Even with better characters, a more talented cast of action stars, and a more grounded and faithful approach to the mythos, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is still an overall disappointing film.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation picks up some months after the events of the first film, Rise of Cobra, with Duke (Channing Tatum) now leading the elite peacekeeping Joe force alongside his best buddy Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and talented squad mates like Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Parkour master, Flint (D.J. Cotrona).
Meanwhile, Cobra's master of disguise, Zartan, is still masquerading as the president of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) - a position of power he exploits in order to ambush and eliminate the 'Joe squad. With the help of Cobra enforcer Firefly (Ray Stevenson), Zartan frees Cobra Commander and together they launch a scheme of worldly conquest. The remaining Joe members need all the help they can get, so they reunite with Snake Eyes, his protege Jinx (Elodie Yung) and seek out the man who first put the "Joe" in G.I. Joe (Bruce Willis).
Even with better characters, a more talented cast of action stars, and a more grounded and faithful approach to the mythos, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is still an overall disappointing film. The cast alone makes it a better viewing experience than the first installment, but a paper-thin narrative and lackluster action sequences ultimately mark it as a half-cooked (or over-cooked) sequel, and a second strike on the franchise's score card.
Director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2&3, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) clearly has love for the G.I. Joe franchise, and in many ways nails down the aesthetic of the cartoon series (in terms of costume and vehicle design, characterization, and tone). This film feels more like G.I. Joe translated into live-action than Rise of Cobra's faux-futuristic tech, bionic suits and weaponry. Our Joe team also looks like a kick-ass military unit filled with elite soldiers, this time around - rather than a "we are the world" assortment of fresh-faced actors who looked somewhat out of place getting dirty in a gun fight.
While the interpretation of the source material is more accurate, Chu's skills as a blockbuster director are, unfortunately, not on the level needed to realize that interpretation properly on screen. Retaliation stages some pretty ambitious set piece sequences (see: the ninja mountain battle), but on the whole, Chu's skill with action sequencing tops out at disorienting shots of actors holding big guns shooting in every which direction at unseen foes - or clearly contrived choreography (see: Flint's acrobatics or Snake Eye's martial arts) that doesn't impress in a post-Raid: Redemption world. For a movie whose biggest sell is action, G.I.: Retaliation is found wanting.
With the exception of a scant few moments (like that aforementioned ninja mountain battle), the 3D upgrade is not worth it. It's a shame, since Chu is one director who has experience with the format (Step Up 3D and Never Say Never) and can clearly do fun things with it (the mountain battle). But even with a quality post-conversion process (which the film does have), the reality that the film was originally designed for 2D prevents it from doing anything all that revolutionary in three dimensions.
On a script level, Rise of Cobra looks positively Shakespearean compared to the story of Retaliation - which is to say the sequel is woefully short on depth, characterization and basic narrative development... even for a G.I. Joe movie. This is especially surprising, considering what a unique (and fun) signature writing duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick presented in their script for Zombieland; then again, there are small traces of evidence throughout G.I. Joe 2 that point to the script once having been a fully-realized narrative - rather than the bare-bones, hack-job leftovers we get as a "story."
The question of studio interference looms large as one watches the fractured narrative - a revolving series of scenes split between the surviving Joe team, the Cobra baddies, and (like an extraneous third arm) a Snake Eyes (Ray Park) / Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) ninja drama. None of these aforementioned plot threads (or characters therein) get any meaningful attention or development; rather, the movie constantly jumps between each thread, ignoring obvious logistical questions (how did we get here? What led us here?) and abandoning virtually all of the character sub-plots that are hinted at early on.
Meanwhile, the script is rife with heavy-handed expositional dialogue and voice-overs, used to establish "context" and/or push the various characters toward their climactic convergence. Red-herrings and foreshadows lead nowhere, the climax is unceremonious and deflated, and there's ultimately little left at the end to inspire desire for further adventures. In short: it's a bad sign when one looks back and envies the family drama and hero's journey arc of the first film.
Speaking of the first film: at least it invested time in its cast of superhero soldiers, their backstories and relationships. After an hour and a half, I feel like I still don't know Lady Jaye (Palicki) or Flint (Cotrona) all that well, while Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow - and all their ninja history - are more confusing than ever. Johnson definitely steps in to put a choke-hold on the franchise as its best and brightest hope for the future; however, Willis is just there for kicks (and a paycheck, one imagines), with little apparent interest or investment.
Ironically enough, Palicki and Cotrona turn out to be two of the strongest elements of the new film - as does Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone) as Firefly. In all three cases, their screen time is whittled down to just the most plot-advancing action (or in Palicki's case, skin-baring) moments, with the few scenes of actual backstory or serious development left to dangle awkwardly out of place. The same goes for Elodie Yung, who (we're told) is a serious player in this chess game, but would hardly be missed if she was cut from the story completely - as would the entire ninja storyline (which features a ridiculous cameo by rapper/filmmaker The RZA).
In the end, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the equivalent of bargain-basement blockbuster entertainment. A pastiche of sequences that never really fulfill their own ambitions, with little narrative connective tissue holding it all loosely together. By the end, the journey feels underwhelming and the only destination we've arrived at is indifference. Still, some people will enjoy it for the brainless popcorn entertainment it is, and though this unit should probably be retired from active duty, I, for one, won't be surprised if they're given yet another tour.
Want to discuss SPOILERS without ruining the movie for others? Head over to our G.I. Joe 2 Spoilers Discussion Post. For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check out our G.I. Joe 2 episode of the SR Underground podcast.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is now in theaters. It is 110 minutes long and is rated Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language.