A word upfront: I liked GI Joe: Rise of Cobra. I don’t think it’s any great moment of cinema art, and I never, ever need to see it again, but I think Stephen Sommers’ movie captures the animated silliness I enjoyed watching the cartoon on TV weekdays after school. It was broad and goofy and reminded me of a kid smashing his toys together.
Nobody else seemed to like it, though. I stand mostly alone on this one, and I can’t even really count Paramount or Hasbro on my side, as they decided to make the sequel, GI Joe: Retaliation, move in a very different direction from the first film. Or at least in the other direction nerds of the 80s will remember - the Marvel Comics GI Joe series written by Larry Hama.
Hama’s Joe stories mixed the heightened reality of the toy line with a sense of real military adventure; it wasn’t pure science fiction, but it also wasn’t exactly Platoon (or, in Marvel terms, The ‘Nam). Joes could die in Hama’s stories, and sometimes the emotional stakes were quite high. To this day I think Hama’s run on GI Joe is one of the underrated comic runs of all time, so trying to emulate his take* is a great, great idea.
I just wish that GI Joe: Retaliation had done a better job of it. The film is fine, with a more grounded sensibility than the first movie but still maintaining a broadly fun tone. The story this time may have some dark overtones - the entire GI Joe team is killed in a sneak Cobra attack in the first act - but the script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick maintains a fairly sunny disposition; nobody’s getting grim n’ gritty over the previously well-publicized death of Channing Tatum’s Duke.
That sunny script is also incredibly disjointed, lacks any sort of a compelling throughline and, in the end, feels very small. And that’s with the entire city of London being destroyed from outer space.
Roadblock, played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, leads the surviving members of GI Joe - Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (DJ Cotrona) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) - on a mission to discover why the president ordered the unit wiped out. As they bumble about with that, Cobra Commander is broken out of prison and a threat to the globe is deployed in orbit. It all comes to a head on... a beach in Louisiana, in a final battle that involves one tank and a couple of hovercraft.
It’s not that the film’s finale is intimate, it’s small and cheap. The Rock is rolling around in a cool-looking Ripsaw tank, firing at off-screen enemies. While the first film had a finale at the secret Cobra arctic HQ, this one has the climax in front of a Fort Sumter display of American soldiers. I’m not saying the finale should have had GI Joe in space battling on the orbital death platform**, I’m saying it needed something with some scope for the climax. At the very least it would have been nice if the finale had an emotional wallop, lke some of Hama's best stories, but it’s all pretty subdued.
There is one truly great sequence in the movie, but you’ve already seen most of it online: Snake Eyes and newbie ninja Jinx swinging about on zip lines, battling ninjas high in the mountains. It’s a thrilling sequence, and it’s exciting to watch something - the only thing in the movie - that doesn’t look like it was shot in Taxbreakville, Louisiana.
The rest of the film’s action is choppy and serviceable; an early raid to secure a rogue Pakistani nuke is cool, but it’s quick-cut to death. Director Jon M. Chu is best known for his dance movies, so I was hoping to see some classical, graceful chops on display here. He’s certainly better than most action directors working these days, but everything is shot too tight and too quickly. Maybe it’s a function of the budget - pull out any further and it’ll become obvious they’re shooting the whole movie in someone’s backyard.
The Joe team this time is kind of a bore. Tatum and The Rock have good chemistry, for as long as that lasts, but I'm not certain DJ Cotrona even has a screen presence. Palicki is fine, but the movie mostly asks her to get into slinky, revealing outfits and talk about masking IP addresses so we can assume she's not just a nice ass, she's smart too. Reducing the team to such a small, financially manageable size results in a GI Joe team lacking in much personality or diversity.
Bruce Willis joins the cast as Joe Colton, the original GI Joe, and he’s bringing his best D game. After watching Willis really work in Looper and Moonrise Kingdom it’s painfully obvious when he’s just not giving a shit; for some audiences this sort of detached performance will be the height of cool, but for me it’s boring. GI Joe requires actors to give their cheesy all, and having a guy smugly hanging back, all but having a smoke break on screen, isn’t in the proper spirit.
The best parts of GI Joe: Retaliation are the parts featuring Cobra’s various ineptly psychotic agents. Jonathan Pryce has a very good time as Zartan imitating the president, delivering some truly wonderfully corny one-liners. Ray Stevenson is composed entirely of ham in the role of Firefly, sporting a weird Southern accent and a bunch of CGI firefly robots. Luke Bracey struts convincingly as Cobra Commander, taking over for too-good-for-this-shit Joseph Gordon Levitt. And Byung-hun Lee gets some good screentime as the newly-conflicted Storm Shadow (to the detriment of Snake Eyes, who has zero story or much to do outside of that one ninja mountain scene).
The very, very best performance of the film belongs to The RZA, who mush-mouths his way through a whole bunch of exposition as Blind Master. He’s just having the most fun ever, and it’s infectious. He’s involved in the ninja vengeance backstory that gives GI Joe: Retaliation any sense of momentum, and that story is played perfectly: totally deadpan, but impossibly goofy.
The film was famously delayed at the last minute to post-convert into 3D (that’s the official story, anyway). That effort was wasted; the 3D is not very good, plus Chu shot his movie for 2D, meaning there are too many cuts and shaky shots to make 3D viewing pleasant.
GI Joe: Retaliation feels more than a little like an ambitious DTV movie. It’s enjoyable, and it has fun moments, but as a whole I found the film to be disappointingly small. The one’s going to be a lot of fun when you stream it on Netflix.
* It’s worth noting that pretty much all of GI Joe is Larry Hama’s take. While Hasbro put out the toys and Sunbow made the cartoon, Larry Hama created just about all of the characters and their backstories.
** it should have.