G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a ludicrous but satisfying big budget blockbuster based on a toy franchise, and it’s clear the studio was aiming for the type of mindless entertainment for which director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) was famous. For G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Paramount wanted something different: a more realistic, authentic look at the Joes, concentrating more on mythology and less on spectacle. In most situations I prefer the mythology-first option, but – and maybe this is because I didn’t grow up watching the cartoon or playing with the toys – in this case, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets) never struck the right balance between campy, over-the-top action and the film’s more dramatic moments. Retaliation is still an entertaining adventure, but it’s simply not as fun as the first entry into this series.
A graphics-heavy introduction piece sets the stage: a few years after the first film left off, Duke (Channing Tatum) is leading a team of Joes consisting of his buddy Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park), the latter of whom has gone missing. When the Pakistani president is assassinated, the Joes are sent in to recover nuclear missiles before the enemy can snag them, but they’re ambushed in the desert and left for dead. The U.S. president (who is actually a villain named Zartan in disguise) frames the Joes for the murder and essentially initiates Ghost Protocol, unwittingly leaving the surviving Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint to find out who betrayed them and why.
Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) – who has miraculously and inexplicably survived what I could have sworn were fatal wounds incurred in the last film – and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, taking over for Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from an underground high security prison to join Zartan in Washington. Snake Eyes and his new female ninja protoge Jinx hunt Storm Shadow while the surviving members of the Joes seek help from the original G.I. Joe (Bruce Willis, who totally mails in his performance) to stop COBRA’s villainous plan, which involves worldwide nuclear disarmament so Zartan and the Commander can threaten the world with their powerful space satellites unless everyone swears loyalty to the new army.
If you’ve seen this film’s trailers, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Channing Tatum’s Duke dies in the early minutes and the weight of the movie falls squarely on The Rock’s chiseled shoulders. He’s a much better actor than Tatum (circa 2009 anyway) and his Roadblock character brings a gravitas to the proceedings that the blank-faced Duke never could. The dude practically is an action figure in real life, so he’s totally believable here. But after some quick set-up that establishes a pretty terrific rapport between the two actors, Duke’s absence is brushed over in about thirty seconds. Maverick threw Goose’s dog tags into the water at the end of Top Gun; Roadblock’s friend doesn’t even cross his mind at this film’s end.
That lack of reaction characterizes the film’s overall attitude toward consequences fairly well. During a disarmament summit, Zartan (as the President) obliterates the entire city of London as a bullying tactic. The city is wiped off the face of the Earth, but we don’t even get to see how the British ambassador (or anyone, really) reacts to this unspeakable display of death. It’s never mentioned again. Similarly, as the film wraps up its predictable happy ending with the proper President restored to his rightful office, there is no mention of the public reaction to the years of time he spent being impersonated and the fallout regarding the decisions made while he wasn’t technically in power.
The characters are about as one-dimensional as you’d expect (they’re based on toys, remember?), and the film’s only interesting character work is the dynamic between Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. In the first movie, their origin stories are revealed in flashback form; here, we find out further details that completely recontextualizes their relationship, making one a much more tragic figure than he initially appeared. Flint is completely useless as a character (and Cotrona is as bland as Tatum was the first time around), and though Lady Jaye has a tiny bit more to her than meets the eye, it’s still not enough to convince anyone that Palicki is a talented actress. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick craft a Mission: Impossible-esque sequence that uses her sexuality as a weapon, but overall, any attempts to give her character significant heft are laughable. (She unloads a personal story about never gaining her father’s approval to Flint while he secretly watches her change clothes, which undercuts anything serious happening in the scene.)
Credit where it’s due, though: Chu’s direction is excellent. Retaliation is a much tighter, more compact movie than the original and Chu’s previous work making dance movies equipped him with the gift of knowing how to make the human body look fluid in motion; this translates to some excellent fight choreography, especially in the film’s mountainous centerpiece battle featuring dozens of ninjas. This is undoubtedly the best sequence in the movie, though it’s place in this specific story seems forced at best, especially considering how astonishingly bad RZA is at delivering the dialogue to set it up (he plays a blind sensei, which is somehow even worse than it sounds). Even though the script isn’t very good, there’s the feeling that Chu genuinely likes it, and that passion at least comes through in the final product.
There are a few opportunities for satire and political commentary, but the film rushes past them so quickly that it seems actively afraid to actually say something about the world we’re living in today. And though the movie is ostensibly more “realistic” than the last film – no pulse cannons here – there are still some ridiculous moments that should please action fans: a bullet is sliced in half with a sword, Bruce Willis’ suburban house doubles as an armory, there’s a Battleship-style sequence with Willis’ old pals coming along for the fight, and The Rock often smashes things with a tank and/or his fists. G.I. Joe: Retaliation loses a lot of fun in the process of trading spectacle for tangibility, and unfortunately that swap makes the movie far less memorable as a result. Until next time…