Full of whiz-bang special effects, wall to wall explosions, and pithy one liners, G.I. Joe: Retaliation manages to be more fun that its predecessor while simultaneously making less sense. It gives fans of the toys and 80s comics more reason for nostalgic rejoicing and it’s funnier and more exciting that the previous film, but there’s still far too much going on here for there to be any sense of focus or character.
Left for dead after watching their team get wiped out for an assassination and a nuclear weapon theft they didn’t commit, the last three remaining G.I. Joes (Dwayne Johnson, D.J. Cotrona, and Adrianne Palicki) try to clear their names and dethrone a sham president (Jonathan Pryce) who’s really a COBRA leader in disguise that’s bent on world domination.
On a good day, this story would be patently ridiculous and paper thin, but director Jon Chu and the script from the duo who previously wrote Zombieland have made a nimble bit of fluff that knows how silly its should all be played, and they’ve cast the perfect people throughout to make it sure it’s engaging beyond just being a wall of noise and chaotic hand to hand combat sequences. Then again, it’s a big-budget epic made from a somewhat jingoistic cartoon and toy line, so to say that expectations should be tempered accordingly.
Johnson and Palicki particularly impress as heavy weapons specialist Roadblock and expert marksman Lady Jaye, respectively. They’re great additions to a film that sees most of the original cast (save for Channing Tatum) missing, but the real joy here comes from the villains. The baddies (especially a wildly campy Pryce) inject a level of much needed levity and some pretty sly political satire that’s kind of disarming coming from a film based on a line of Hasbro toys.
The focus on the villain aside from Pryce also add a bit of fun, since this time out Cobra Commander is actually kind of funny, and former Punnisher Ray Stevenson gets to chew some scenery and cause most of the film’s biggest explosions as Firefly. I guess you could say that Arnold Vosloo’s Zartan also returns from the first film, but since he’s in Pryce’s disguise, he’s limited to two wordless cameos that could have been done by anyone or via CGI.
The film’s biggest problem (aside from a somewhat suspect conversion to 3D that doesn’t always work and an opening five minutes with added Tatum that does absolutely zilch and goes nowhere) is the characters and the fact that there are just way too many of them for the filmmakers to know what to do with them. A whole subplot involving ninjas feels crammed in. Game and scene stealing players like Walton Goggins (as an over the top prison warden), RZA (doing a killer Gordon Liu impression as the partial trainer for both the good Snake Eyes and evil Storm Shadow), and Bruce Willis (having way more fun here than in that last Die Hard movie as the original Joe) look like they have had most of their story arcs land on the cutting room floor. Willis is seriously only in about 7 minutes of the whole film, and it’s easy to question why he’s even there in the first place. As for Cotrona’s Flint, he’s in the entire film and I can’t tell you one single thing that he does to help the team. He’s utterly useless in almost every way.
It’s a slightly sour note because it makes the film feel rushed to make sure it stayed under two hours. If a vastly inferior Transformers movie could be almost three hours, why couldn’t a G.I. Joe film that’s actually fun do the same thing?