We at GoSeeTalk are but some of the few out there who really enjoyed Stephen Sommers’ G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra (read our review from way back); even if it was a mess it was still a lot of fun. In this highly anticipated follow up Jon M. Chu, known for his strong visual style and over-the-top action, ups the ante and makes G.I. JOE: Retaliation bigger and a little more believable than its comic origins. The sequel (penned by Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) embraces the JOE namesake yet only finds a few characters/plotlines returning from Sommers’ popcorn fueled romp. Retaliation embodies some of the more cartoon elements but goes about telling its story in a slightly more mature and grounded manner. As the premise of the story denotes, many JOEs die (yes, even Channing Tatum) in a Cobra ambush and it’s up to Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) to, wait for it, “retaliate” in the name of their fallen soldier brothers.
With Chu at the helm he makes everything in Retaliation look cool, plays up the humor and keeps the energy and action high. Yet from the beginning, aside from the swift pace, the story has signs of hollowness and slowly reveals that everything is just an excuse to get to the set pieces and action overload. Not a problem in this type of film but if that’s the case then there’s no need for things to get oddly sluggish thanks to unnecessary exposition and a number of scenes that aim for but fail at giving anyone any real character development. However it’s probably par for the course as these characters are extrapolated from plastic action figures after all. So in that case, it’s best to let some things slide.
As such, jumping right into the good stuff, our trio of heroes (well make that four including everyone’s favorite gun-toting ninja) are only as good as their villains. Here we are happily reunited with two such heavies from the last film; Cobra Commander and Storm Shadow (the former, who’s been incarcerated in cryo-stasis for the last few years, is rescued by the latter). Their elaborate prison, (headed up by warden Walton Goggins who comically chews scenery as he gives some funny but over-complicated exposition) is the backdrop for a pulse-pounding bombastic escape and that’s when the story really gets into gear. It’s very exciting but at the same time it’s also where soon after, like a buzz kill, everything starts to come unglued. It, like many action scenes, looks good and attempts to dazzle but much of the film lacks a significant punch.
One of the most enjoyable and yet only other plot devices carried over is that Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has successfully infiltrated the White House and is acting as The President. Vosloo gets very little screen time, as opposed to the first, but here it’s Jonathan Pryce who plays Zartan and comes across so cocky and funny it adds depth and gravity to Cobra’s master plan. Their trio is rounded out by Firefly (Ray Winstone) who is Cobra’s muscle and proves to be the sole nemesis for Johnson’s Roadblock.
Another returning player, Snake Eyes (Ray Park) is such a fun character and one of the main reasons to make these films in the first place. But try as they might, he still doesn’t get the attention he deserves. Snake has more time/prominence in Retaliation and is the one character whose back story is explored making him somewhat more than one-dimensional. He and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) are extremely important to JOE lore and it’s essential they are given their due and continually fleshed out. Retaliation tries but those two can’t carry the film all by themselves and ultimately (save for the stellar mountain fight scene) they suffer from under-utilization. To the glee of fans across the globe they do end up in an impressive face-off but sadly it does not reach its potential. All too brief it becomes yet another under-cooked cog in Chu’s machine.
What Retaliation has going for it is realism by way of its moderately grounded simplicity. But when all is said and done that results in something that feels thin when it should have been and needed to be fuller and larger than life. Moreover, the small-scale plot, with the scarce number of JOEs to fight back against Cobra, is ultimately what distances the attempts to make a true all-out, over-the-top, and, most importantly, a satisfying JOE film. A few spectacular set pieces aside Retaliation becomes just another actioner, one lacking the heft and grandiose nature you’d expect to see in this universe.
Giving credit where it’s due Retaliation has pop but it’s flashy in spurts when it should have been an all out spectacle for 2 hrs that sends people in droves to recruiting offices or toy stores (or both) by the time the credits start to roll. Perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it but the cartoony fun of Sommers’ big dumb loud 2009 film actually made it more appealing. Retaliation tries too hard to follow the Transformers formula (including nearly every Transformers soundbyte in the Hasbro/Paramount catalog) with healthy sprinkles of Bad Boys buddy cop stylings thrown in to give it some attitude. The entire affair could have benefited from the story having a little more fun at its expense rather than striving for a super serious tone. But it needs to be viewed for what it is; a movie about a toy line for kids that is geared more for adults.
Minor plot/pacing/charscter gripes aside, Retaliation is fun, action packed, and will make most people feel like an 8-year old kid all over again. However while it was entertaining, it can’t hide the fact it’s pretty flat and not as enthralling or fulfilling as it could have been. True, it’s all go and no quit but the frenetic pace becomes senseless after a while it’s just mindless action. Hopefully if this does well at the box office we’ll see more JOEs in the future and with iconic characters like Snake Eyes and Cobra Commander coming closer to being fully realized who wouldn’t want to see more live action G.I. JOE? With a little luck, by the time a third Joe film comes around they’ll have all the kinks worked out. To steal a paraphrased line from the 84 cartoon movie, “Nobody’s perfect, but we do OK“. For brainless fun with feigning realism, this’ll do. If you want just plain cartoonish fun, give The Rise of Cobra another spin…we recommend the latter.