2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra had franchise potential written all over it, yet the flick severely underperformed at the box office, leaving sequel talks dead in the water for a few years. And now Paramount are trying again with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which looks to start afresh with a new slate of characters. It was a golden opportunity for a different creative team to course-correct the series, and the effort thankfully pays off. Though not perfect, Retaliation is an enormously enjoyable actioner, benefiting from astute direction and a sharp script courtesy of Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. This is easily the best movie produced under the Hasbro banner, clearing perhaps the lowest cinematic bar known to humanity.
With a nuclear threat brewing in the Middle East, the G.I. Joe military group, led by Commander Duke (Channing Tatum), are sent to Pakistan to diffuse the situation. The Joes save the day again, only to be betrayed in a deadly strike that decimates the team. The only survivors of the attack are Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), who suspect that the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), a member of the Cobra unit. Once the Cobra Commander (voiced by Robert Baker) is broken out of prison by Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson), a scheme is put into effect to eliminate nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage using destructive satellites orbiting the Earth. Once back on American soil, Roadblock enlists the help of General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), an original Joe.
Retaliation was meant to enter multiplexes in June of 2012, but Paramount pulled the plug merely a few weeks before the scheduled release despite having blown a lot of cash on marketing the film. The delay facilitated a 3D conversion, and, reportedly, allowed the filmmakers to beef up Tatum’s cameo (though not by much). Predictably, the 3D conversation is completely for naught. It adds nothing to the experience; the picture looks flat for the most part, and the extra-dimensional stuff feels rote. Worse, the photography is somewhat shaky, rendering the action scenes a complete blurry mess from time to time. Retaliation‘s 3D conversion brings back memories of Clash of the Titans, it’s that bad. Why haven’t studios learned their lesson about forced 3D by now? However, Retaliation is a lot stronger in other aspects. Reese and Wernick’s script is very effective, mixing a healthy sense of humour with genuine stakes and charismatic characters. The characters aren’t deep, but it’s easy to like them, and you won’t spend the entire movie being bored of their presence. The dialogue is a lot stronger this time, as well.
Director Jon Chu was a baffling choice to steer this extravaganza, as he’s known for helming two Step Up instalments as well as the positively apocalyptic Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Against all odds, Chu guides the flick with a sure hand, displaying a firm grasp on pacing and orchestrating a number of astonishingly fluid action sequences. Paramount reportedly blew around $175 million on The Rise of Cobra, but Retaliation was produced for a smaller sum of $135 million. Frankly, the reduced budget is for the best. Whereas The Rise of Cobra was coated in a disgusting amount of digital effects, Retaliation is a bit more down to earth, relying more on sets and locations than pure green screen. The more grounded action scenes here are therefore more exciting, even though there’s some unfortunate shaky-cam here and there. One of the most impressive sequences is a perilous, high-flying ninja fight over the cliffs of the Himalayas. Cohesively shot and impressively executed, it’s an astonishing set-piece bursting with excitement.
Retaliation was assembled before Tatum suddenly developed into a good actor and a box office star, hence he’s in and out fairly quickly to make room for the new faces. Thankfully, Tatum has loosened up as an actor, and his presence is amiable here. Even better is Johnson, who has the right physicality and attitude for the role of Roadblock. Johnson was born to be an action star, and it’s always terrific to see the actor spending his time on films like this rather than kiddie rubbish. As General Colton, Bruce Willis pops in for a few scenes. He’s not entirely disinterested here and he does deliver some sharp dialogue, but he’s clearly coasting and looks to be only present for the paycheque. The rest of the cast fare well, with Palicki and Cotrona fulfilling their duties well enough as Roadblock’s team members. More impressive is Pryce, hamming it up to extremes as the President (and his impersonator). It looks like Pryce enjoyed himself here; it’s a fun performance.
Nobody was interested in sequel talks when The Rise of Cobra snuck into cinemas to minimal fan-fare, but G.I. Joe: Retaliation leaves room open for another sequel that would frankly be welcome. Of course, the film will not work for everyone, as it does come across as another jingoistic document about America’s perception of itself as the world’s police. Hell, towards the end, England suffers complete destruction, but no-one seems to care and no tears are shed. Nevertheless, it’s a silly, over-the-top romp that succeeds in providing a good time. This reviewer had a ball with it.