One of my great joys growing up was reading the G.I. Joe comic book series. The action figures, the vehicles, the cartoon series – G.I. Joe equaled big money in the late 80s and early 90s. But my favorite remained the comic book. I read it for around 100 issues and I loved the way it treated its characters, their relationships, and their storylines. So imagine my frustration when “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” hit the big screen in 2009. It was a movie ripe with potential but full of crap. The shoddy acting, the overt political correctness, and the ridiculous story supplied enough reasons to dislike the film. But for me its biggest vice was the butchering of the characters that I’ve loved since my childhood. Whether it was poor research or poor creative decisions, I don’t know. But I do know I despised that movie.
Four years have passed and now Paramount Studios have given us a sequel, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”. This time around they dangle Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Bruce Willis like a carrot in front of a horse, trying to convince us that this movie aims to be better. Well, actually it is better but I’m not sure that’s saying much. One thing that stood out was that it did attempt to be a little more faithful to the comic book source material than the previous movie. There are several tips of the hat and even a side story straight from the pages of the print series. Unfortunately the side story will make absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t read it and this leads to the biggest problem with this entire project – the lame and often times amateurish writing.
The movie picks up shortly after the events of the first film. Zartan is masquerading as the President of the United States while Cobra Commander and Destro are in some sort of cryogenic stasis in an underground government prison. But Cobra has a bigger plan at work that of course includes world domination and extinguishing the G.I. Joe team. Meanwhile, the Joes are out doing what they do, thwarting terrorist attacks, retrieving stolen nuclear warheads – you know, standard Joe stuff.
Duke (Channing Tatum) is back and he’s the man in charge. He shares a bromance with his best friend and team heavy machine gunner Roadblock (Johnson). We also get the seemingly loose cannon Flint (D.J. Cotrona) although they completely abandon his loose cannon angle. Then there’s the gorgeous but able Lady Jaye (played by the gorgeous and occasionally able Adrianne Palicki). And of course there’s the super cool and personal favorite Joe of mine Snake-Eyes (Ray Park). After the team is decimated by a Cobra attack sanctioned by the bogus president, the few surviving Joes are forced underground where they must put together a plan to expose Cobra and avenge the death of their comrades.
The movie is really just a series of action set pieces linked together by a few strands of plot. But did anyone honestly go into a G.I. Joe movie expecting anything deep? The story is adequate enough to move this action-oriented film along. It’s when the story tries to branch out into side stories that things begin to get messy. The most obvious example is a side story dealing with Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow, and the events of their connected pasts. As a fan of the comic series I smiled as I remembered reading this story from the books. But in terms of this movie, its incorporation into the main story is horribly done. It comes completely out of the blue and instead of gelling with the main narrative, it violently collides with it. There’s no sense of place and there’s no real connection at all.
The poor writing also shows itself in some of the character’s underwritten subplots and in some of the corniest dialogue you’ll hear all year. Some of the jokes and attempts at humor are nothing short of cringe-worthy. There were times, particularly in the first half of the film, where these lines felt so awkward and disingenuous. Then there was the macho military banter, again mostly in the first half of the film, that was so incredibly silly and fake. It’s hard to imagine anyone putting this on paper and thinking it sounds good. It’s also hard to take any of these characters seriously while you’re constantly face palming due to the goofy dialogue! Thankfully a lot of this subsides as the movie goes on.
As with many of this year’s movies we’ve seen so far and that are on the way, the action is the big focus. It’s pretty relentless so be prepared to be bombarded with bullets, blades, and explosions. For me, this was the film’s strong point. I thought the action sequences in the first film did nothing to save it from its serious flaws. The action sequences in this film are actually pretty good and they did help me get past some of this movie’s shortcomings. They also translated well in 3D, something that was a pleasant surprise considering my usual dislike for the technology. But like other movies with such heavy dependence on CGI, things sometimes feel too synthetic. There’s a wildly entertaining ninja showdown on the face of a huge mountain. But as fun as it is, it’s still hurt by its absurdity and obvious computer generated visuals. The action is also helped and sometimes hurt by Jon Chu’s direction. Now I was happy to see a new director on board after the first debacle. But I’m hard-pressed to believe that a director known for the “Step Up” series and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” was the best choice.
The Rock is intended to be the big draw here and while he’s big on charisma, he’s not when it comes to emotion. But is that just something that comes with casting him or was he handcuffed by the material he’s given? Another draw was Bruce Willis but this is clearly a check cashing role for him. His short screen time adds a few mild snickers and he serves as a plot hole filler (kind of) but that’s about it. Tatum is as forgettable as usual but again the material does him no favors. I think Jonathan Pryce may be the most fun actor to watch in the film. He plays around and has fun as both the president and Zartan posing as the president.
So after all of that what’s my conclusion on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”? Is it as awful as I anticipated? Nope, not even close. Is at a good movie? I don’t think I can go there either. Let me just say it’s a better movie than its predecessor and at times can be entertaining. I enjoyed the attempt to add a pinch of realism to the story and I liked some of the money moments such as Snake-Eyes vs Storm Shadow. But in the end “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” seems content to be a better movie rather than a really good one. Granted it’s aimed at an audience made up of teen boys and nostalgic men and it’ll score some points there. But nostalgia only carries me so far.