A vast improvement over its predecessor, GI Joe Retaliation is fast, loose and fun enough to blast through many of its own problems.
Be prepared for the worst, hope for the best– that’s the mindset I took with me to see GI Joe Retaliation. Much like its heroic stars, the movie had some odds stacked against it– a notorious 9-month release delay, and a much-maligned first film to follow in the series. Retaliation did manage to overcome both those obstacles, mostly.
I’m not a Rise of Cobra hater, but it’s just not a very good movie. There’s a manic, “kid playing in a sandbox” energy to much of the action, but the characters never felt authentic to their classic Real American Hero counterparts, and– just as important– nothing looked like GI Joe. At all.
Retaliation is a reboot of the Joe franchise, wrapped in a sequel. We get some of the players from Rise back (although most are in the first-act only), leaving room for the new Joes and Cobras like Roadblock, Lady Jaye and Firefly to take center stage, alongside ninjas Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. I like quite a few of the new characters we get, although many of them are still very liberal adaptations of their 80s selves. Some are great– The Rock is fantastic as Roadblock, channeling his gun-toting badass from Doom as a virtuous hero instead of a crazed lunatic. With his quiet leadership, proclivity for awesome weapons and massive frame, Roadblock dominates the screen whenever he appears, and it’s clear The Rock is having a blast doing it. He has a great chemistry with many of his fellow Joes, in particular Channing Tatum’s Duke (who’s way better here than he was in ROC).
There’s a spoiler in the next paragraph, so highlight to read at your own risk…
Their camaraderie feels real, and it’s strong enough to really resonate when Duke dies in the Cobra ambush. I didn’t think I’d miss Channing in the movie, but after seeing him and Roadblock together for the first 20 minutes… I really hoped he’d somehow stick around.
Back to non-spoiler territory:
There’s even more fun to be had by Ray Stevenson’s Firefly and The RZA’s Blind Master. These two chew every bit of scenery and really get into the characters. Stevenson’s Cobra saboteur sports a heavy Southern drawl that adds to his biker menace, while RZA is so over the top in his sage-like delivery, fans will either love or absolutely hate his appearances… I loved it, personally!
The plot of Retaliation is fairly well known at this point– the Joe team is set up and killed by Zartan (posing as the President of the United States), leaving only a small group of survivors to figure out what’s going on, get revenge and stop Cobra’s global hostile takeover. There’s a few surprises along the way (including some things I expected would be reworked during the 9-month delay, but, well… were not), one incredible action set piece in the Red Ninja mountain battle, and a very fun, comic book-y evil master plan courtesy of Cobra Commander.
One of the most dramatic improvements on display in Retaliation is the visuals. Gone are the goofy exo-suits, and oceans of black leather– this time out, the Joes look like actual soldiers, the Cobra team is recognizable, and we even get a handful of iconic vehicles like the HISS Tank and Fang helicopter. Cobra Commander fares best, with his wonderfully classic redesign, which softens the blow that it’s still the ROC-fabricated Rex character under the mask.
Like I said, though, the Commander’s plan is wonderfully over the top, and I loved every second of it, especially the methodical, Bond-style walk-through of each step of the plan as he and Zartan explain it to their victims. The actual end combat scene is rather small and isolated, but the grand scale of Cobra Commander’s plot to rule the world makes the stake appropriately high. The smallness of the final battle is heightened by the stunning mountainside ninja battle, which is every bit as thrilling as the trailers led us to believe.
I also really enjoyed seeing the Joe team face a true, uphill battle– Cobra holds all the cards this time out, and it made for a much more compelling story to see the rag-tag remnants of the Joe team have to step up to the challenge of stopping them. Rise of Cobra saw the dawn of the ruthless terrorist organization, but they were put down as quickly as they came up… and Michael Bay’s Transformers movies always portrayed the Decepticons as weaklings compared to the Autobots. In those movies, the bad guys seemed like the obnoxious, sickly kid on the playground, who’d get beaten up every day by the bullying jocks that are Bay’s Autobots. Having the odds so clearly stacked against Roadblock and his team made for a much more endearing group of heroes, and a more involving story as they figure out how to take on the impossible odds Cobra has set in their way.
The movie is by no means perfect– the pacing is weird, especially the awkward cuts back and forth between Snake Eyes’ story in Japan while the Joes are attacked and left for dead, feeling like two completely separate movies. And while the look and overall feel of the film rings true to classic Joe, there’s some characters that just don’t fit, which becomes especially frustrating in a cast this slim. We only really have six Joes on the team (and Snake Eyes doesn’t even talk)… yet by the time the end credits rolled I still had no attachment at all to Flint or Jinx– they’re essentially background characters. That’s fine if you’ve got a huge team of heroes, but when backgrounders make up a third or more of the team, that’s an issue.
I’m more mixed on the movie’s high body count. On the one hand, this is a hyper-exaggerated military movie, so I was glad to see some mortality on screen. It grounds the movie in reality, and even if consequence isn’t the main focus it feels kind of responsible. But the other side of the coin is– these are classic, iconic characters in the film, and there are MANY deaths… I’d hate to see the franchise paint itself into the corner by disposing of too many anchor characters too early on in the series.
I guess the other big questions is the 3D conversion, the alleged reason for the long delay from Retaliation‘s original June 2012 release. I found it really adds nothing to the movie overall, with some exaggerated foreground focus that became distracting, and some scenes involving lots of ghosting. If the 3D alone was the actual reason for the delay, it totally wasn’t worth it.
Overall, despite some structural flaws and a bit of unease at the large number of character deaths, GI Joe Retaliation was still a very fun action movie that got more right that it did wrong, by far. While the movie still had some issues with realizing the classic characters fans have followed for 30 years, the movie absolutely nailed the look and tone of the best of Real American Hero. The new characters pumped some fresh blood into the ailing franchise, and the fun Cobra world domination story, combined with the epic ninja set pieces and the Joe team’s underdog heroism made this the best Hasbro movie we’ve seen so far.