Stars: Channing Tatum, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce, Arnold Vosloo, Byung-hun Lee, RZA, D.J. Cotrona, Joseph Mazzello, Bruce Willis, Adrianne Palicki, Walton Goggins, Elodie Yung | Written by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick | Directed by Jon M. Chu
Trying to reestablish yourself is quite a feat to undertake. A first impression can say a lot, especially when it is less than stellar. Most are not willing to give a second chance when they are burned so badly the first time. Director Jon M. Chu and the rest of the cast of G.I. Joe: Retaliation had to endure that burden as they try to reenergize the G.I. Joe movie franchise after the overwhelmingly disappointing G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Overall G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a vast improvement over the original in virtually every way. The action is dialed-backed to better reflect the source material, and the use of CGI is not nearly as overwhelming. Unfortunately it is not an improvement in every area. Many of the characters are ill-conceived with little to no development. They tend to be defined by their choice of weapon or costume arrangement rather than any type of substance. Much of the plot is an afterthought, and the hacksaw job done in the editing bay did not help matters. While those problems are impossible to completely ignore a few standout charismatic performances and a large dose of fun make G.I. Joe: Retaliation a testosterone filled package of excitement.
Retaliation is equal parts sequel and retcon. Certain plot points from the original do carry over while others are ignored. In the previous film Cobra had secretly replaced the President of the United States with their agents Zartan, and that element continues here. Jonathan Pryce is tasked with the unique opportunity to play captor and captive. He nails both and really revels in the opportunity to play an evil mastermind. G.I. Joe has shifted their focus from Cobra onto more real life threats like North Korea and Islamic terrorists. Zartan uses unrest in Pakistan to frame and ambush the Joes killing nearly every member. After near total annihilation and most the world against them the few remaining Joes must regroup and take down Cobra’s evil mastermind plot to rule the world.
Although the basic plot structure is a carryover from the last film not much else is. Very few actors and characters remain. The style and tone are also completely different. Channing Tatum is one of the select returning members as he reprises his role as Duke. Last time he was the main protagonist , here he is greatly overshadowed by newcomer to the franchise Dwayne Johnson. Johnson plays a member of the Joes codenamed Roadblock. Tatum is coming off of a strong 2012 where he turned a lot of his doubters into believers, but in this he is noticeably small. Johnson adds a whole new level of charisma. He has made a career out of coming into already established franchises and breathing new life into them. This film in almost every way is his vehicle. While the team element is there he is the driving force. His willpower alone allows this movie to work in ways it shouldn’t.
Part of the reason he dominates so much is the lack of other quality characters. Ones like Lady Jaye, Flint, and Jinx are notably thin. Of course multilayered character development isn’t something you would necessarily expect from a film of this nature. Having it would allow it to separate itself for similar disposable movies like the Transformers franchise or Battleship. One of the biggest disappointments was Bruce Willis who has nearly as much screen time in the trailer as he does in the actual movie. When he is on screen he is barely present. On the Cobra side Ray Stevenson shines as the explosive Firefly, and Byung-hun Lee makes a strong return as Storm Shadow. Luke Bracey replaces Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander yet does little with the role. The look of the character is much approved but not much else. He is used more as a figure head and has little impact on the actual plot. Jonathan Pryce is the main cog pushing things along and does a quality job at it.
What has greatly improved is the action. There is less of an emphasis on CGI and more on practical effects including some impressive stunt work. That’s not to say CGI is completely absent. One stand out sequence was a Cliffside ninja fight that utilized a combination of wirework and computer graphics. It was a unique set-piece that really amped up the entertainment. Although the film never hits that level again the other action beats where enjoyable in their own way. There was a healthy combination of gun fights, explosions, and a host of fancy high-tech toys. Everything stayed close enough to reality to not be completely ridiculous yet it never strayed away from the source material by being too serious. It was the type of action one would expect for a live action G.I. Joe movie. The vehicles alone reeked of nostalgia. Personally they had recalling memories of my childhood days playing with my favorite action figures. One place the action did falter was the final climax. It had many moving parts but never amounted to much. The editing didn’t do it any favors as it crumble under the weight of its story.
Part of what really hurt the climax is how far it reached to get to its final set piece. In particular the nuclear missile version of chicken it played was rather abnormal aspect of the story arc. Certain subplots were haphazardly fused into the main story with the subtle touch of a blowtorch. For example the backstory of Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes was further explored. It had a rather huge impact on the overall plot so one would think it would be properly explained. Instead it was rushed through will little regard for comprehension and it didn’t help matters that RZA, in one of the worst casting choices in recent memory, was the one explaining it to us. Who ever thought RZA would be believable as an elderly Asian man needs to have their head examined. Besides those issues the main plot thread was handled just fine. It’s certainly nothing we haven’t seen before, yet it does the job well enough.
Overall G.I. Joe: Retaliation shows this franchise has a lot of potential. Those who are reluctant to return due to feeling disenfranchised by the first installment can rest easy knowing many of the previous problems have been fixed. It moves along with a quick pace keeping the energy flowing. Some may be turned off by the throwaway narrative and lack of development. Others looking for a simplistic good time will get just what they have been waiting for.