There’s one sequence in G.I. Joe: Retaliation that exemplifies exactly what a decent G.I. Joe movie should be. Brave ass-kicking good guys Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Elodie Yung) have kidnapped Cobra baddie Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) from a mountain lair and, during their rapid descent, are pursued by a squadron of katana-wielding ninjas decked out in matching crimson outfits. Racing across the snowy, craggy terrain via zip-line, swords slash flesh, body parts pound into jagged rock, and casualties plummet helplessly into the ominous foggy abyss. Played entirely in tense silence, this fast and furious set-piece is pure popcorn silliness; comic-booky in the best way and filled with fun little bursts of giddy imagination.
Alas, rather than construct an energetic story around these ten cool minutes, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) and Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick use it as a crutch to prop up one of the most embarrassing examples of fan-film moviemaking in recent memory. Cutting loose most of the material established in Stephen Sommers’ campy 2009 guilty pleasure Rise of Cobra, the trio has crafted a dumb, convoluted adaptation of the 1980s animated show/toy commercial that’s short on thrills, laughs or surprise, yet brimming with pandering shout outs. Want to see a Cobra H.I.S.S. tank realized (and blown up) on screen? You’re in luck! Looking for memorable characters or crazy over-the-top combat? Best search elsewhere.
Drastically scaled back from the mega-budget excesses of its predecessor, Retaliation aims for a more realistic vibe - the Joes use actual ammunition, as opposed to lasers, and real world political events are referenced - while nonetheless packing in ludicrous nonsense like explosive lightning bugs and a sci-fi-ish subterranean prison fortress that apparently houses only two convicts. The clashing tones don’t work. Just when we’re starting to chuckle – as when RZA pops up as Blind Master, spouting hilarious ninja lore jibberish – the picture retreats back to the mundane. There are an extraordinary number of scenes of characters hanging out in nondescript locations spouting mind-numbing exposition at one another. Fine, if it were well written, but the dialogue here rarely rises above wretched. Even the comedic banter (“’Prepare for extraction?’ What are we? Teeth?!”) is cringe-inducing.
While the original cartoon may not have been high art, it could be at least counted on to supply plenty of engaging larger-than-life personalities. Retaliation’s greatest failing is that no one on-screen is very charismatic or interesting. Sure, Johnson is enjoyable. However, this says more about his inherent likeability as an actor than the project (for further current evidence of this phenomenon see exhibit B: Snitch). Tatum and fan fave Snake Eyes are sadly underutilized, while newcomers Flint, Mouse (Joseph Mazzello) and Jaye - who spends most of the film in various states of undress - are woefully vanilla. And the less said about Willis’s paycheck appearance, the better. It’s highly probable defibrillator paddles were needed to jolt him to life each day on set. Even bitchy old Cobra Commander disappoints - a killer costume in search of an identity. Only an eye-poppingly possessed Pryce and Ray Stevenson (using a bizarro southern gentleman drawl as the assassin Firefly) seem to understand what kind of movie they’re in and revel in the absurdity.
All might be forgiven, had the film delivered on the action front but, aside from the aforementioned vertiginous dust-up, Chu comes up woefully short at crafting memorable battles. The shootouts are generically staged, free of excitement, and the physical clashes are a sad continuation of the current shaky-cam/spastic editing trend. It’s a sign of Retaliation’s incompetence that it even manages to make the climactic sight of Johnson decimating Cobra minions in a heavy-duty one-man tank boring.
It’s frustrating how unremarkable G.I. Joe: Retaliation truly is. The flick doesn’t even manage to suck on the amazing level of its other foul Hasbro cinematic brethren Battleship or the Transformers trilogy. No, this is a nothing movie; a soulless corporate product that aspires only to keep the brand name in the public consciousness another couple years. Mission accomplished, I guess. Hoorah.
1.5 out of 5
*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.