Nimbleness is next to godliness in the action films of Jon M. Chu. Those who can seamlessly glide, bend, and contort take control of time and space, creating their own gravitational pull. As a result, they challenge the limits of what a body can do, helping to realize personal identity through harmonized movement. It’s a natural-born talent that can produce infinite kinetic possibilities on screen. And us mortals simply watch in awe from the sidelines.
Step Up 3D is Chu’s cinema-of-agility at its most joyous peak. The nubile New Yorkers from that pop musical literally fly through the air at times, earthbound constellations illuminating the power of collective dexterity. While the film’s meager plot consistently borders on absurd melodrama, its riveting dance sequences are mini-explosions of color, texture, and depth that allow Chu’s eye for cinematic pacing and rhythm to emerge. “Dance has vocabulary,” one character muses, pinpointing the bridge between action and expression that Chu cherishes. But there’s also a certain level of aggression to some of these performances, even though they unfold within a cinematic world that has very little bite. One human gazelle is even labeled a “ninja” after jumping through a small hotdog stand during a chase scene in Central Park, a personification of the seemingly contradictory combo of force and finesse.
Hints of the same visual fluidity can also be found in Chu’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, albeit the entanglement of bodies is much more overt; gun battles and martial arts stand in for the mesmerizing musical standoffs in Step Up 3D. A mega-budget sequel to the 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, which was based on the popular Hasbro toy line from the 1980s, Retaliation finds Chu attempting to evolve as a director on a grander scale. In the cartoonish world of the film, where the titular “Joes” defend American democracy against super villains hell bent on global domination, movement no longer represents ideological transcendence, but messy destruction. Instead of long takes, which are lovingly utilized in Step Up 3D, Chu opts for increasing volatility in the editing room. The film’s cut-happy style immediately proves a jarring shift in form, as fragmentation has replaced grace.
Once again, Chu’s direction falters whenever plot takes center stage. The opening act is waterlogged with tedious exposition and comedic banter between Duke (Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), leaders of the G.I. Joe special-operations unit tasked with retrieving a stolen nuclear bomb from war-torn Pakistan. When their mission goes awry, leaving all but three of the Joes terminated, Retaliation gets bogged down with plot, jumping back and forth between the surviving heroes and the vipers of Cobra Command who’ve taken control of the U.S. presidency via a shape-shifting imposter.
The narrative bloat doesn’t matter in the least though, as the extreme verbal posturing by either side simply acts as connective tissue between the blunderbuss action scenes. But even here, where one expects Chu to shine given the chance, the combat sequences are mostly flavorless, failing to capture the momentum or immediacy of Step Up 3D’s best moments. That is with the exception of one audacious set piece between warring factions of ninja high up on the mountain peaks of Japan. As Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) scale treacherous ground to kidnap the infamous swordsman Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) from a snowy chateau, the battle eventually spills out onto the open cliff faces in glorious fashion. Propelling downward like birds in freefall, the ninjas primed for battle crisscross each other’s paths wielding katana swords with effortless precision. Here, Chu finally expands the frame, capturing the daredevil theatrics in wide angle without devolving into schizophrenic montage. For a moment, despite the violence and death, it seems like these warriors are engaged in some kind of epic dance off. Instead of the splashes of water and bursts of chalk that hypnotically pepper Step Up 3D’s mise-en-scène, there’s the clanging of metal and swooshing sound of sleek bodies careening through space. It’s poetry in high-speed motion.
Other flashes of Chu’s potential as an action filmmaker emerge; a sequence where Firefly (Ray Stevenson) unleashes a squadron of his explosive drone namesakes onto an unsuspecting high-security prison is beautiful for its bright hints of LED color and constantly changing directionality. Yet it’s hard not to feel like Chu’s more dangerous and improvisational inclinations were either held back or repressed by the production itself. Chu’s cinema is far more powerful when the action is multifaceted, instinctual, and captured from a distance, allowing for multiple planes of activity to occur simultaneously, whether the movement is harmonic or confrontational. With Retaliation, the young auteur seems lost amid so much narrative dead weight. It’s not surprising then that Chu feels most at home filming gliding ninjas tap dancing across the frame. Theirs is a freedom from gravity that makes perfect sense.