G.I. Joe: Retaliation is probably the closest any Hollywood studio has come to making a decent movie based on a line of toys. I skipped G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the previous entry in this franchise, because it looked like a bunch of bullshit. Joes in mechanized suits battling nanomite-wielding Cobra agents? Bullshit. But that’s no surprise because the director of that movie, Stephen Sommers, is a bullshit director. Director Jon M. Chu’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t a good movie, but it proves that a legitimately decent G.I. Joe movie could be made one day.
Like any kid growing up in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I possessed my share of G.I. Joe action figures, and the only thing you needed to know about G.I. Joe was that the Joes were well-armed American soldiers and Cobra was an equally well-armed terrorist organization. Each action figure had his or her own theme and came with an assortment of pistols, machine guns, and rifles. And that’s G.I. Joe in a nutshell: good guys and bad guys—both armed to the teeth—fighting each other.
Stephen Sommers apparently managed to fuck even that simple concept up with the previous entry in the series. With this movie the franchise gets closer to the basics. The Joes and the Cobras have actual weapons this time; Cobra Commander—the main bad guy—actually appears in the movie; the bad guys actually have a plan for world domination that doesn’t involve bullshit nanomites.
Unfortunately, G.I. Joe: Retaliation suffers from schizophrenia. On one hand, we’re given a solid revenge actioner starring Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis as soldiers who set out to avenge the death of their unit at the hands of Cobra, and on the other hand we have an incomprehensible martial arts flick about two competing ninjas named Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes. Taken separately both halves would probably be watchable. The combination of the two, however, is a complete mess.
The movie opens with the Joes generally being badass; in the first thirty minutes of the flick the Joes save a North Korean defector from Korea’s demilitarized zone and then follow that up by snatching a nuclear warhead from a destabilized military base in Pakistan. In an early sequence, we learn that the leaders of Cobra—Destro and Cobra Commander—have been imprisoned in an underground bunker in Germany. Meanwhile, Cobra has infiltrated the federal government and one of their operatives has apparently impersonated the President of the United States. They use the imposter President to free Cobra Commander and to order the execution of all Joes. The only survivors of the government’s ambush on the Joes are Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), Lady Jae (Adrianne Palicki), and General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis). Outnumbered and outgunned they band together to avenge their fallen comrades and to stop Cobra Commander from taking over the world.
Of course the plot is utterly preposterous, but unlike last week’s Olympus Has Fallen, this flick doesn’t take itself seriously, and it shouldn’t. The G.I. Joe cartoons and toys were always based on complete fantasy. The Joes banding together to fight an imposter President and a terrorist leader with a satellite-based doomsday device is actually pretty grounded for this franchise. It’s all explosive, fast-paced tongue-in-cheek fun manufactured for the purpose of delighting prepubescent boys.
However, G.I. Joe: Retaliation grinds to a halt when the silent ninja known as Snake Eyes shows up. Now, I know that Snake Eyes is a fan favorite—I had a Snake Eyes action figure as a kid and it was badass; in the ‘80s, everyone loved ninjas. But the introduction of Snake Eyes and his ninja nemesis really doesn’t have any bearing on the revenge plot. Again, on one hand we have a fairly straightforward military action movie, and then on the other hand we have a side story with ninjas engaging in sequences of sword fights. It’s just kind of baffling…even for a movie that features an imposter President trying to blow up the world with satellite-operated weapons of mass destruction.
The final nail in the movie’s coffin comes when RZA shows up as a blind ninja master. Jesus Christ, is there a worse actor in Hollywood than RZA? The man’s a fantastic rapper, and he’s actually pretty good when he’s just playing himself in movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, but whenever he tries to play a sage character like here or in last year’s The Man with the Iron Fists, he’s fucking atrocious. The whole ninja storyline just sucks.
The half of the movie that’s faithful to the cartoons and the toy line is actually pretty enjoyable. Jon M. Chu has an eye for action, the production values are top notch, and the cast is charismatic. All of the ingredients for a damn good G.I. Joe movie are present in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I kind of hope the filmmakers behind this movie stick around and make another entry in the series. They may actually accomplish the impossible: they may actually make a decent movie based off of a line of children’s toys. Just get rid of the fucking ninjas.