It's no secret that I'm a fan of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (review). It's big, colorful, and filled with over-the-top action performed by larger-than-life heroes and villains. The first 90 minutes (I have issues with the finale) is basically, as I said back in 2009, what might happen if someone told the seven-year-old me to go play with my G.I. Joe action figures and gave me $175 million to spend on the resulting play-drama. But for whatever reason fan-boys and critics carped about the last picture, calling it too ridiculous and too silly for a, um, G.I. Joe movie. So now four years later, we have a somewhat stripped down and more 'realistic' sequel to Stephen Sommers's outlandish original. Jon Chu was under orders to make it cheaper and basically more 'grounded' than the last picture, and I suppose he has succeeded. G.I. Joe: Retaliation can best be described as G.I. Joe meets Act of Valor. I don't mean that as a compliment.
The film is both a reboot and a sequel, mostly because the cliffhanger at the end of Rise of Cobra was too juicy to ignore. But despite a few returning characters and a plot revolved around the idea of Zartan impersonating the president of the United States, this looks and feels absolutely nothing like the original picture. I will admit that G.I. Joe is an old enough property to have gone through many variations and that the version I prefer (the 80's cartoon show) may not be the one you like best. But even if we agree that this version is more rooted in the '80s Larry Hama comics (of which I've only read a handful), the resulting film is by itself a near train-wreck. There is barely a narrative, with so little plot and character work tossed out between the mostly mundane action sequences that one can presume that they shot the film without a full script and never bothered to play catch-up. There is barely a full film here, with -- for example -- nearly a full reel designated to a prison break that seemingly drags on forever (Walton Goggins has a token amount of fun as the warden.)
The film straddles the line between being a GI Joe adventure and being a Dwayne Johnson action vehicle that happens to exist in a GI Joe sandbox. Johnson is fine, although he's having less fun in this film than you'd expect. The first 25 minutes are halfway decent. Johnson sharing surprisingly strong chemistry with Channing Tatum (returning as Duke) while Jonathan Pryce has a wonderful scene conversing with himself as "Zartan as president" and the actual imprisoned commander in chief. But once the proverbial shit hits the fan (I'm being vague for the zero of you who don't know what happens), the film struggles to actually build a story until we wait for the inevitable confrontation between the Joes and the forces of Cobra.
We have dull interludes of Johnson and his compatriots attempting to decipher what we all know if we saw the last movie while moving from cheap interior set to cheap interior set. Aside from one center-piece action sequence set on a snowy mountain, pretty much all of the action is painfully mundane and weirdly small-scale. Said ninja showdown is indeed impressive, but it is so shoe-horned into the film that two full scenes of awesomely stupid exposition delivered terribly by RZA are required to justify its inclusion in the narrative. Shockingly, this sequel flirts with making the same major mistake that Rise of Cobra did, namely neutering one of its major villains for the sake of alleged thematic elements. Aside from The Rock being The Rock, none of the heroic Joes have much personality. Adrianne Palicki gives a better performance than her material deserves while I couldn't tell you anything else about the other Joes. Even Bruce Willis, knee-deep in "I don't give a shit" mode, bores himself and us silly and proves a useless addition to the team.
The film has the potential to be a satire of how the rest of the world sees America, but it punts the ball at every opportunity. It opens with an offhand line about how the president's approval numbers have gone up since he started blowing stuff up and the picture ends with Cobra revealing their existence and their agenda while armed with the awesome power of the American military industrial complex. But the film doesn't really play with these ideas, and it's one of those films where the film's marketing is more intelligent and thoughtful about its subject matter than the final product (a major city gets destroyed for narrative purpose other than having a cool five-second effects shot in the trailer). The notion of the United States government actually becoming a genuine force for megalomaniacal evil ends before it can really begin, which is either a failure of nerve or imagination. There is plenty of material here for a commentary on how the world views the 'world police' mentality of America, but not a moment is allotted for this kind of subtext.
Ironically, for a film that was delayed for a year in order to convert it to 3D for foreign markets, the film is less of an international spectacle than the first picture. Our heroes aren't larger-than-life super-soldiers from around the world but basically U.S. soldiers who do what U.S. soldiers generally do. The film flirts with manifest destiny in allowing the Joes to wantonly slaughter anyone in the world without regard to sovereignty. While the film tries to be a more 'realistic' version of G.I. Joe, it still has ridiculous moments like the one where the evil president openly and publicly flirts with and then borderline sexually harasses someone he believes to be a reporter with no thought to potential scandal. It also pays no heed to the after-affects of the U.S. president being impersonated by a genocidal super-villain and the obvious after-shocks that would be felt here and abroad.
In the end, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a stupid film that ignores the potent ideas seemingly right at the surface in favor of unimaginative action and bland characters. There are moments of amusement (I like how Palicki figures out that the president is not the president and there is a pretty fun third-act moment of chicken involving nukes) and that mountainside ninja fight-scene is impressive if somewhat repetitive (hey look, another ninja just fell to their death). But much of the character interaction and even much of action bores while lacking the gee-wiz factor of the original picture. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is no action classic (although I'd argue the mocked 'super-suit' chase through Paris is a fantastic action sequence) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation is not a complete failure. But G.I. Joe: Retaliation was handed a surplus of storytelling potential and squandered it to no good end and for no real purpose. The production feels cheap and the writing feels lazy and halfhearted. Yo Joe? No, Joe. No Joe at all...