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"G.I. Joe: Renegades" Season 1 Vol. 1: Patience Pays Off for a Band on the Run

G.I. Joe: Renegades is a really great show when it’s not driving me completely crazy.

The series launched almost simultaneously with the Hub network, but received a more mixed reception than Hasbro’s other flagship toy property Transformers Prime, due to a big twist in the plot of the show and a daring new visual style. It didn’t help that the first few episodes of G.I. Joe: Renegades aired out of order, creating non-trivial confusion among those watching. Fans of earlier incarnations of Joe will need to keep a pretty open mind to appreciate the merits of this incarnation, but patience will definitely be rewarded. The series was canceled after one season, but the first half of the show is now available on a two-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory.

G.I. Joe: Renegades is a complete re-visioning of the G.I. Joe franchise, with small resemblance to any of the TV shows or comic books that have built up legions of fans. The show focuses on a core team of five: team sergeant Duke, intelligence officer Scarlett, man-mountain Roadblock, wise guy Tunnel Rat, and the mysterious, mute ninja Snake Eyes. In the first episode, “The Descent, Part 1,” the team is assembled at Scarlett’s request, with Duke, Tunnel Rat, and Roadblock (plus one extra) providing a security detail as she goes on a surprise inspection of a Cobra Industries facility. Scarlett’s claims of terrorist activity in the multi-national conglomerate are quickly validated, as the team discovers an arrogant mad scientist nicknamed Dr. Mindbender deep in the basement, developing a strange synthetic soldier called a Bio-Viper. The mission rapidly goes awry, first when the team is forced to open fire on Cobra security forces and then when the attempt to seize Dr. Mindbender ends in the destruction of the entire facility and the seeming death of that extra soldier. The Joes find themselves framed for crimes they didn’t commit, forcing them on the run from the law and from Cobra itself, which proves to be even more sinister than first expected.

“The Descent, Part 1″ is a decidedly mixed bag, mostly because of the ringing sound of plot hammers that compel several characters to make a lot of pretty stupid decisions. Things improve somewhat in the second episode, where the team has to stop a stray Bio-Viper from attacking a small farming community. This episode also introduces Flint, an Army investigator tasked with bringing in the fugitives, and who also has past history with Duke (as does his assistant Lady Jaye). This Flint is radically different the one fans will be familiar with, feeling more like the Tommy Lee Jones character in the film version of The Fugitive. He’s a fascinating mix of antagonist and good guy, and is one of the show’s more interesting change-ups from past versions. Episode 3, “Rage,” is one of the better early episodes, introducing the Renegades version of the arms merchant James McCullen and giving the barest peek at the monstrous evil at the core of Cobra. The Joes are ensnared in McCullen’s arms tests, which exploit homeless or destitute veterans as guinea pigs for cybernetic battle suits. The fact that the show is even willing to broach topics like homeless vets or PTSD is remarkable, even if it’s only touched on before cutting to rock-em sock-em robot action. Unfortunately, this solid episode is followed by “Dreadnoks Rising,” which introduces this show’s version of the villainous Zartan. Zartan was never a character I had much affection for, and G.I. Joe: Renegades manages to make him even less interesting by turning him into a nasty biker terrorizing some desert backwater with his gang. He just seems completely trivial compared to the menace of Cobra, and the plotting of the episode is old hack with few surprises.

Things get better with “The Package,” where the Joes come to the assistance of an anti-Cobra blogger who has been targeted for his incindiary writings (and for his theft of a Cobra scanning device that threatens to expose the company’s covert arms smuggling operations). The episode is a fun game of cat-and-mouse as the Joes and the blogger try to stay one step ahead of the murderous mercenary Major Bludd. By the end of the episode, the blogger has taken the nom de guerre of “Breaker,” and becomes a major supporting character to provide the Joes with information and assistance. The two-part “Return of the Arashikage” reveals some of Snake Eyes’ secrets, while also introducing Storm Shadow, his ninja rival; and Jinx, his apprentice. The story isn’t bad and provides some strong compelling reasons for the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow rivalry, but I am not fond of origin stories for Snake Eyes, thinking that he is best off when he remains as mysterious as possible. I definitely don’t think it was necessary to reveal so much about Snake Eyes this early in the show. The best thing about this two-parter are the real thrills to be found in the ninja-on-ninja combat scenes that dominate the second episode.

The show truly finds its footing in the episodes on disc 2. “Busted” starts with the arrest and jailing of Duke, where he is forced into underground cage match prisoner brawls for the enrichment of the corrupt warden and his cronies. It’s not the most original story and plays very fast and loose with the American criminal justice system, but it’s entertaining enough to mostly ignore both of those deficiencies. “The Enemy of My Enemy” catches the Joes in the murderous crossfire of intra-Cobra jockeying for power between McCullen and Dr. Mindbender. The end of the episode is genuinely chilling, when McCullen must pay a high price for failure and is transformed into the steel-headed Destro. “Fire Fight” is probably my favorite single episode on this entire set, as Cobra employs a pyromaniac saboteur named Firefly to burn out a small town opposed to a massive hydroelectric dam Cobra is building. Firefly was another character that I never cared for much, but this show’s deranged take makes him instantly unforgettable. The episode also tosses in an interesting wrinkle with a firefighter in Cobra’s employ who begins to question the motives of his employers; in addition to getting a thoroughly satisfying character arc, he’s one of the best Easter eggs for the hardcore Joe fans.

The first episode of the two-part “Homecoming” shines a light on Duke’s past, and his relationship with both Flint and Lady Jaye, explaining the rivalry he has with the former and the loyalty he commands from the latter. There’s also another treat for old-school Joe fans as Michael Bell and B.J. Ward (Duke and Scarlett from the original 1980’s cartoon) appear to provide the voices for Duke’s parents. In the second episode, the Joes are finally captured by Flint, but intercepted by Storm Shadow and Cobra’s villainous Baroness on the way to their trial. While the Baroness has been the most often seen public face of Cobra so far, “Homecoming, Part 2″ finally gives her a chance to show off, and also sets the stage to bring Storm Shadow under Cobra’s hood. Finally, “Brothers of Light” pits the Joes against a religious cult run by twins that seem to have psychic powers. Yet again, the show manages to create more interesting versions of characters I was indifferent to in the past (in this case, the “Crimson Twins” Tomax and Xamot).

Rebooting a property is always a risky proposition, since one needs to keep enough of what made the original endure but inject enough novelty to avoid feeling old hat. For the most part, G.I. Joe: Renegades succeeds at striking this balance. The earliest episodes work better at establishing character and defining the ground rules, since most of them suffer from numerous, non-trivial deficiencies in their plotting or development. The botched setup in episode 1 beggars belief: why would a company successful enough at hiding its secret operations tip its hand when some Army guys show up and ask to see the head of security? Why would Duke do something as stupid as seize a weapon from a security guard in response to a little tough talk, and why didn’t Cobra thoroughly ventilate him as soon as he did? Renegades also has a bit of trouble early on establishing the balance between reality and fantasy, since it skews much more heavily towards realism than earlier G.I. Joe shows. Oddly enough, I can completely swallow the Bio-Vipers, the giant killer mech suits, and the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow ninja mayhem, but stabs at realism like Zartan’s re-visioning fall flat. I’m also annoyed that the show can find time for detailed origin stories that don’t really illuminate, while stubbornly refusing to answer where the Joes are getting the money to feed themselves or keep their super jeep fueled. Finally, the Armchair Ranger in me gets a nervous tic when they make obvious flubs in the military bits of the show, like calling Flint a Warrant Officer in the opening credits but referring to him as a lieutenant in dialogue.

However, if these issues don’t entirely disappear by disc 2, the show can tap-dance fast enough to make me willing to deliberately ignore them. As a fan of the original 1980’s cartoon and comics, the show’s premise gave me pause, but even though the first two episodes were only barely good enough to hold my interest, G.I. Joe: Renegades managed to pull me in fairly quickly. The final six episodes on disc 2 are ripping, exciting tales that balance plot twists, characterization moments, and white-knuckle action almost perfectly. A lot of my affection for the show comes from the show’s superb characterization. With a much smaller cast than the original show, G.I. Joe: Renegades can spend more time focusing on individual characters, and everyone benefits as a result. The breakout winner in the cast is easily Tunnel Rat, who steals nearly every scene he’s in with his sarcastic wit and perfect line delivery by Matthew Yang King. The character design and animation is radically different than prior incarnations of G.I. Joe, looking a bit like the slightly grotesque characters in Studio 4°C’s Tekkonkinkreet. The designs took a little time to win me over, but I definitely warmed up to them over time.

I suppose it would have been too much to hope for G.I. Joe: Renegades to get the same treatment as Transformers Prime‘s first season on Blu-ray, considering that the former show was reportedly canceled before it even aired and the latter has become one of the Hub’s mainstays. However, I certainly can’t complain at the treatment G.I. Joe: Renegades gets on DVD. The sharp anamorphic widescreen image is mated to both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks, with the more expansive soundtrack providing a substantial low-end punch in laser blasts and explosions (which occur frequently, thank goodness). There are ample chapter stops within each episode, although there are no extras on either disc. The Hub has hosted behind-the-scenes clips on their website in the past, and I hope at least some of those end up on the subsequent volume.

G.I. Joe: Renegades definitely needed time to win me over, and there are still some speed bumps that drive me nuts. I’m also a bit puzzled why Hasbro loves the “Joes on the run” plot so much that they pushed it across this show, one of the latest comic book series, and the (recently-delayed) live-action movie. Still, there’s a lot of fun to be had with G.I. Joe: Renegades, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to see what happens next.

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  1. […] up from where my review of the first DVD set left off, the episode “Knockoffs” re-introduces Zartan and eventually explains his […]

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