“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is a very loud, over-stylized and more or less ridiculous action film that pushes almost every limit you can think of as it relates to suspending your disbelief. I’ll admit that it’s impressive to think about how far G.I. Joe has come as a franchise in five decades, but that should not take the place of a rather silly film working pretty darn hard to be taken seriously, only to flounder because, well, it’s just not very good.
But Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in it! And so is Bruce Willis. Plus Channing Tatum. And Ray Park! You know, Ray Park, a.k.a. Darth Maul from “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.” Sadly, this matters not because the film in which they perform is rather poor. It entertains with explosions, special effects and lots of noise. But that’s about it.
A sequel to the 2009 film “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” ups the ante a few notches only to crash and burn. It’s poorly written, with attempts at comedy, drama and depth failing miserably on multiple occasions. It piles on some rather unnecessary side stories that slow down the film’s already breakneck speed. Finally, it excessively stylizes its action scenes, the gadgets its characters use to engage in combat and virtually every interaction between the good guys and the bad guys to a point of silliness that you essentially have to see to believe. Very little here is fathomable, and while most of it probably wasn’t ever meant to be, this stuff is so over the top you can’t help but scratch your head and wonder why.
Everything begins smoothly enough, with the G.I. Joes dispatched to various missions in the Middle East on behalf of good old fashioned American truth, justice and democracy. Duke (Tatum) is in charge, with Roadblock (Johnson) his second in command, Lady Jane (Adrianne Palicki) keeping it real and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) bringing up the rear. Unbeknownst to them but knownst to us, Cobra is up to no good, with Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) and Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) breaking out of an underground German prison thanks to Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) impersonating Snake Eyes (Park) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) using some cool explosives.
If that doesn’t confuse you, rest assured that your time will come. The Blind Master (RZA), who just so happens to lead the Arashikage Clan, gets the real Snake Eyes and Jinx (Elodie Yung), his apprentice, to go after Storm Shadow while he’s hiding in the mountains after getting roughed up during Cobra Commander’s escape. Meanwhile, the G.I. Joes recover from being ambushed by an attack that kills most of them except for Roadblock, Lady Jane and Flint. They deduce that they’re being targeted and framed by Cobra, and that without their help, the world will be doomed. Roadblock leads the trio to General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis, in a generally badass overextended cameo), the guy behind the original Joes, and reunites with Snake Eyes to put together a plan and stop Cobra.
I’ve simplified the plot quite a bit. There are more layers to it, including nuclear warfare among the world’s top nations and a really hard to believe but also somewhat Cirque du Soleil like ninja fight along cliff faces in the Asian mountains. Factor in elegant political fundraiser dinners, awkward sexual tension and more guns and ammo than your local Cabela’s, and you’ve got a recipe for something so simple to turn out so dense. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is its own worst enemy at the end of the day, mainly because it compensates for the areas where it’s severely lacking with excess and without quality.
The Joes are okay with their performances, but they feel overacted and underwhelming. Johnson’s a physical specimen who can entertain most of the time, but in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” he stabs at unimpressive one-liners and establishes himself as a leader busily juggling one too many bean bags than he should be. Palicki is a reasonably solid female lead, but exhibits a lack of balance between the moments when she’s holding a high caliber weapon and those when she’s milking her sexuality for all it’s worth. Cotrona is forgettable at the end of the day, losing valuable face time to the film’s villains and Park’s character (who doesn’t say a word).
If there is a bright spot in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” as it relates to performance, it has to be Willis. He’s much more reserved here than in the “Die Hard” series, yet it’s clear he fits his role as a grizzled veteran with the greatest of ease. He probably speaks about a hundred total words, but each is timed well enough to make an impact and give the other Joes the confidence they need to take out Cobra. Willis is funny during “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” but it’s less sarcastic and offensive than some of his prior roles. He also opens his home up to the Joes and reveals a weapons cache that would make any Second Amendment lover jealous on a new level.
Cobra makes it very clear from early on that they seek world domination, and at one point, when they spend more time than they really should explaining their evil plan to take over, we discover they’ve somehow built a space arsenal that can be deployed in a matter of seconds onto any target across Earth’s surface. The climactic scene where Zartan and Cobra Commander confront the world’s nuclear leaders and demand compliance is pure hilarity, with everyone producing a magic briefcase that features launch and abort buttons, plus more than a few insults being thrown out to the parties at the table by the phony President. Given the bizarre and extreme nature of Jon Chu’s film up to this point, does he really, honestly expect audiences to believe that the world’s future safety is in the hands of a few portable metal cased briefcases that are highly coveted enough they can’t be looked at incorrectly or breathed on wrong? And does he expect that nuclear talks would be so quickly had in any context, especially given how amazingly slow they often take in our far too politically charged climate?
With ninjas, bullets, tanks, bombs and helicopters all over the place, it’s a wonder “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” doesn’t self-terminate. Part of me wishes it had. There are very few workable methods here, and the whole thing reeks of wasted money, both of the filmmakers and Paramount, as well as the masses who flocked to theaters domestically and abroad to take in this mess. The film of course ends happily, and the Joes, previously set-up for ambush successfully avenge the deaths of their brothers and sisters. Shockingly, they do so in a way that leaves the door open for another movie to plop in theaters and blow stuff up. Sigh.
I wish the recognizable faces and talent that populate the “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” cast were better used. Of course, for that to happen, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” would have to be a better film. This said, we’re left with a hot mess that works pretty hard to burn itself down to the nub, only to be stopped by a 110 minute run time which saves not only the day, but our collective action film consciousness, from irreversible damage.
The film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio is well complimented with a 1080p High Definition presentation. Coloration is pretty strong, and the film utilizes natural light extremely well all the way through. The image on-screen remains more or less grain free with slight pixilation when the CGI effects are more prominent. It isn’t the best video transfer I’ve seen from Paramount, but with a film like this that wants you to just park it on the edge of your seat, it may not matter. The combat and action sequences are visually pleasing to the point of disorientation, with plenty of quick editing to boot.
A bright spot for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is its audio, and the Blu-ray disc version offers a very good English 7.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Spoken words are audible with no difficulty, and the noise you’d expect from an action film of this sort comes to the table in a special way. Bullets rattle your surround sound while the film’s slower points offer solid audio contrast. The music is well placed, earning a tip of the hat to Henry Jackman. It appropriately establishes tone and times the film’s emotional moods thoroughly. Additional audio track options include French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1s, plus an English Audio Description choice. Subtitles available are English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Audio commentary with director Chu and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura headline here, with deleted scenes and over an hour of behind the scenes featurettes bringing up the tail end. I can’t imagine you’ll want to really know that much more, but hey, if you do, it’s here. Standard definition DVD and digital copies of the film are also included, along with a nifty insert with a URL that offers to provide the buyer with customized dog tags (still waiting on mine).
A Final Word:
Maybe my expectations were too high for “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” but at day’s end, the film is a colossal blunder that desperately needs a complete renovation to carry its weight. Titles this big are often quickly outsized by their egos, and if the fact that another “G.I. Joe” film is in the works speaks to anything at all, it’s that this toy franchise remains profitable, if for no other reason than it utilizes modern technology in an effective capacity. You don’t see older adults flocking to theaters with their G.I. Joes in hand dying to watch this stuff. You see teenage boys and bored adults who seek an escape from reality, no matter how dismal that escape might be. Cut your losses and pass on this one. You’ll thank me later.