I confess on how baffled I get about why Hollywood apparently considers it necessary to employ the dumbest possible screenplays for movies like this. One expects a certain amount of stupidity to go along with lots of explosions and special effects. It goes with the territory and, to a degree, is not only acceptable, but welcomed. After all, you wouldn’t always want to spend two hours attempting to decode a complex narrative while being bombarded with dizzying visuals. This was written for kids and it’s hard to believe how any adult could manage to enjoy the storyline. Back in the mid-’90s, I used to play with G.I. Joe “action figures” (the accepted male-oriented term for “dolls”). I can say with some level of confidence that the scenarios I constructed were better thought out than the ones depicted in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
But there’s a lot of action, right? Yes – this is an eye candy special. Jon M. Chu has made a careful study of Michael Bay films and, as a result, this looks suspiciously like one. It would be foolish if you didn’t notice the extremely huge explosions and the “WANNGGG” sound effects throughout the film. But there’s a problem with action. Unless it involves tension, which often comes from putting well-liked characters in some sort of legitimate danger, it falls flat. Everything in G.I. Joe: Retaliation is perfunctory – technically proficient but rather soulless. It’s not exciting type of action, but rather boring. You can enjoy action in a film like G.I. Joe, but you can’t really enjoy non-stop action for a hour and a half. The movie is semi-violent, but it’s on a teen-friendly level. Violence without blood is like steak without a knife.
How does the sequel connect to its predecessor, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra? Not very solidly. Disappointed by the box office performance of the 2009 film, Paramount ordered a near-reboot. Majority of the actors/characters from the first film are gone, although the lead, Channing Tatum, made the cut. Then comes Dwayne John aka. “The Rock” and Bruce Willis, two go-to action guys. Johnson ends up doing his Rock-y thing, flexing muscles, shooting guns, and thumping bad guys – sort of like Arnold back in the ’80s. Willis has less screen time than in The Expendables 2, looks bored, and is evidently on hand because he was offered a too-good to refuse salary. Meanwhile, Tatum’s sudden, meteoric rise to stardom encouraged last-minute reshoots that pushed back the opening date from June 2012 to March 2013. Tatum’s new scenes are evident since they come across as filler unrelated to the main storyline and, despite gaining about ten minutes of additional screen time, his character is mistreated by Retaliation. The sequel is all about burying the past and (almost) pretending like the first one never happened. I wasn’t a fan of G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, but it may have been a better movie than this one. That may be because it was at least more fun.
Retaliation illustrates how 3-D can be a bad thing even when its implementation is competent. The 3-D used here is very much of the “in your face” kind. It’s frequently splashy and showy and I found it to be slightly distracting, but not completely bothersome. The problem may be that the storyline is very weak that I was inordinately focused on the visuals, but even then was I occasionally finding myself to lose track of what was happening because of the 3-D. This 3-D isn’t “bad” in the sense that much 3-D is bad – many of the usual problems aren’t evident – but it does a disservice to the film as a means of telling a story.
To be fair, G.I. Joe: Retaliation does enough things right to avoid falling into the “unwatchable” category, but still at the edge of a cliff. The action scenes, although lacking in excitement, are cleanly straightforward. There’s a fair amount of cutting, but not so much that they become incoherent. The rock climbing ninja fight is inventive and deserves points for ingenuity. The destruction of London, while entirely excessive, is nicely handled – it’s refreshing to see a city other than New York or Washington D.C. being crushed. And there’s genuine humor in the “gun browsing” sequence at General Colton’s house.
Director Chu comes to this project without a solid action film résumé. His previous behind-the-camera efforts include a couple of the Step Up sequels and the Justin Bieber documentary-esque movie. This may in part explain why the action scenes, although effectively choreographed, are lacking when it comes to suspense and tension. The movie as a whole is poorly balanced, with a clunky, uneven beginning, too much exposition and too much bland, by-the-book action sequences. I think my 7-year old self would have enjoyed G.I. Joe: Retaliation.