Now Playing: So-So ‘G.I. Joe’

Make no mistake, I consider 2009’s ‘G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra‘ to be one of my most hated movies, and a desecration of a property that I’ve loved since childhood. Yet here we are four years later, and I’ve found myself approaching its inevitable sequel with some measure of cautious optimism. Does ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ right the wrongs of its predecessor, or is it just another incompetent disaster?

Even at the time of the ‘Rise of Cobra’ travesty, I held out some measure of hope for a sequel. The G.I. Joe character roster is so extensive that a follow-up movie could easily focus on an entirely different group of characters and completely ignore anything that happened in the first film. Dump most of the original cast, hire some real movie stars and (most importantly) fire nitwit hack director Stephen Sommers, and you can make a quick and painless reboot without necessarily even admitting that you had to reboot the franchise after just one movie. In a lot of ways, that’s pretty much what ‘Retaliation’ does.

Officially, the movie is a direct sequel to ‘Rise of Cobra’, but if you’ve forgotten (or never seen) the events of that one, some quick recapping at the beginning will fill in all you need to know. The G.I. Joe team is now led by Duke (Channing Tatum). Cobra Commander and Destro, the two top leaders of the evil Cobra terrorist organization, have been imprisoned. However, master-of-disguise Zartan has kidnapped and is currently impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce).

Near the beginning of the picture, the evil President frames the Joes for treason and helps Cobra launch a sneak attack that wipes out almost the entirety of the team. This is a pretty convenient method of cleaning the slate. Only three of our Real American Heroes survive the assault: Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), none of whom were in the last movie. On the run, this trio has to lay low and recruit the help of the original G.I. Joe himself, retired General Joseph Colton (Bruce frickin’ Willis), to expose the fake President and foil Cobra’s latest scheme to take over the world.

Separate from this, badass mute ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park, who was in the last movie) and his apprentice Jinx attempt to raid a Cobra fortress to abduct Storm Shadow (who we last saw get killed at the end of ‘Rise of Cobra’, but whatever…) for reasons that are basically meaningless and only serve as an excuse for Storm Shadow to switch teams. For the majority of the film, these two storylines don’t intersect and seem to take place in entirely different movies.

The rest of the plotting is insignificant. Lots of guns get fired, ninja swords slice, and stuff goes boom, all in bloodless PG-13 fashion.

Unlike the idiot Stephen Sommers, new director Jon M. Chu actually knows a thing or two about G.I. Joe and tries very hard to course-correct the franchise. He keeps the characters reasonably true to their comic book origins (technically, G.I. Joe started as a toy line first, but most fans consider the ’80s comic written by Larry Hama to be the “canon”) and loads the movie with familiar iconography that fans will appreciate. Its best scene is an extended homage to the famous comic book issue called ‘Silent Interlude’, which plays out an epic ninja battle without any dialogue. (The scene also functions pretty well as an homage to Shaw Bros. martial arts movies from the ’70s.)

Chu takes ‘Retaliation’ seriously as a G.I. Joe movie, and as an action movie in general. While it will never be mistaken for a deep or intellectual masterwork, most of the egregious stupidity that plagued ‘Rise of Cobra’ from beginning to end has been pared back here. The screenplay by ‘Zombieland‘ writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick effectively mixes in some humor and, more importantly, makes the characters likeable enough that we don’t spend the whole movie wishing we could punch each and every one of them in the face, as happened the last time. (That wasn’t just me, was it?)

Johnson is pretty much ideally cast as Roadblock. As much as I despised Channing Tatum in the last movie, I’ve started to warm to him greatly since ‘21 Jump Street‘. He’s loosened up considerably as an actor. He and Johnson have great rapport. Bruce Willis is a welcome presence in any action movie, but honestly, he’s barely in this one for more than a couple of scenes. His level of disinterest may not be as bad here as in, for example, this year’s ‘A Good Day to Die Hard’, but he’s clearly coasting and has just shown up to cash a paycheck.

Supporting players are more of a mixed bag. Palicki is OK, but Cotrona barely registers. Hip-hop star The RZA shows up for a bit part, and he’s absolutely atrocious. On the other hand, Walton Goggins from ‘The Shield’ and ‘Justified’ is a lot of fun in a small role.

The movie was originally scheduled to be released last summer, but Paramount yanked it at the last minute, allegedly to give it the 3D conversion treatment. However, rumor rapidly spread that the studio actually panicked after poor test screenings and demanded reshoots, specifically to add more Tatum. Indeed, some of the actor’s scenes feel like they were shoehorned in after-the-fact. A lame action scene at the end also reeks of being thrown together quickly.

As for the 3D, it’s modestly effective in a few scenes, especially the mountaintop ninja battle, but is largely superfluous and adds little to the movie. The screening I saw was very dim and had flat colors. I think I would have preferred to see it in 2D.

By and large, ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ is a quantum leap improvement over the godawful ‘Rise of Cobra’. Of course, that’s not a particularly high bar to clear. Sadly, the new movie is still fairly dull, tepid and generic PG-13 fodder. Even as the plot attempts to put the fate of the entire world at stake, none of the action ever has any consequences and I could feel my interest level progressively draining. Still, if it’s enough of a hit (which I frankly have to doubt), perhaps it may lead the way to better sequels in the future.

Now you know, and knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


  1. HuskerGuy

    Still looking forward to checking this out. Wish the plot would’ve involved more unstoppable blobs that get demolished by apple seeds. Maybe they are saving that for the sequal.

    • Josh Zyber

      A major plot point here is more-or-less a ‘correction’ for an infamous scene from the 1986 animated movie. I have to give a lot of credit for that.

      If Chu had ended the movie with the cast doing a “half the battle” PSA over the end credits, I would have forgiven him any other mistakes. Sadly, that’s not the case. (Yes, I stayed all the way through the credits to check for a gag at the end.)

  2. Me and G.I. Joe weren’t on speaking terms in 2009, so I missed the first movie (a good thing, apparently). Since, I have found a new appreciation and nostalgic love for the toys, so I’m definitely checking this one out. Glad to hear it’s at least “decent” or “passable”.

    “Ray Park” and “apprentice” in one sentence made me chuckle.

  3. anakin4325

    Thanks for the review. Only a true classic joe fan has his own peach file card. Nice touch.

  4. Mike

    Any theories on Bruce Willis ‘consistent apathy in everything he appears in these days? I can’t imagine he’s financially hard up.

  5. JM

    “From the director of ‘Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”…

    Let’s be honest. Michael Bay is the only director that could fuck this IP into a billion dollars.

    (Though his time is much better spent on ‘Pain & Gain.’)

    I’ve played chess with like half the toys and probably won’t even rent this.

    Why did they kill off Cleavage Girl? Cleavage was half the box office.

    The ending sounds like ‘Mission: Impossible 2’ all over again.

    $300M worldwide to break even, the sequel is determined by toy sales?

    Josh, I like that a man of your taste and cynicism is so emo about this IP that you took your notebook to the theater to give us the HD truth.

    & I’m glad you didn’t hate this enough to create a poll.

    Bruce Willis is clearly trying to position himself as the new Anthony Hopkins.

    Hollywood should just combine G.I. Joe and Hot Wheels into one franchise and get Justin Lin to direct.

  6. Timcharger

    Attention agents of Cobra, we have obtained previously lost manila folder and decoded its contents. Meet at staging point J-Zeta at 0200. Operation Douse Hothead commences at 0300. Cobbrrraaaah!

  7. Ted S.

    Wow Josh you’re more forgiving to this film than I did. I thought it’s one of the worst films I’ve seen in a long time, it dragged on and on and on. The action scenes weren’t exciting or original. I didn’t care for the first one either and hoped this one would be better but sadly that was not the case.

  8. Edrick P

    I went into this movie with the lowest of expectations. Honestly, it wasn’t half bad. I would rank this movie well over the last two Transformers movies. This movie had a GI Joe Resolute/Renegades feel to it, with the whole Snake Eyes plot and the remnant Joes on the run from the government. I think they will benefit greatly from releasing it this weekend as opposed to last summer… one can only hope.

  9. Saw this in IMAX 3D. I don’t consider this one better than the first in terms of plot. The only reason I went to see it is because the first movie ended with suspense. I don’t like the idea of killing Duke even if actor of Channing Tatum’s caliber is expendable. There are plenty of ways to preserve continuity between the two movies without having to kill Duke. As reviewer pointed out he and the Rock actually did pretty well together. It’s a shame because I’d like to see more development between Johnson and Tatum. As is all we have is Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. Flint (Cotrona) is utterly useless. I think he was there just to pair with Lady J in original cartoon. Equally useless was Bruce Willis in the movie.

    I actually liked what they did with Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes even though this was a huge deviation from the comics and cartoon. The 3D rendering from swords and flying stars were outstanding. Reviewer’s criticism on 3D could have been applied to every single 3D movie. I’m not sure what else he wanted. I agree there were some scenes which could use 3D (such as breaking water tanks, exploding debrees, robotic flies,…etc). The 3D effects may not be as good as Avatar or Transformers 3, but it’s good enough that you shouldn’t pick 2D over 3D.

    The most important thing is the story was not very good. I hope they don’t do any more G.I. Joe movies if they are out of ideas. But the 3D was good enough that I didn’t feel like I wasted 90 minutes.

    • Lord Bowler

      I agree… Even though Channing Tatum wasn’t very good in the first GI Joe, they didn’t need to kill him.

      Remember when the Transformers Movie (Animated) killed off Optimus and the GI Joe Movie (Animated) had re-edit to not kill off Duke?

      If I recall, didn’t the first trailer released show Duke (Tatum) in the Well? I was watching for him to crawl out of another well, but no such luck.

  10. I would say this is a solid 2 1/2 star out of 4 movie. Miles better than the first, which I cannot even bear to watch.

    There were a few moments where I geeked out and was reminded of the glory days of G.I. Joe, namely with the tanks and hovercraft, but they were indeed few.

    Plus, it’s more fun to talk about what sucked! So here goes…

    There were far too many bad puns in this film, mostly from the fake President, Zartan. “The quicker blower upper, baby!”? Really?

    They replaced the awful Marlon Wayans character with another bad character: Firefly, played by Ray Stephenson. Here we have someone who is big, and evil. He plays it well, but his accent is ludicrous. First I though he was playing an Australian; turns out he’s just attempting a lame-ass southern drawl American. Bad bad bad. Don’t try that again, Mr. Stephenson. And the idea that this guy could get the upper hand in a fist fight with The Rock? Not a chance. He didn’t even display any type of Martial Art skill that could gain him an advantage in a fight of any kind, let alone one with a top-of-his-game Dwayne Johnson, who looks like The Hulk.

    But Firefly’s character pales in comparison to The RZA. Who gave the OK for this guy to be in anything? Really, a homeless man off the street could act better. Here he plays some sort of blind Martial Arts master with a funky beard. I guess his speaking voice in this almost rivals Christopher Eccleston’s voice in the first movie. Just because this guy loves old Chinese Kung Fu movies and knows Quentin Tarantino, doesn’t give him the right to be in a blockbuster movie. I don’t want to see or hear him ever again. Period.

    Cobra Commander was MUCH better this time around, and the reflective face plate looks cool, though the rest of the helmet is goofy-looking. Almost as though they took a greasy near shoulder-length hairstyle and solidified it.

    Well, that’s pretty much it for the bad. Now let’s talk about the good!

    I WANT Commander Joe’s house!! All those weapons hidden behind the cabinets, and not over-engineered with fancy lights and servo motors and all that jazz, just straight-forward ordnance aplenty!! Plus all the cool maps on the walls…

    Those tanks with the raising turrets were badass!! Wish they were real.

    I really liked the explosive motorbike, and the London destruction scene was really cool. The fight in the mountains around the Monastery was every boy’s dream sequence if you grew up in the 80s. Ninjas, Samurais, Kung Fu warriors, masked foot soldiers, it didn’t matter. If you were a couple thousand feet in the air and had a sword, it was all good!

    So all in all, I did have fun, did roll my eyes, and did enjoy all the silliness. It’s not like this was Transformers 2 or anything…

    • Josh Zyber

      RZA is unbelievably bad. They should have redubbed all his dialogue with someone else. I can’t believe they let those line readings through the final cut. What really rubs salt in the wound in that the Blind Master is a hugely iconic character from the G.I. Joe comics, and he utterly ruined it.

      Firefly’s accent I think was meant to be a nod to the cartoon version of the character’s voice, but I agree that it didn’t really work. He should have just spoken in his normal accent. Nobody would have questioned it. That said, I actually do believe that Titus Pullo could hold his own in a fight with The Rock.

  11. Lord Bowler

    I also went into this movie with low expectations, and was surprised by it. It was not a great movie, but an OK movie with some great moments.

    As Edrick P said:
    This movie had a GI Joe Resolute/Renegades feel to it, with the whole Snake Eyes plot and the remnant Joes on the run from the government.

    I felt the same thing. I think if they had taken the entire plot of the GI Joe Renegades series it would have worked better. They could have made this movie a prequel instead and introduced no-names as cameos of characters we may meet in a future sequel. I think that would have worked better.

    That being said, there were parts I liked:
    *Walton Goggin as the Warden was great!
    *I missed seeing Zartan except for two brief scenes, I’ve always liked Arnold Vosloo. Jonathan Pryce as Zartan/The President was great.
    *I wished they’d given us a cameo of Major Bludd as the Helocopter pilot when Cobra Commander escaped. Just a guy with a scar would have been nice.
    *The pointless mountain fight scene between Snake Eyes and Ninjas was great. Anytime you see Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fight is a good thing.
    *The Cobra Flags on the White House

    As in the first film, I wished we’d seen two twin business executives named Xamot and Tomax who finished each others sentences.

    I did not like them killing off Zartan, because I love the character and he’s always to slip away by changing his face. I loved Pryce’s, Zartan as President, joke about Waterboarding. “They call it Waterboarding, but I never get bored!”

    This movie gives me hope that the next film will be better.

  12. Pedram

    Unlike most people here, I actually liked the first film. It had a lot of references from the cartoon (never read the comic) and even paid homage to Destro’s origins. It was a of fun (especially the accelerator suits scene) and I even liked Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans in it as well. The ending had some silly parts (e.g. ice sinking), but by then I was willing to let it go.

    I went into this one hoping for something even better after hearing that the director was a big GI Joe fan. I think it went downhill fast shortly after Duke died though. There were some amusing jokes, and the cliff scene was kinda cool, but it was annoying how dumb and easily defeated the “bad” ninjas in that scene were. There was just one bad cliche after another, and so many things didn’t make sense (and why did they just leave Destro in there for no reason?). Towards the end I was just so frustrated that I couldn’t enjoy the movie any more, even with the vehicles paying homage to the toys in scenes that should have been fun. The end fight wasn’t very exciting, and yes, RZA was really bad too.
    Anyway, to me the original was 3.5/5, but I’d give this one a 2.5 out of 5. And that’s only because Dwayne Johnson kept the film from sucking too bad.
    I haven’t seen a movie in the cinema that I’ve been this disappointed with since Transformers 3. And that had way better action scenes.

    • Pedram

      Also Flint and Lady Jaye were there in name only and didn’t seem like the original characters at all. Flint was annoying and Jaye was there just to show off her body. I don’t remember her throwing any spears/javelins, (Scarlett had her crossbow in the first). Snake Eyes didn’t seem as cool as he was in the first film. Storm Shadow was decent but Jinx was forgettable.
      The only character that was an improvement was Cobra Commander.