Review: “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”

Channing Tatum and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson star in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," here reviewed by film critic James Frazier.“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” has nary a single moment in its 110 minute runtime that doesn’t qualify as idiotic in some capacity. It’s yet another mega-budget film that serves as an assault on logic and realism, with each scene seemingly trying to top the previous one in terms of how ridiculous it can get. This process is insufferable at first, but once the absurdity settles in, the film becomes entertaining on its own terms.

“What would you expect from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’?” many would ask, a type of defense often employed when someone enjoys a movie they know is inherently dumb. Like many clichés, that question is rooted in a certain wisdom, in this case the acknowledgement that outlandishness is in the DNA of the intellectual property. Here we have a sequel to a movie based on a bad kids’ cartoon based on toys that were based on another set of toys. Perhaps no director short of Christopher Nolan could make this an effectively serious affair that doesn’t scream stupidity, but even then, that wouldn’t be the movie the audience wants. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is not just supposed to be foolish, it’s supposed to be proudly and effectively foolish.

“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” continues where the last installment left off, though the majority of its predecessor is completely ignored, perhaps wisely. The last film leaned heavier on sci-fi technology and an international flavoring courtesy of its multinational supporting cast. Here, most of the major characters are American, and the technology is comparatively tame, albeit still, I dunno, several decades ahead of current progress. When a major foreign city is leveled, none of the characters seem to mind much, probably because the strike occurs in some silly country that isn’t the U.S.A. Director Jon M. Chu, working from a script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland”), provides a lot of set-pieces involving old-fashioned gunfire and martial arts fights, as well as ample opportunities for characters to stare fiercely into each other’s eyes, because that’s what real men do when they hate someone.

The cast is sprawling, with few characters afforded more than a handful of lines. Some of the important ones: Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is the team’s leader, a loving father to two rambunctious daughters, the kind of movie kids who one dotes on and then stops mentioning altogether for the rest of the duration. Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) is the group’s go-to-girl, in that she is the only woman, which in this universe is a specialization on par with or more useful than sniper or tech expertise — something director Chu assures us with a several shots that linger affectionately over Lady Jaye’s ass. Terrorizing the world isn’t so much the faceless, evil Cobra Commander (no longer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who apparently had better things to do), but Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), a disguise expert currently serving as President of the United States while the real one (Jonathan Pryce) sits tied up in a bunker.

There’s a B-plot involving the ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), one that only dovetails with the rest of the action in the final act, but supplies an interesting mountaintop sword battle while everyone else is figuring out how to save (or destroy) the world.

There are also two extended cameos of import. One is by Channing Tatum, whose limited screen time was arranged before he metamorphosed into an A-lister. It’s doubly unfortunate that his role is so brief here, as he and Johnson demonstrate some convincing bromance chemistry before his untimely exit. The second cameo is by Bruce Willis, who must like this material OK, because even though he doesn’t give a good performance, he doesn’t sleepwalk, either (I’ve written before about how the quality of a Willis performance directly correlates with his affection for what he’s doing).

These characters, all slapped with hammy code-names and given one broad brushstroke of personality each, battle their way towards the ridiculous conclusion, which doesn’t skimp on annihilation. But the affair is enjoyable simply because there is a lot going on, the action coming at us with the speed and frequency of lightning. “What would you expect from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’?” people might ask. I suppose the answer is, “That it’s fun.” Mission accomplished.