Film Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

With Roadblock in the lead, G.I. Joe troops battle Cobra's plan to take over the world. Ragged, good-natured blockbuster improves on its predecessor.

Its release delayed almost a year, G.I. Joe: Retaliation arrives with low expectations. Even so, a new director and cast members make this a significant upgrade over 2009's widely reviled G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Entertaining but mindless, the film should open strong, then fade against competition.

As he did with the Fast and Furious franchise, Dwayne Johnson brings heft and humor to the G.I. Joe story. Portraying Roadblock, he takes charge of the narrative after most of his cohorts are wiped out in a Cobra double-cross. Aided by Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (a pallid, barely present D.J. Cotrona), Roadblock sets up shop in Washington, where nanotechnology has helped disguise villain Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) as the President (Jonathan Pryce).

Meanwhile, an underground prison holding the Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) becomes a battleground thanks to martial-arts expert Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). The freed Cobra Commander takes off with Firefly (Ray Stevenson) while the badly burned Storm Shadow recovers in the Asian mountains.

To convince retired General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), the original G.I. Joe, to join their plot, Roadblock and the others have to prove the President is a fake. Meanwhile, Cobra operatives prepare to booby-trap a summit of world leaders at Fort Sumter, which will give the villains free rein over the planet's nuclear arsenal.

Yes, it's that simple. This is the kind of story that has Jaye dress up in a revealing gown to thwart Secret Service agents, and that can casually wipe out scores of anonymous good guys and bad guys, to say nothing of major metropolitan centers. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland) manage to add some credible one-liners and a smidgen of self-awareness to the macho posturing. (Presumably, RZA's ghastly turn as a Blind Master of kung fu was meant as a joke.)

Like G.I. Joe comic books and dolls, the film is about action, not plotting, and director Jon M. Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, Step Up 3D) delivers that in spades. Not all of the fights work—in fact, some are notably incoherent, and others are basically just a string of deafening explosions.

But at least one sequence is a knockout. Snake Eyes and his new partner Jinx (Elodie Yung) need to abduct Storm Shadow from his mountain hideout. To do so, they must rappel across vertiginous rock faces, fighting off murderous ninjas at the same time. It's a thrilling bit, and one of the few times in the film that its post-shoot 3D conversion makes sense.
Enough plot strands remain for another sequel, although the ranks of dolls are thinning.