I'm in the minority (or so I've been told) on the first G.I. Joe movie, 2009's Rise of the Cobra. The movie was popcorn movie lunacy, a blockbuster adaptation of every kid's experience squaring hordes of action figures against each other in a giant sandbox battle. Director Stephen Sommers owned the attitude, introduced us to Channing Tatum as action hero who could ground absurdity, and went to town with the toys.
That style didn't work for everyone — including the people behind the film's sequel, G.I. Joe Retaliation. If Rise of the Cobra was about bringing the childhood fantasy of playing with Joe figures to life, Retaliation is grown from the brand's darkest moments.
The world of Joe has an expanded mythology, constructed over decades by comic book writers. Director Jon Chu makes it loud and clear that his fondness for the property is drawn from that character-driven material, grounding Retaliation in reality and only sporadically introducing the Joes' arsenal of futuristic weaponry and vehicles. Having scrapped nearly the entire original cast from the first movie, Chu, working from a script by Zombieland writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, quickly introduces us to the new team, a playful group led by Duke (Tatum) with assistance from newcomer Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson). Between the first movie and Retaliation, Hollywood discovered Tatum and Johnson's comedic abilities, and they're on full display here. In the opening moments, it's made clear the duo can maneuver stealthily, engage in shootouts, and break goons in half. But they can also crack wise. An early scene where the two harass each other while playing Call of Dutyis among the highlights.
Speed is the name of the game for Retaliation, which relies on a surprising amount of Rise of the Cobraknowledge in order to shift the sequel into high gear. Roadblock and his two underlings Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) are eventually stranded on their own, the Joes division disbanded and hunted down by The President after a mission gone awry. The twist is The President (Jonathan Pryce) is actually COBRA's master of disguise Zartan — a thread picked up from the first movie. Running the nation, Zartan's diabolical plan is to rescue Cobra Commander from jail, integrate his troops in to the U.S. army, and convince the nationals of the world to agree to a nuclear disarmament plan… so that they can eventually be blown away by COBRA.
Retaliation actively works to undo the events of Rise of the Cobra, breaking off various elements into bite size morsels that work on their own. Spliced between Roadblock's mission to prove the Joes' innocence and take down Zartan is the zanier material forced into Rise of the Cobra. On the other side of the globe, mute ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and his sidekick Jinx (Elodie Yung) follow the trail of Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), hoping to bring the kitana-wielding warrior to justice. The movie's biggest action scene plays out along the face of a cliff, an acrobatic chase between Snake Eyes and COBRA's ninja army. After battling it out with Storm Shadow in the confines of a dojo, Snake Eyes and Jinx swing off a mountain and the dance of swordplay and wire work plays out. It's like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragonwith actual physics — exhilarating.
The movie's biggest issue is that it can't build momentum to bigger and bigger stunts. Cobra Commander goon Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Roadblock have a number of tussles, the two hulking actors bringing physicality to the franchise for the first time after mostly CG-enhanced battles. They're fun, but few and far between (especially when Stevenson once again chews up every bit of scene he can get his teeth on). Chu, a dancer and the man behind two installments of Step Up, has a clear eye for action choreography, adeptly orchestrating the mayhem of a Joe-style infiltration or a cross-cutting undercover operation (one that recalls the opening scene of De Palma's Mission: Impossible). What Retaliation needs is more: bigger, badder, crazier. The only gripe against the sequel in the action departments is that there isn't enough of it.
What helps make up for Retaliation's smaller scope are the colorful performances and rather subversive script. The Rock continues his trend of being a watchable badass. Sweet, yet fully capable of punching you into tomorrow; Palicki stands out as an actress who can pull off the physical stunts while breathing life into a part written for arm candy; and Pryce, whose scant appearances in Rise of Cobra teased his talent, is hilariously evil as the Zartan-masked Commander-in-Chief. He rattles off one-liners faster than mini-gun does bullets. "They call it water boarding, but I never get board…" is as priceless as they come. Pryce lays down the poetic punnery alongside some truly nefarious themes. Retaliation manages to raise some serious questions about patriotism, government actions, and how much we can take our leaders at face value. Unless The Rock promises to be around to save our butts, we might be as good as nuked.
There's a middle ground between Retaliation and its predecessor that could make for the perfect Joe movie, one entranced by camaraderie and kicking ass in the name of the U.S.A. and one that completely unleashes his imagination. Bruce Willis' General Joe Colton — the original Joe — ends up embodying that. He's a real life American hero… who keeps a pimped out tank in his garage, complete with missile launchers. That's the movie in a nutshell, all the Joe franchise needs next is a few extra doses of that thinking. Retaliation delivers thrills, but it's the rare case where playing with more toys would have helped.
[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures]