With its built-in legion of fans and larger-than-life characters and storylines, the G.I. Joe property would seem impossible to get wrong, but despite a good box-office performance, 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra managed to strike the wrong notes.
Thankfully, director Jon M. Chu’s sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation learns from its predecessor’s mistakes, ditching the far-fetched science-fiction elements and getting down to the serious business of having a good time with the badass ninjas, real American heroes and treacherous Cobra villains.
Channing Tatum (21 Jump Street) reenlists in the Paramount Pictures franchise as Duke, accompanied again by the two characters that are downright impossible to get wrong: ninja warriors Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). They’re joined by wrestling superstar turned actor Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock and the legendary Bruce Willis as the original Joe, General Joe Colton. Villainous Cobra agent Zartan (Pirates of the Caribbean's Jonathan Pryce) also returns to wreak global havoc disguised as the U.S. president.
Retaliation taps into the nostalgia for its brand, providing fans that collected the Hasbro toys growing up with an opportunity to thrill to seeing real-life Cobra Hiss Tanks and Fang boats in action. That’s not to say audiences unfamiliar with the many iterations of G.I. Joe will be left scratching their heads, as the film offers a tactical mission brief that highlights the characters and their specialties, bringing everyone more or less up to speed.
There’s a mischievous, laughing abandon to the script by Zombieland writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese that serves up a heaping portion of tasty American cheese with a generous side of explosions. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, G.I. Joe's ninjas and soldiers fight together for truth, justice and four-quadrant appeal.
The considerable sum Paramount ended up spending to convert the film to 3D was money well spent, as Chu’s use of the format is restrained and unobtrusive. When it is used, it enhances the campy, over-the-top action, particularly in the frenetic ninja fight sequence, which employs zip lines, swords and shurikens in the Himalayas.
Johnson’s playful charisma and mega-watt smile are pitch-perfect, as is his comic timing. When Roadblock's mysterious ninja ally Snake Eyes manages to get the drop on him, Johnson demonstrates why he's so good at injecting new life into existing franchises with his impeccable delivery of two words: “Damn Ninjas.”
Willis could be brought up on charges for petty theft, as he steals nearly every scene he's in. Walt Goggins (Justified) makes an-all-too brief, but hilarious, appearance as a high-security prison warden, and Pryce, as the diabolical American president, is having too much fun bragging that he’d just “hung out with Bono.”
Fun gizmos and weapons abound, whether it's Roadblock's high-tech gloves that melt wire, or the exploding bugs and motorcycle of the brutish Firefly (Punisher's Ray Stevenson), the gadgets channel all of the gonzo delight of the G.I. Joe brand. Is it ridiculous that Lady Jaye (Friday Night Light's Adrianne Palicki) has a DNA-sequencing transmitter cleverly disguised as a lipstick? Yes. Is it awesome and should Hasbro create a toy version for girls ages 6 and up? Yes, please.
The treat -- the giddy fun of this movie -- is that it knows and revels in what it is and has no illusions about what it is not. To put it in simple musical terms: Retaliation isn’t Radiohead, it’s delicious bubble-gum pop and should be enjoyed that way – in a crowded theater with the sound cranked all the way up.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is playing nationwide.