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.