G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra was one of the worst films of 2009 so almost anything would have been an improvement. G.I. Joe: Retaliation may have been constrained by plot devices set up in the first film – a Cobra operative in the White House, for example – but it plays off them with agility, charm and even a little wit. It takes the franchise from Bottom Feeder to better than average in less than two hours.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens with a covert operation to free an unnamed asset from North Korea – and op that finds the Joes using cool tech and pure brass to humiliate the Koreans. In the elaborate, yet efficient op, we see the Joes as the elite force they are – a well-oiled machine with unparalleled skill and an unexpected degree of panache.
After the op, we see two of the team – Duke (Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) – in Roadblock’s living-room, sparring over a videogame. In this one scene, there is more warmth, charm, wit and pure fun than in the entire first film. Tatum and Johnson come across as the close friends their characters are supposed to be.
From there, the film pulls the Joes into an op to recover a stolen Russian nuke – but it’s a setup. The chameleonic Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), as the President (Jonathan Pryce) has framed them as traitors and ordered their destruction. Unfortunately for him, three of the team – Roadblock, Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki) – have survived. And they are not happy.
What follows is a complicated series of cuts between Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) being delivered to a high-security underground prison (the warden is played by Walton Goggins with his usual one-of-a-kind verve; the three Joe survivors enlisting the aid of the original Joe, General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis); the introduction of Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung), and the unveiling of Cobra’s plan to render the world nuke-free and vulnerable to their own unique superweapon.
Along the way, we learn a bit about Flint and Lady Jaye – and a monumental secret that involves Storm Shadow. We are also introduced to Cobra weapons and combat specialist Firefly (Ray Stevenson), one of the few villains who can believably hold his own in a brawl with Roadblock.
Given that Retaliation has to incorporate plot arcs from Rise of Cobra, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick deliver a surprisingly script that gives us more character beats and some very decent plot points. Director Jon M. Chu takes his ability to work with choreography (he directed the first two Step Up movies) and executes some truly awesome action sequences – the ninja battle on the mountainside is both cool (in every sense of the word) and exhilarating.
Everyone in the cast seems to be having the time of their lives – with the interplay between Willis and Palicki bringing some serious crackle to the proceedings (and one of the more poignant moments in the wrap-up). One possible exception is RZA, who plays Snake Eyes and Jinx’s kung fu mentor – he stalls the film’s momentum whenever he’s onscreen.
As a fan of the various animated incarnations of the franchise, I was bitterly disappointed by the fiasco that was The Rise of Cobra and it was difficult to go into Retaliation with an open mind, but the movie won me over pretty early on (see videogame).
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is not a great movie – make no mistake about it – but it is a fun-filled action movie with the requisite brawls, firefights and stuff getting blowed up real good. It’s not completely empty-headed and the main characters (with the exception of Cobra Commander – Luke Bracey is no Joseph Gordon-Levitt) come off as something more than stock, by-the-numbers clichés.
I would say, though, that there probably wasn’t any screaming great need to convert the film to 3D – it’s decent enough, but doesn’t really add that much to the proceedings.
Final Grade: B+
Photos by Jamie Trueblood/Courtesy of Paramount Pictures