G.I. JOE: Renegades: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review: It Seems You Can, In Fact, Go Home Again 

Reviving 1980s cartoon franchises continues to be all the rage.  Transformers managed to garner interest and ticket sales at the box office (though beyond the tolerable first entry, I can’t understand how), and despite personally being deeply annoyed by the creative liberties taken in 2009’s live-action G.I. JOE movie, others apparently found enough value in it to warrant a sequel.  Neither franchise has been perfect since their heyday in the mid-’80s — for every Beast Wars there’s a Sigma 6 to race it to the bottom — but it’s always possible to still get a reboot right.  The all-too-brief 2009 G.I. JOE: Resolute notwithstanding, G.I. JOE hasn’t received a proper series treatment.  Renegades sets out to change that, and does several things right along the way throughout its first season.

It centers around series icons Duke, Scarlett, Roadblock, Rip Cord, and the slightly less notorious Tunnel Rat who covertly raid and subsequently destroy a Cobra enemy outpost within a pharmaceuticals laboratory, but are framed for murder and terrorism in the process. With their actions disavowed by the standing G.I. JOE brass, the four become fugitives on the run from Flint and Lady Jaye, the authorities, and Cobra, and embark on a quest with the regular assistance of series favorite ninja Snake Eyes to clear their names and wreak havoc on Cobra along the way, helping out ordinary citizens every chance they get.

It doesn’t come off nearly as goody-two-shoes as it sounds, though.  The pacing, action, and story move at a brisk pace, with major characters in serious (and even sometimes presumably fatal) peril at every turn.  It’s a serious effort with strong voice acting from Clancy Brown, Michael Emerson, Phil LaMarr, Peter MacNicol, and Lee Majors among others, but with enough occasional humor thrown in (even some geared specifically to adults) that things never get too heavy.  Snake Eyes frequently serves as a deus ex machina early in this first season, but as his backstory is detailed and he begins to show some vulnerability, the speechless one becomes a more substantive player among the ranks.  The surrounding plot-line and style tie in more with the 2009 movie than what you would find in the 1980s comics or cartoon storyline, but it’s told with a skilled hand and excellent animation — a combination of soft-focused painted still backdrops, edgy hand-drawn foreground art, and the occasional CGI thrown in for good measure — that looks even sharper in high definition on Blu-ray.

The fugitive angle lends itself to a different kind of storytelling than the original series, where a problem was established, the relevant characters from the current releases from the toy line were dispatched into the mix, and there was usually a neat and tidy resolution to everything without any serious injuries within a half hour.  Renegades takes a different approach, looking to The Fugitive (1963), The Incredible Hulk (1978), Kung Fu (1972), Knight Rider (1982), and other adventure series where the group essentially stumbles into existing situations on their way to somewhere else, and stops to help the locals work through their troubles, usually with a healthy dose of combat, but also with some clever thinking.  It is through this nomadic episodic model that many other iconic characters are introduced, albeit briefly, but in meaningful and memorable ways that should delight Gen X fans.  In the first dozen or so episodes alone, the Joes will cross paths with Law & Order, Scrap Iron, Destro’s Iron Grenadiers, General Abernathy (Hawk), Storm Shadow, Jynx, Zartan and the Dreadnoks, Breaker, Barbecue, and Tomax and Xamot as Children of the Corn-esque hippie communal psychic brainwashing thieves.

Yes, some liberties have been taken here as well, but they don’t flatly ignore established canon in the process. Sure, Renegades‘ Zartan isn’t sensitive to sunlight or wear a hood or live in a swamp, but he still leads a gang of miscreant bikers and is a master of disguise and mayhem.  Tomax and Xamot aren’t in charge of Extensive Enterprises, but their psychic link, finishing each others’ sentences, creation of the Crimson Guard, and lust for material wealth is intact.  The Iron Grenadiers are actually powered armor suits now, like mini-mechas, so while not human foot soldiers, they are still the sort of infantry of the future, conjured up by James McCullen (just before his transformation into the infamous Destro), and built by MARS, his weapons manufacturing firm.  Others have been updated for the times, like casting Breaker as a college-age tinfoil-hat wearing conspiracy theorist who posts anti-Cobra propaganda on his blog as a way of both informing the public and communicating in secret with the Joes on the run.  Dr. Mindbender as a younger, spunkier scientist initially felt wrong compared to the cerebral, pensive, bald, monocle-wearing, and more malignant original, but over time the revamped character grew on me. This sort of development takes time and effort, something that a 90-minute summer blockbuster often can’t afford to spend screen time on while keeping the lowest-common-denominator audience member engaged. Despite these changes, none are as brain-dead as Rise of Cobra‘s ignoring Rip Cord’s ethnic background or with whom Scarlett is infatuated.  How do you mess stuff like that up?

While most characters here only show up in one or two episodes, their stories tend to get a fair amount of attention while they’re with us.  We learn more about Jynx in two episodes here than at any other time I’ve seen her in the past.  Firefly is just as unhinged and dangerous as you would expect a saboteur with a flair for arson to be.  While his history isn’t terribly detailed, the moments he has on-screen go to great lengths to demonstrate the depth of his obsession with destruction and calamity.  Destro, Zartan, and Major Bludd all get their time to shine as well, and I legitimately felt bad for Destro after he got double-crossed into being a colossal failure, making him the figurehead (literally) that he’s known for.

All the while, nothing feels rushed or forced or glossed over, nor does any one story linger too long.  None of the major characters or cameo players is just here for window dressing; they all have a significant role to play and don’t overstay their welcome, making the viewer hope they’ll return later.

While the individual stories generally wrap up within the span of one episode, there are details that accumulate along the way that may make it confusing to jump in halfway through.  The overarching story is written assuming that you’re going to catch every episode in the order that they appeared, so viewing it as a box set like this is ideal.  If the episodes are played in random order, it won’t completely fracture the experience, but it won’t make a lot of sense to see a later episode where Mindbender has significantly advanced the Bio-Vipers, then see an earlier show after that where they’re the mindless, doddering, reckless killing machines they are when they first debuted.  Seeing the fully automated Iron Grenadiers going toe-to-toe with the Bio-Vipers and then reverting back to the earlier episode where they’re piloted by humans in the Arena of Sport for Destro’s amusement (one of a few subtle throwbacks to the original cartoon series) could be confusing.

Extras in this set come in the form of a behind-the-scenes featurette and ride-along commentary on many of the episodes by cast and crew.  Not a ton of extras, but it’s still a fairly young series and might be considered doing double-duty or going “old school” if it included extras (toy commercials, PSAs, etc.) included with the DVD release of the ‘80s original.

You get 9.5+ hours of great animation and story across three discs with picture quality second to none.  If you’re an old-timer like me and watched the ‘80s show growing up, give Renegades a shot and I think you’ll find a lot to like.  Newcomers will get a good introduction to the characters the rest of us have grown to love over the years and meet many more along the way.  The responsible way this series has been handled actually has convinced me to forgive some of the crimes committed against canon by 2009’s live action movie.  Rip Cord’s climactic moment in the first episode of Renegades serves in my mind as an apology for everything wrong with his portrayal in that movie.

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Mark Buckingham

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