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'G.I. Joe 2' Director Jon M. Chu on Courting Bruce Willis and Creating A Sequel 'For People Who Don't Know Anything About G.I. Joe'

The director of "Step Up 2 the Streets" and "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" talks to THR about enlisting Willis and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to reboot the cast and concept of the forthcoming sequel.

Jon M. Chu
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

When Paramount Pictures announced that director Jon M. Chu was taking the helm of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the highly anticipated sequel to 2009’s The Rise of Cobra, fans of the original film were perhaps understandably skeptical. Although Chu established an impressive pedigree for pleasing crowds with Step Up 2 the Streets and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, he hadn’t courted genre fans before, much less with a property that had decades of mythology to condense into two tight hours of entertainment. But after the studio premiered a trailer late in 2011 that not just hinted at real big-screen spectacle but exuded loyalty to the brand while still feeling fresh and irreverent, some of those fans’ concerned were allayed -- at least until they head into theaters June 29 to see the movie.

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Chu spoke to The Hollywood Reporter during South by Southwest, where he ironically appeared at a panel that was part of the festival’s Interactive programming. In addition to talking about the film’s high-profile casting choices of Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis, Chu offered some insights about how Retaliation will be different from its predecessor and how his lifelong affection for the franchise helped build a film that both razes comparisons to previous interpretations of the source material and pays homage to its roots.

The Hollywood Reporter: What was the process of getting Bruce Willis to appear in G.I. Joe: Retaliation?

Jon M. Chu: He was always our dream guy to play Joe Colton, the original Joe, [but] I didn’t necessarily know if he would ever do something like this. It’s such a very specific brand -- the character Joe Colton exists, but not really. But the question I keep getting from people like my mom is, “Well, who plays Joe?” And there is no Joe, but we had this character Joe Colton that we built into the movie that would help bring it back to the basics. That was a big part of the movie -- these guys don’t have laser guns; they are relearning how to be a soldier on the ground, how to be a leader, how to make moral decisions, all those things, reset it all. And Bruce is the guy [to anchor that]. So Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] reached out to him, but when you’re courting Bruce it’s not like, "He’s going to do it – yay!" It’s months and months of winning his trust, him learning about who I am and learning what the brand is about. And I never really thought it would fully happen until he showed up on set, but he came through and he was awesome. I mean, he exudes the tone of the movie because he’s so cool and he’s so that guy but at the same time doesn’t take himself too seriously. He just gives you that little wink, or whenever he says one line you just get it. So it was fun -- and to have [him and Dwayne Johnson] both next to each other is blowing my mind. They love each other, Bruce and Dwayne. I'm surprised they’ve never been in a movie together, so Bruce, him and then the brand, G.I. Joe, they all just up the ante. No matter what I do in the movie, it already has a specific tone.

THR: It was a great thing to get Dwayne involved as well.

Chu: That is what took us the longest. We were already doing design work -- the costumes, the set work. Everything was like closing in, and we did not have a cast yet, but we all knew that it was important to find the right guy that would set everything up. And when you look out in the landscape, who is that masculine action hero that isn’t just a pretty boy? Dwayne is that, and he’s charming, and he’s family-friendly. So when we met and sat down with him, we connected really quickly.

THR: He works hard. Not all of his movies have been incredible, but you can always tell that he’s really trying to make it work.

Chu: And that was truly the case. He comes from a military family -- his cousin is in active duty, I believe, right now -- and so he comes from a very real place. He’s like, "This means a lot to me in terms of the military men and women out there and servicing that and their kids, to know that like their parents are heroes." And yes, we’re in a fantasy world, but it represents the same ideals. And so we’ve had a lot of long, long discussions about that, and he worked hard on honing the character, learning all about Roadblock. So it’s just fun to explore how they changed things throughout the comic book and the toys. They would just make up facts, so it’s hard to like come up with the actual “who he is,” but we got to pick and choose, which is nice. But he wasn’t like movie star diva or something like that, like, “Well, I'm the guy, so why would I crawl on the floor right now?” He was down. And when you think about who represents the ultimate iconic action hero or action figure, he’s the only one right now. The only other ones are old-school guys like Bruce. And to have both of them pays homage to the history, also sort of bridges the gap for the people who don’t know anything about G.I. Joe at all. It really, really is nice.

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THR: What prompted the decision to reboot the cast and everything? Was it really unavailability, or was that a choice you and/or the studio came to?

Chu: Part me, part not me. And by the time I came in, they had a script already -- but not fully there, and we added a lot of things. Like Joe Colton wasn’t in the movie. We added that and Roadblock and things like that that weren’t just in there yet, but we knew we wanted to create a different world. You can’t discount the first movie at all -- it was huge, and people loved it -- but for me what I love about Joe is that everybody has interpreted theirs different ways. The comic book interprets it in one way. Even in the cartoon series, they switched theme songs in the middle, and so everybody interprets it in a different way. So for me, I was like, "Let’s jump to a different part of the Joe world." It’s the same world, but at a different point. So when I pitched it, that was the idea: Let’s pay homage to the old stuff but also do new stuff. G.I. Joe was ultimate mash-up before mash-up ever existed, so that’s perfect right now. And all the kids who don’t know anything about G.I. Joe -- who only know Call of Duty, who stole all their stuff from G.I. Joe -- let’s reclaim it and do it better.

THR: Do you fully address getting rid of the guys from the previous film at the beginning of the movie, or how does that sort of work?

Chu: Yes and no. We address a little bit, but also leave some of it up in the air. But in my mind, the movie was never about them; the movie is about our characters that you introduced from the beginning. We wanted people to come into this movie and, if you haven’t seen the first movie, be totally OK, which is actually pretty tough because Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are hard to explain to somebody who had never seen G.I. Joe. But we leave some of it open, so you’ll see.