Let’s get the obvious out of the way right off the top: G.I. Joe Retaliation is a big, dumb, loud, stupid movie that doesn’t make a lick of sense. Here’s the thing though, should we have expected anything else? Like it or not Hasbro is a fully functioning movie studio now who, in partnership with Paramount, have decided to cut out the middle man and just make movies to advertise toys rather than the other way around.
Expecting a movie based on an action figure to be anything other than a massive mess of explosions and movie stars is your mistake and not Hasbro’s. I can’t in any conventional sense recommend G.I. Joe Retaliation as a good movie removed from any nostalgia for the iconic 80s toyline or camp value. However, I suppose if you were to buy a ticket, you get what’s promised on the package. That’s what buying a toy is all about, isn’t it?
So, the story. I saw the movie. I followed it at the time and yet I’m not 100% sure if I could accurately describe what it’s about. There’s definitely a Cobra conspiracy plot that involves putting an exact double of the president (Jonathan Pryce) in the White House with plans of making the world disarm their nukes so that he can launch Cobra’s own super-nukes from space. Then there’s also a plot involving Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the action figure Roadblock who sees his entire squadron of Joes killed in the desert, leaving him only with some generic army dude (D.J. Contona), a generic army lady with daddy issues (Adrianne Palicki), and a taste for revenge. Johnson and Channing Tatum also get 15 minutes of comedy banter at the beginning that Paramount delayed the release of the movie by a year to shoot once Channing became a star last summer. Bruce Willis definitely pops up as the original Joe in a suburban home filled with secret compartments for machine guns. Byung-hun Lee returns as Storm Shadow to breakout of a super-duper underground prison and switch teams to the good guys. There’s also a heist in the mountains that involves a sexy lady ninja (Elodie Yung), Snake Eyes (Ray Park), and the RZA playing a blind ninja master (yes, that RZA). And it all comes together for a climactic battle involving tank jeeps, jeep tanks, explosive motorcycles, and fancy helicopters, which I’m assuming are all available on Toys R Us shelves as we speak. Now, as to how all those pieces slot together to form a cohesive story…I haven’t got a clue. There’s too much stuff happening to worry about that or get bored though, and if you try to think about the story too long something will blow up real pretty to distract you.
There aren’t really any characters in this movie, just actors. Jonathan Pryce does his sniveling suit thing that he’s good at, Channing Tatum cracks jokes, The RZA is hysterical while playing the ninja sensei he always wanted to be, Byun-hun Lee makes a compelling case for South Korean actors coming to Hollywood in addition to directors, Bruce Willis does a better Bruce Willis impression than he managed in the last Die Hard sequel, The Rock does his thing while quoting Jay-Z before battle, and the other actors sure are there. The stars all work their charm and ass-kicking abilities well enough to keep you entertained without worrying about such minor issues as personality or motivation (they spit out lines like, “They call it a waterboard, but I never get bored” instead of wasting screen time with those dramatic devices). That’s not really relevant anyways. These guys are literally playing action figures, so expecting a personality that can’t fit onto a trading card is a mistake. As for all the machine guns and destructive vehicles? They look cool and blow up whenever they aren’t blowing other things up. Everything else is just window dressing for the star posing and toy-flaunting. It might not make sense, but at least it flows by fast. Watching the movie is like watching a kid play with a bunch of G.I. Joe toys while aiming for maximum carnage and making up a threadbare story as he goes along. It’s not exactly art, but it is a fair representation of what the brand represents.
The film was directed by Jon M. Chu, who previously made a pair of dance movies in 3D. Not a bad choice since this sort of movie is more about choreography than storytelling. His reliance on handheld 3D is eye straining and at times his camera set ups are as confused as the screenplay. But unlike most contemporary action movies, at least you can tell where everyone is in relation to each other and what’s happening during action sequences (sadly that’s rare in a post-Bourne world). Despite the many problems and production delays, Chu did manage to make a sequel that’s more satisfying than the original and never sags. In their own convoluted way, I suppose Hasbro got this one right. They made a stupid G.I. Joe movie that is at least entertainingly stupid. Whether or not that’s a good thing is still a reasonable question, but if you come out of G.I. Joe: Retaliation expecting anything more than what you got, that’s your own damn fault. What you should be thinking is, “hey, at least it was better than Battleship” or “why did I think that was a good idea again?”