By Chaz Lipp
I approached G.I. Joe: Retaliation with extreme trepidation. Considering I strongly disliked its predecessor, 2009’s G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, the even more dismal reviews for Retaliation were not promising (currently 29% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, for what it’s worth). With a change in director, screenwriters, and a largely new cast, you would think the producers’ primary focus would be on improving the mindlessly dull and muddled Rise of the Cobra.
Well, I don’t know what some of these critics were expecting, but improvement on all levels is exactly what I saw in Retaliation. No, the movie didn’t rock my world but, especially after going in with such low expectations, I was entirely satisfied with the slam-bang action thrill ride that is G.I. Joe: Retaliation. There’s no emotional depth, but for purely visceral thrills, director Jon M. Chu (previously best known for Step Up 2 and 3 and, of all things, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) keeps things zipping along for 110 minutes.
Part of the reason Retaliation works as well as it does is that screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland) managed to work in some genuinely funny humor. The interplay between Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and Duke (Channing Tatum, one of the relatively few cast members returning from the first one) gets some laughs. Their palling around at Roadblock’s home early on provides a welcome touch of normal human behavior (something in short supply the first time around). Although it doesn’t quite elicit tears of sympathy, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) has a tender moment when she confesses that her military father didn’t believe women were effective members of the armed forces. It feels like a rather lazy attempt at deepening Jaye as a character, but Reese and Wernick are careful to include a logical pay-off late in the film.
So while it’s not sublime cinematic art, Retaliation displays an attention to detail and a level of care that simply wasn’t present in the first film. And the action set pieces hit a lot harder this time. Even though we got a taste of Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) fighting off an army of red ninja high amidst snow-capped Japanese peaks, trust me: the full sequence is undeniably thrilling, pulse-pounding action greatness. They’re trying to secure the unconscious Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee, along with Park and Tatum, another first-film holdover). Never mind that it’s not really integral to the plot, it’s a vertical showstopper.
You may have noticed I haven’t attempted to recap said plot. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen Rise of the Cobra (certainly not a prerequisite, considering the expository character introductions Retaliation conveniently provides right at the start), the U.S. President (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by an imposter, Zartan (Arnold Vosloo). The Nano-bots introduced in the first film are still hard at work, allowing Zartan to look and sound exactly like the president. His goal involves calling all world leaders to one giant summit where he tricks them all into disarming their nuclear arsenals. He simultaneously unveils a new, satellite-controlled WMD that’s far more powerful than a nuke but without fall-out.
A President-authorized surgical strike early on all but wipes out the Joes, leaving only a few survivors to deduce what’s really going on (“What if the President isn’t the President?” asks Lady Jaye, after studying video footage of the imposter). The crisis with Zartan leads to an uneasy alliance between adversaries Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, which allows for some cool moments involving those characters. And the addition of Bruce Willis as General Joseph Colton, the original G.I. Joe, was a masterstroke. Make no mistake, Willis’ screen time is more limited than perhaps the trailers would have us believe. But he’s clearly having a ball adding a little old school action charm to the proceedings. Adding a superstar to the already improved cast (which also includes choice supporting roles for Walton Goggins as super-prison warden Nigel James and Joseph Mazzello as Mouse) results in a real sense of A-list flash that enlivens Retaliation’s third act.
In summary, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a big chunk of action nonsense. So was Rise of the Cobra. The difference is that this time around, it’s fun nonsense, much better organized and evenly paced. Regardless of whether you saw the first one or not, Retaliation—while highly unlikely to stick in viewers’ memories on a long-term basis—is a loud, bombastic, entertaining popcorn movie.