I so wanted to start this review with the emphatic words, “THEY GOT IT RIGHT!” Now, this is not to say this movie doesn’t move G.I. Joe into the right direction, but it left me lacking for many reasons. One of them being that this movie had too many trailers that spoil too much. If you’ve seen all three trailers for G.I. Joe: Retaliation, there are not many surprises left for you here. But frankly, the big problem with this film is that the villains and far more entertaining and memorable than the heroes. Simply said, I wanted Cobra to win because I didn’t care about the Joes.
Mercenary and master of disguise Zartan, who is still impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce), frames the G.I. Joes as traitors, and has them terminated. However, three survive in Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) who must go it alone in order to fight back against those who conspired to kill them and their fellow Joes. Meanwhile, Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) initiate a prison break to free Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voiced by Robert Baker) to set the next stage of their plans forward. Cobra Commander’s plan is to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons so that Cobra can take over the world by threatening to use its massively destructive Zeus space-based weapon. Roadblock, Lady Jaye, Flint, Snake Eyes, and Jinx team up with General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), the “original” G.I. Joe, to stop Cobra Commander from implementing his plan and expose their treachery to the world.
What this sequel gets right that the first didn’t was the tone and style. There are high tech gadgets and such peppered throughout the movie, but on the whole, this sequel features more visceral weaponry and warfare. No more energy weapons, no more holograms. This has a more grounded feel while still giving use a technological boost to make the story and scenarios work. Also, the CGI is vastly superior in every way. There wasn’t a single moment where my eyes caught a badly rendered shot, or witnessed anything that looked discernibly CGI. Another thing that is gotten right are the iconic characters themselves. Cobra Commander looks like Cobra Commander, and feels like a serious take on the character being a ruthless leader of a terrorist organization hell bent on dominating the world. Although, with the now slightly garbled and digitally processed voice for him, at times, it can be difficult to understand what he is saying. However, all in all, I was far more pleased with this representation of the character which never does anything to blatantly contradict who he was in the previous film. At most, it’s barely acknowledged in order to simply move forward without dragging undo baggage along.
The action sequences are greatly done giving us that tougher, more hard edged style. It feels like more straight forward military combat using recognizable tactics and weaponry. It’s all generally well shot, but the camera can get a tad too unstable with some editing that is slightly quicker than necessary. It’s a very tame shaky cam / quick cut mentality that really shouldn’t detract from your experience. This is mostly seen in the close quarters combat, or when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fight. That is another great confrontation that is again treated like a special attraction, but like before, we don’t get nearly enough of it. Probably the best action scene is with Snake Eyes and Jinx fighting the ninjas on the mountain side swing back and forth taking shots and slashes at each other. It’s dynamic, fun, and dangerous with plenty of smart turns. I like the touches the filmmakers threw in where some of the ninjas either miss the zip line or hit a rock formation, causing them to plummet to their deaths. It’s a very nice, smart touch that simply sells the precarious peril of the situation. I also loved the clever setup and execution of the jailbreak sequence. It had a lot of great touches that made it intriguing to watch unfold. However, the problem of this film is that there is so much action but so little plot to justify it.
And even then, the plot itself doesn’t always flow smoothly or coherently. At times, some plot elements feel disjointed and rushed. This happens in one section of the movie early on in two segments. First, we are introduced to Jinx as she trains with Snake Eyes while Blind Master, portrayed poorly by RZA, imparts some abrupt exposition in voice over that is just dropped on us without context. There’s no setup to anything he’s saying about Snake Eyes having to locate Storm Shadow and bring back to face justice for what he did to their clan. It’s just, “Where did this subplot come from? What does this have to do with the main plot of this film?” It just drops into the movie as if you missed a string of scenes somewhere. Jinx has essentially no real introduction here. She just happens to be there, and we’re just supposed to happen to know who she is. Also, once Storm Shadow is there facing judgment, a whole bunch of new exposition gets breezed through in a flash about who really killed their master and why. It’s very jarring and poorly handled as if they thought up this subplot on the fly and just crammed it into a tight corner of the movie just to have it there. Even then, how Storm Shadow and everyone else jumps around from one conclusion to the next follows no stream of consciousness. It’s implausible how they make these rapid fire connections and revelations. It’s awful screenwriting and direction. And again, RZA can’t act worth a damn. Every line he delivers just sounds terrible. So, I have no idea why they cast him in this role of a wise martial arts sensei. He puts in the worst performance of the entire movie. Yes, he is an exponentially worse actor in this movie than Channing Tatum, who actually does a better job in this film than the last.
There is also a scene where Roadblock, Lady Jaye, and Flint setup a plan to get close to the imposter President in order to confirm their suspicions and expose him. However, the scene is laid out without really understanding what their plan is. Roadblock is setup outside ready to take a shot at President Zartan after he’s lured out of the banquet hall, but it’s never understood what they plan to accomplish by doing this. This sequence came off as confusing and disjointed because there’s no setup to understand what their ultimate goal is or what everyone’s purpose is in the scene. It seems it served two purposes. One, just to clue the Joes in on who was impersonating the President, and two, to setup another action scene where Roadblock and Firefly throw down. It’s a damn good action sequence, but it was a lot of clunky screentime used up with little purpose.
The film has so much action and little plot that once we were actually in the third act, I couldn’t be sure it was the third act. The movie doesn’t ramp up to another level of tension or urgency to signal that these action scenes are any different than the half dozen we’ve already gotten in the movie. And the other problem is that I was more engaged by the villains than the heroes. I didn’t want to see Cobra get defeated. I liked those characters because they made the movie fun and entertaining. I kept waiting to get back to seeing Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan conspiring about evil schemes, and having loads of fun doing it.
Now, the most I will confirm to you about Channing Tatum is that he doesn’t have a lot of screentime. I know I’m going to deserve a kick in the head for saying so, but I think the movie would have been better if he was in it more. Tatum and Dwayne Johnson do have excellent comedic chemistry that really entertained me, and made their characters really fun and exciting. This made Duke and Roadblock lively, relatable characters that I wanted to spend time with. If we had this chemistry flowing through the whole film with them teamed up and trading sharp quips, taking on Cobra with a smile on their faces, I think I would have been more engaged by the heroes. Instead, they fall kind of flat.
While Dwayne Johnson puts in a good performance, it just doesn’t seem like he was portraying a character. It just seems like Johnson being himself, more or less. There’s nothing distinct about Roadblock apart from Dwayne Johnson. I didn’t really see a character in there that had his own distinguishing characteristics or attitude. Maybe this is also a script problem, but you can watch an interview of Dwayne Johnson and he doesn’t seem any different from how he is in this role in this film or any other film he’s been in. As the heroic lead of the movie, I felt letdown. He doesn’t inject enough weight or action hero mentalities to really support this film the way it needed to be. Once he no longer had Tatum to bounce that charismatic, funny personality off of, I found myself no longer invested in Roadblock at all.
Even Bruce Willis seems like he’s just being lazy Bruce Willis here. There’s almost nothing more he does in this film than what you saw in the trailers. General Joe Colton is a bland character with no depth, no interesting qualities, and no real back story given that links him with the G.I. Joes. He’s mostly there just so they could have Bruce Willis in the movie for name recognition. I’ve never seen him do so little in a role before as he does here. What this movie needed was strong leads as strong characters with a real vibrant, passionate, gung-ho attitude, but no one here has that at all.
The rest of the Joes, aside from the always cool Snake Eyes, are throwaways. By the time the film bothers to give us any insight into who they are, I had already stopped caring about who they were. Jinx isn’t even given that much. These are characters put into the film to fill out the plot and nothing more. The script barely does anything with most of them, and the actors in many of these roles aren’t engaging, charming, particularly charismatic, or especially memorable. They were just there, and I didn’t connect with any of them.
Conversely, same as with the first movie, we get great villains that make the movie as enjoyable as it is. As I said, Cobra Commander gets the perfect makeover finally giving us the iconic chrome mask and militaristic garb. He’s given a great presence, and an intimidating driving purpose in the story. Destro is mentioned and technically seen, but Cobra Commander chooses to abandon him during the jailbreak sequence (which features a wonderfully funny and sharp performance by Walton Goggins as the warden). Cobra Commander is a great villain being very single-minded but also intelligent and cunning. He’s not the excitable, egotistical fool from the 1980’s cartoon. He is very much like a cobra – sharp, deadly, and fierce. I want to see more of him!
Although, I have to say my favorite villain here is Firefly, portrayed by Ray Stevenson. Frankly, Stevenson is a born bad ass. I have yet to see this man do wrong in anything he’s done, and he is an absolute pleasure to experience as this rugged, smart mouthed villain. Being a major fan of what he did as the Punisher, I bought into every second of his action scene abilities here. He clearly had a lot of fun digging into this character which is full of evil charisma and wit. He probably has the most action scenes to his credit in this movie amongst all the villains, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him kick some ass.
And color me impressed by Jonathan Pryce sinking his acting talents into President Zartan. Arnold Vosloo has not even a minute’s worth of screentime in this movie, and so, the portrayal of Zartan as the President falls entirely on Pryce. Like Stevenson, he was having loads of fun being this charismatic, playful villain. He is so much fun to watch, and not for an instant did I doubt he was fully into being Zartan in disguise. Pryce usually portrays rather sophisticated, cultured characters, but this gave him the chance to just chew a little scenery and be a total bad guy that was loving every minute of it. Cobra Commander, Firefly, and Zartan just make an excellently entertaining trio of bad ass bad guys.
And Byung-hun Lee does put in another excellent performance as Storm Shadow, but the story takes him in another direction than we saw before. However, it is entirely in line with the character’s history as he has switched loyalties before, but I just wish his motivations had a better build up and pay-off. This is in relation to the rushed and disjointed exposition scenes I mentioned previously. It didn’t sell his turn in the story at all to me, and I kept waiting for him to pull a double-cross to make at least one satisfying plot turn for Storm Shadow.
In terms of creative direction, tone, and style, this is absolutely the better G.I. Joe movie. It never outright contradicts the first movie, but instead, strips away what wasn’t palatable and make it a leaner, tougher action franchise. However, the plot is kind of clunky never really finding its footing, and never adequately conveying the stakes or objectives to the audience. It’s clear the characters know what they’re doing, but not often enough does the audience understand where things are going, what characters are planning, or what the scope of the threat truly is. Frankly, I think the filmmakers weren’t that concerned with that. The movie is generally fun, exciting, and technically well made, but the plot seems to exist for no more than to string a series of action scenes together. There is a main plot here that is very good, does work, and could work amazingly well if handled with more care. Unfortunately, the filmmakers just seemingly didn’t know how to utilize solid, fleshed out, and well flowing storytelling skills to make this plot fill up the movie. You could take out maybe two extraneous, if not well done, action scenes, and use that screentime to smooth out the jagged edges in the story. Use it to bridge the gaps and convey characters’ intentions as they move forward in the plot. I just never got that feeling that the plot was developing towards an apex, or that even the heroes themselves knew what the stakes were going forward. It seems the most the filmmakers felt we needed to know is that these are the good guys and they need to stop the bad guys. If Paramount Pictures really did postpone the release of this movie at nearly the last minute to do a good chunk of re-shoots, I’m not sure what they were for except for maybe a single scene with Johnson and Tatum trading witty banter over some target practice. It was a fun scene, but could’ve easily been cut. I don’t think they shot anything to flesh out or smooth out the story more because, obviously, it could still use some work. While this movie might have gotten squashed if released last summer, I’m not sure how much better it will fair in this early Spring release.
While I would recommend seeing G.I. Joe: Retaliation to an extent, I still wouldn’t recommend it above Olympus Has Fallen. That was a much better put together action movie on every level than this with an action lead that an audience could really get behind. I’ll be interested to see if this G.I. Joe sequel gets an extended cut on Blu Ray because it could benefit from some added scenes of plot and character. Ultimately, the entertainment factor for me entirely came from Cobra. When the film was focusing on the heroes, I couldn’t wait until we cut back to the villains. They were just all kinds of enjoyable because the actors were charismatic and vibrant where the heroes where one dimensional and rather bland. I mean, in a film where all of their friends and fellow soldiers are violently blown to hell, you’d think these heroes would have a fiery passion lit underneath them. You’d think they’d be ready to throwdown an all-out assault, and wage a take-no-prisoners type of war against Cobra. Unfortunately, there is no such fierce emotional drive to these heroes, and that’s what made them fall flat for me. If you just want a slew of really good action scenes, this film will deliver that for you, but director Jon M. Chu is not the most competent storyteller. Maybe there was studio interference that resulted in making changes here and there due to supposed poor test screening response. But if there’s one thing you don’t sacrifice is good storytelling. There was a really good story here, but not the right storytellers to make it good enough.