I can’t call G.I. Joe: Retaliation a good movie – they don’t come much more messy and incoherent – but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t put a smile on my face. After the flat-out disaster of the first film, the sequel’s efforts to actually act like a G.I. Joe movie feels like a welcome relief. Never mind that it also resembles three totally unrelated movies bouncing off each other like a deranged pinball game, or that it willfully throws away some of its biggest assets without so much as a backward glance. We may hate ourselves for liking it, but at least we don’t hate ourselves for being there.
Unlike the first film, it demonstrates a basic understanding of what G.I. Joe is all about: ridiculous threats thwarted by a gang of good buddies who understand the value of teamwork. They’ve been busy since the last film, putting both Cobra Commander and Destro on ice before moving on to Cobra villains lower on the list. Unfortunately, one of them – evil master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) – is impersonating the President (Jonathan Pryce), and in that capacity has the lot of them declared traitors. Only a few are left standing when the dust settles; they rally around human roadblock Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) in an effort to both clear their names and stop an even deadlier attack just around the corner.
But wait! While all that is going on, the Joes’ resident ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park) hunts for his evil blood-brother Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) at the behest of their sacred master (The RZA; yes, really). But wait! We also get a nonsensical attempt to recruit the Joes’ founder General Colton (Bruce Willis) into the fold, a subplot whose sole purpose seems to be delivering more star power to the mix. (As if the Rock somehow weren’t enough.) None of these narrative threads cross over until the end, when they all come flying together with the speed of a train wreck, leaving a lot of over-the-top chaos in their wake.
Director Jon M. Chu falls into the expected habit of substituting loud noises and explosions for storytelling, as the film soon devolves into a slick way of showing off life-sized versions of all those old Hasbro toys. The notion of consequences (and the interesting ideas that engenders) has no place here. Retaliation blows up London at one point – a shot prominently featured in the trailer – but treats it the same way it would a standard-issue car wreck: just more empty spectacle to dazzle our senses.
In the process, it badly mistreats some of its biggest selling points. Nowhere is this clearer than in the great camaraderie between Roadblock and his buddy Duke (Channing Tatum), one of the Joes’ numerous leaders. The two actors display marvelous chemistry together, and their early Mutt-and-Jeff routine ranks as some of the most entertaining moments in the film. Sadly, the pair are separated before too much time passes, leaving Grumpy Rock in the place of Fun Rock and sucking some of the film’s joy along with it. Similar frustrations pepper the film: not actively hateful, but enough to make you wonder why they’d pass up so many good things.
Thankfully, a few of those good things survive in the midst of the hash. Chu delivers at least one terrific set piece – a mountaintop battle between Snake Eyes and a gaggle of ninjas – and the rest of the movie’s noise machines retain an agreeable spring to their step. The overall energy becomes a saving grace more than once, as we shrug and smile every time the film drops the ball instead of cursing its name like we otherwise might. The oppressive overkill that sank the first movie is nowhere to be seen; in its place, a relaxed and ebullient tone helps engender some real fun… though of course it depends on how much idiocy you can swallow. (Johnson gets at least some of the credit. This material is right in his comfort zone, and his infectious grin reminds us of the big kid lurking under his bulging biceps.)
It can’t save G.I. Joe: Retaliation, at least as far as the traditional notions of quality goes. Then again, plenty of people just won’t care: happy to see their childhood heroes in a big screen experience that doesn’t actively oppress us. Incoherence is par for the course, a fact which may have explained its unseemly rescheduling, but which can’t diminish its standing as good, dumb fun. The RZA probably stands as the bellwether for it all. If the thought of seeing him deliver Yoda-esque tidbits to a kneeling Snake Eyes fills you with dread, this definitely ain’t your cup of tea. If, on the other hand, you just giggle good-naturedly and reach for the popcorn, you could do worse. Not well, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as a lot of us feared.