I vividly remember the stew of thoughts that bubbled through my head when I went to see the first G.I. Joe film, the 2009 project co-written and directed by Stephen Sommers. It was without question disappointing — that was to be expected. What was unexpected was how unbelievably abysmally terrible it was. Sommers didn’t seem to know what he was doing, and ultimately he ended up creating a film that in addition to being poorly scripted, nonsensically plotted, badly acted, atrociously directed and featuring hideous CGI effects, also had not even the barest resemblance to the source material other than a handful of familiar names. There was literally nothing of value to be found.
It’s with that unfortunate memory that I cautiously walked into the screening of the sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation (which we’re just going to refer to as Retaliation from hereon out, because seriously). Gone was Stephen Sommers, replaced by Jon Chu, a man most well-known for directing two of the entries in the ludicrous Step Up franchise. Needless to say, there was much trepidation. Yet on the other side of the coin, it’s not like it can be worse than its predecessor, right? Right?
So let’s being the answer to that question by stating one thing up front: Retaliation is by no means a good movie. It’s ridiculous, its plot is threadbare, it’s acting is uniformly dumbfoundingly overdone (yet at times, strangely enjoyable), and much of it is laughably illogical. And yet, it succeeds wildly in two things that its predecessor utterly failed at: its fidelity to the spirit of its inspirations, and its level of fun. G.I> Joe: Retaliation is by no means the 80’s cartoon come to life, but damn if it doesn’t, in some weird way, feel like G.I. Joe. One of the biggest disappointments about the first film was that those of my generation might have been able to overlook some of the dumber elements if it had felt even remotely like the memories of our childhoods. And Retaliation has the right balance of silliness and serious, gung-ho action peppered with some absolutely bonkers plot devices that makes it actually, kind of… fun — when it’s not being brain-grindingly stupid.
Its story, for what its worth, is this: after their victory over Cobra, the Joes are betrayed by the US government (secretly being controlled by Cobra henchman and doppleganger Zartan) and near-exterminated. Of course, a small group survives, including heavy weapons specialist Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), the brilliant and tough Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (DJ Cotrona), whose specialty from what I can tell consists of parkour and blandness. They’re eventually joined by the silent ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and his new, brightly colored ninja sidekick Jinx (Elodie Yung) as they seek to clear their names and defeat the villainous Cobra. Cobra is led by the faceless Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey), the aforementioned Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), the psychopathic demolitions expert Firefly (Ray Stevenson), and their ninja Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). Hijinks and explosions and hilariously bad dialogue ensues.
Retaliation fails almost every major critical test. It’s characters are each given roughly 90 seconds of development and backstory, all of which is clumsily rendered. The story is nonsense, but also pure G.I. Joe comic bookery — Cobra something something rule the world something something superweapon code named Zeus something something outer space something something world leaders and ransom. It’s loosely tossed together as an excuse to blow shit up and have a few snappy lines of dialogue. The plot is Swiss cheese on a massive scale. Nothing makes sense, there’s no sense of logical transition from one scene to another, and there’s no coherence to any of it. It’s painfully obvious that frequently a badly written or designed plot device was chucked in just to make the next scene or idea work, even if it defies all logic.
Example 1: Snake Eyes is captured, and brought to the world’s most nefarious, secret prison that’s actually something like a billion miles under the ground (so far down it (gasp!) needs special air conditioning. This is what we’re working with here, people). The prison, run by a hilariously weaselly Walton Goggins, delivers Snake Eyes all the way into the heart of their facility — fully dressed in battle armor and with his mask still on, and his trademark swords just a step away.
Example 2: Snake Eyes travels to the mountains somewhere in Japan to seek out his old foe Storm Shadow. Afterwards, he must regroup with the remaining Joes who are in the Eastern US somewhere. He gets there in roughly three hours. Seriously. He can’t take off his mask, or communicate with anyone, and he’s a wanted man. So what, did he sneak from Japan to Washington D.C., all ninja-like, in a few hours?
But here’s the thing: It still works sometimes. There’s this insane, insouciant wackiness to it that somehow pulls it off — at times. For one thing, Chu learned from the mistakes that Sommers made. He eschewed much of the really ridiculous stuff — there’s no powered super suits, no idiotic CGI training sequences, no Marlon Wayans. He focused on a smaller, tighter unit of characters, and chose a leader — Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock — with enough charm and charisma to carry the load when the rest of them struggled. Similarly, he didn’t overcomplicate things with the villains. They’re bad. That’s it. There was no crazy love triangle, no ineptly designed mind control serums, and most critically, no absolutely moronic backstory to Cobra Commander that featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a storyline that was, quite simply, next-level bananas. Instead, they’re bad, they’re dangerous, they want to rule the world and kill everyone.
That’s part of what the formula for something like this needs, and it’s what led to the failures of properties like Transformers and Battleship — needlessly overcomplicating things. When Retaliation works, it works because it keeps it relatively simple. Yes, the plot is still a mess, but it also doesn’t bother with needlessly making things even more complex/stupid. Instead, there’s a focus on camaraderie between the Joes (including a surprisingly understated turn by Bruce Willis as the aging, original Joe), the evilness of Cobra, and the action that ensues. And that action is frequently damn fun. It’s loud and dizzying at times, but Chu, as demonstrated in the Step Up films, clearly has an eye for movement and choreography, and it shows. There’s a good deal more grace to the action sequences, and as such they’re actually even memorable at times. In particular, there’s a breathtaking sequence wherein Snake Eyes and Jinx fight an army of Cobra ninjas in the snowy mountains that, while completely logic defying on many levels (seriously, why are there so many brightly colored ninjas? WHY?), is still gorgeously choreographed and filmed. The film’s finale is downright intimate compared to the CGI bombast and idiocy of the original. So yeah, there are moments when I actually enjoyed myself.
With all of that said, as a critic, I cannot in good conscience recommend G.I. Joe: Retaliation. It’s simply not a good movie. However, unlike the first film which is only watchable from a so-bad-it’s-good standpoint (and even then, not really), this one has an element of genuine fun to it that granted me some occasional slivers of nostalgic joy. And while the screenplay was clearly written as a series of action setpieces with a boneheaded plot lazily slapped around it, those setpieces? Sometimes they work pretty damn well. Mix in a decent effort by Dwayne Johnson and some enjoyably evil villains (particularly Stevenson, who has his menace dialed up to twelve), and I’ll be damned if my inner 11 year-old didn’t feel some twinges of satisfaction and son of a bitch, I even had a bit of fun now and again.
But seriously. You probably shouldn’t see it.