both the unnamed President of the United States, and the evil COBRA operative Zoltan, a master of disguise who is holding the President hostage in an underground bunker and impersonating him in public (Arnold Vosloo fits into this equation somewhere, but his appearance in the film is so brief that I swore I was seeing a weird, Arnold Vosloo-themed glitch in the 3D, which struck me as far more reasonable than Arnold Vosloo appearing in a movie for about 11 frames).
Pryce is a veritable icon of the silver screen, instantly recognizable from Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and a whole bunch of other movies that tragically aren’t “Brazil,” but this appears to be the most fun that he’s ever had. Removing the American flag on his lapel and replacing it with one bearing the COBRA insignia, Pryce is cartoon villainy at its finest, and – unlike, say Michael Shannon in “Premium Rush – his hammy performance, most certainly not kosher for Passover, is actually supported by the tone of the film around him. This character of an imposter president fits very comfortably into a film world in which world leaders actually bring their nuclear suitcases to a global summit. A world in which Walton Goggins is the warden of a top secret underground prison that’s buried several miles beneath the German countryside and exists to house a whopping three prisoners. A world so ridiculous that The RZA is introduced as a blind sensei for wayward ninjas, and your natural inclination within the context of the film is to think, “yeah, that seems about right.”
And yet, for all of that, Jonathan Pryce’s Zoltan / President felt oddly familiar to me – outlandish, sure, but not entirely alien or unexpected. As I watched the film, marveling at the extent to which director Jon Chu truly owned the idea of making his movie a live-action cartoon, I couldn’t shake the idea that “Retaliation,” which almost entirely eschews the nostalgia that such films are typically designed to satisfy, was using camp as a conduit for satire.