In every measurable way, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a vast improvement over the film it serves as a sequel to, 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It’s a genuinely fun, well-directed and well-paced action yarn that should make adult movie goers happy while still selling plenty of toys.
They kept the plot simple this time: After their victory over the Cobra terrorist group in the last film, the “Joes” — Captain Conrad “Duke” Hauser (Channing Tatum), machine gunner Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), sharpshooter Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and the team’s loose cannon, Flint (D.J. Cotrona) — are sent on an operation to secure nuclear warheads made vulnerable to arms dealers by a political coup in a Middle Eastern nation. The operation turns out to be a trap, and suddenly the team finds itself under attack and denounced as traitors by the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce) and its government for trying to steal the very warheads they were sent to secure.
Their ranks decimated by the sneak attack, the surviving Joes are forced to operate underground while figuring out how to clear their names, as Cobra’s leadership — Cobra Commander, rogue ninja Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), and demolitions master Firefly (Ray Stevenson) — put in motion a plot to hold the world’s nuclear-powered nations hostage. The Joes will have to turn to the man to whom the team owes its name — ret. General Joseph “Joe” Colton, the original “G.I. Joe” — and their old friend and comrade Snake Eyes (Ray Park) for help in avenging their losses, stopping Cobra’s plot and recovering their honor in the eyes of the world.
It’s the kind of plot you might expect to come out of a film based on a beloved cartoon series and action figure toy line, certainly, but what makes this G.I. Joe adventure so markedly different from the first film is in the execution.
Director Jon M. Chu, who up to this point is perhaps best known for his work on the Step Up films and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, makes a bold and right-minded choice by envisioning this story as an action movie with live actors, rather than a live-action version of a cartoon or a two-hour toy commercial. The production design is simpler and more based in existing real-world tech — the “accelerator suits” and invisibility camo gear from the first film are gone — and the action set pieces more grounded in reality. That’s not to say they aren’t imaginative or epic — the mountaintop ninja battles seen in most of the trailers in particular do not disappoint when seen in full and in 3D. Chu with his work here seems to realize what the director of the last film, Stephen Sommers (The Mummy franchise), did not: that even if the real goal of the film is to sell toys (Hasbro’s involvement in the franchise is proof of that), you can probably sell more toys by giving adult audiences (you know, the ones with the money to spend on toys) a good time at the movies than you can trying to fill every frame with shiny stuff that you can merchandise.
The acting? Well, admittedly there’s not a lot to be seen here aside from the scene-chewing by the villains. Jonathan Pryce, in a dual role here that people who saw the first film should expect to see going in, and Ray Stevenson in particular look like they’re having lots of fun in their roles. South Korean actor Byung-hun Lee, in reprising his role as Storm Shadow, gets to once again show off his abs and his martial arts moves while sending lots of cold, hateful glares in the direction of Snake Eyes, as the two renew their blood feud with a surprising result.
As for the Joes, well, just sit back and enjoy Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and, eventually, Bruce Willis doing what they do best: cracking wise and kicking butt. They do plenty of it here, and its fun to watch.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Starring D. J. Cotrona, Byung-hun Lee, Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce, RZA, Ray Stevenson, Channing Tatum, with Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson. Directed by Jon M. Chu.
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language.