A sequel that surely not too many people asked for, G.I. Joe: Retaliation belatedly follows 2009’s summer blip G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, arriving in cinemas almost nine months after it was originally due. The party line is that this delay was entirely to convert the film to 3D, although rumours circled on the internet of rewrites and reshoots. But there’s no evidence of any post-shoot tightening in this sluggish, unambitious schlockbuster. And the 3D’s not even that great either.
Following the events of Rise of Cobra, the evil Cobra Commander remains imprisoned in an impenetrable high-tech facility and the Joes are still the world’s No.1 defence force. Channing Tatum’s Duke now runs the show, backed up by Dwayne Johnson’s human sandbag Roadblock. But, as none of you will remember from the first film, the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) remains a hostage of Cobra, and their evil stand-in Zartan has his finger on all the triggers. Soon Cobra Commander is unleashed and the Joes are being wiped out in an impossibly well-planned attack that kills off (off-screen) all the characters whose actors refused to return to the franchise. Only a handful of the elite soldiers remain to try and defeat the plans of Cobra Commander and his evil POTUS. You can imagine how it goes.
G.I. Joe 2 corrects many of the mistakes of the first film, reducing the degree of sci-fi chicanery in favour of fists-and-bullets action. However, where the first film had some very basically sketched characters (backstories, flashbacks and everything!) and an infantile but to-the-point narrative momentum, Retaliation has almost no character development and its second act is a disaster of storytelling. As Roadblock and his team try to build a guerrilla unit in the US with retired general Bruce Willis and his band of G.I. Joeriatrics, martial arts expert Snake Eyes (the boundlessly athletic Ray Park, still silent and fully masked) must journey to somewhere in Asia to fight all the ninjas that ever were. Remember that bit in Iron Man 2 where Agent Coulson leaves to go to New Mexico and deal with the events of Thor? Now imagine if those two films were intercut with one another. That’s how jarring the mismatch of quests in this film is.
Character-wise this film is bankrupt. A bit of bromantic banter between Tatum and The Rock in the first act adds up to nothing. Willis manages to be just slightly less spaced out than he was in A Good Day to Die Hard. The female Joe (Adrianne Palicki) has daddy issues and looks good in tight clothes. The white male Joe (D.J. Cotrona) may actually not have any lines for all you can tell. Snake Eyes can’t even speak, let alone demonstrate facial expressions, yet he still out-acts his sidekick girl ninja (Elodie Yung). In some bizarre casting, RZA shows up as blind martial arts master Blind Master (the G.I. Joe series was never very subtle with its character names), bringing the rapper’s charisma-less movie career to a new low by drudgingly rattling off exposition like a screen between video game levels.
The villains have far more fun. While Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been replaced as Cobra Commander by It Doesn’t Matter You Can’t See His Face, Lee Byung-hun and Ray Stevenson have plenty of fun as evil ninja Storm Shadow and Southern-fried pyromaniac Firefly, respectively. But when it comes to delivering Cobra’s (actually inspired) end game, it is Jonathan Pryce who delivers, hamming it up beautifully as President Zartan in an epic game of nuclear chicken. Twice as over-the-top as he was in Tomorrow Never Dies, Pryce is undoubtedly the film’s highlight.
But with the exception of the big bad plan, the story is a mess, and much of the dialogue is cringe-worthy to the point of spasm-inducing. The Joes have gone from an international fighting team to a deadly serious Team America, while no one seems to bat an eyelid when the President hires Cobra as his elite bodyguard unit, despite the world’s most dangerous terrorist being called “Cobra Commander”.
Not even The Rock, who is finally being taken seriously as a charismatic action lead thanks to Fast Five, cannot save this film from floundering. Somehow, in spite of its near-$200m budget, director Jon M. Chu (most known for some of the Step Up dance movies and a Justin Bieber concert film) has managed to make a cheap-looking action movie. The effects look flimsy. The rapid cutting and dim lighting seem to be hiding uncompleted sets, while also causing the 3D to blur frantically. The final skirmish is not on a scale anywhere near as huge as the first film’s climax, while the images of Roland Emmerich-scale city destruction are so brief there’s hardly a frame of it in the film not featured in the trailer. Compare to the ridiculous but amusing Eiffel Tower sequence from Rise of Cobra and you realise big money clearly does not go as far as it used to.
A brainless popcorn movie for a cold night in with a DVD if ever there was one, G.I. Joe: Retaliation cannot live up to its promise of mayhem and The Rock and ninjas. And surely that was an easy one to get right.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)