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Review: ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’

Big, Dumb, And Not Enough Fun

Dwayne Johnson stars as Roadblock in

Credit: Paramount

Above: Dwayne Johnson stars as Roadblock in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."

Hasbro created the G.I. Joe action figure in 1964, a multiple cartoon series and movies followed. The latest entry in the franchise is “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (opened March 29 throughout San Diego), a follow up to the 2009 “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.”

WonderCon and a cold kept me from reviewing this earlier but this is one of those critic-proof films that has a built in audience. But for those who weren't in the targeted demographic but are looking for an action film to pass the time, here's the lowdown. G.I. Joe is a brand that has managed to reinvent itself for each generation so that the franchise can keep generating money. The latest reinvention came in 2009 with “The Rise of Cobra,” a $175 million dollar CGI juggernaut that proved financially successful enough to spur a sequel. But you’d think the studios would move a little quicker than 4 years to cash in on that success. But the studios seemed to have overthought that. According to IMDb:

“This film was originally scheduled to be released on June 29, 2012. Paramount had begun a substantial ad campaign, which began in February with an expensive ad during the Super Bowl. But in May 2012, Paramount announced they were delaying the film's release until March 29, 2013 in order to to add 3D effects. It was later revealed that the real reason for the delay was for reshoots including more scenes with Channing Tatum. Test audiences wanted more scenes between Tatum and Dwayne Johnson and Tatum suddenly became a box-office star with the successes of ‘The Vow’ and ‘21 Jump Street.’”

Really? Paramount delayed and re-shot to appease test audiences? When you see the final film you will really scratch your head because the amount of new Tatum Channing footage is almost negligible and the 3D is lackluster. I can’t imagine the film would have been any better or worse -- or made any more or any less money at the box office -- if it had been released as planned in 2012. Okay we might have lost that one funny gag with Channing and Johnson playing video games but other than that I can't imagine there's much difference.

“Retaliation” picks ups essentially where “The Rise of the Cobra” left off. If you didn’t see “The Rise of the Cobra,” a few things may be a little unclear -- especially in identifying some masked characters some of whom have changed under those masks --but the film is so over the top silly that it really doesn’t matter.

In the newly added scenes, Duke (the returning Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson entering the franchise), are shown as close friends with a history. These scenes are just jokey, buddy scenes with no real point. The basic plot revolves around the fact that the G.I. Joes are framed and ambushed, placing Duke out of the picture and Roadblock as the reluctant new leader of the remaining Joes -- Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki as the female eye candy). The double cross appears to originate with the President (Jonathon Pryce, also returning from “The Rise of the Cobra”). So the Joes set out to get revenge and clear their name.

“The Rise of the Cobra” was helmed by lightweight action director Stephen Sommers who had found success with the recent “The Mummy” films. But his replacement for the sequel, Jon M. Chu, seems an odd choice to take over the franchise considering his previous directing duties were on the “Step Up” dance movies and the Justin Bieber documentary, “Never Say Never.” Maybe Paramount felt they wanted the G.I. Joes to execute their maneuvers with a little more flair and a more upbeat sort of spirit. The end result is a very different tone from the previous film, and a definite turn for the ridiculous. The film is like the ballroom dancing version of the action film -- excessive and laughable. In some ways this makes the sequel far more entertaining than its predecessor and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a definite plus to the franchise. The Rock appears in a quartet of films this year – “Snitch,” “Retaliation,” “Pain and Gain,” and “Fast & Furious 6” – and he’s proving to have star power and genuine charm. He’s almost a cartoon character himself with his ridiculous physique so he fits right in with the over the top shenanigans of “Retaliation.”

Photo credit: Paramount

Lee Byung-hun as Storm Shadow in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."

The moments when the film truly surrenders to silliness it’s actually enjoyable. Jonathon Pryce’s performance as the “President” (not a spoiler if you saw the first film) perfectly captures the insanity of the mad plan to take over the world. The crazy mountain climbing ninja fight is ridiculous fun as is Roadblock’s final taking-matters-into-his-own-hands resolution to things. And speaking of ridiculous, there’s Korean action star Lee Byung-hun’s absolutely ridiculous abs as the troubled Storm Shadow. When he puts his clothes back on there’s a notable sigh of disappointment by the women in the audience.

So as long as Chu embraces the cartoonishness of the story, you can smile along with the video game antics. Sadly, though, he can’t maintain that tone throughout and there’s a lot in the film that’s just plain stupid. If you have a film this silly and you stop to actually try and explain the plot, it only ruins the mood and makes you realize how little sense it’s all making. There really is a fine art to action filmmaking, and it requires the right balance of just enough plot to keep things moving but not too much to get in the way of well choreographed action and badass performances. For a perfect example of of this I refer you to last year’s “The Raid” – a piece of action filmmaking perfection.

“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (rated PG-13 for intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language) could have been big, dumb, and fun but there’s too much of the first two and not enough of the third. By the end you feel a bit pummeled and worn down but Johnson, Pryce, Lee, and an evil Ray Stevenson help ease the pain. And in case you're wondering, there will be a "G.I. Joe 3."

Companion viewing: “The Raid,” “G.I. Joe: The Movie” (animated), “The Story of G.I. Joe”

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