By Zeus, it’s been awhile since there’s been a decent shoot-em-up at the movies. But G.I. Joe: Retaliation will slake your need for gadgets, guns and explosions, and it’s even got some cool villains and funny jokes.
This one finds the super-secret team of elite military masters from all over the world up against the Zeus project by which the equally ferocious team of nasties known as Cobra hopes to rain down death and destruction on the earth. The Joes may have courage, comradeship and extremely large machine guns on their side but Cobra Commander and his crew have something that can top all that: They control the President (Jonathan Pryce) of the United States, who is actually a plant named Zartan. And what is Zartan up to? Only calling a world summit of the eight nuclear-armed powers and tricking them into doing his bidding.
When an action spectacular is willing to go all the way and have characters say things like, “The world will cower in the face of Zeus,” you know you’re in the frenzied land of pure junky comic-book energy, and on that level Retaliation works just fine. In the opening minutes alone, there are three big ker-blammo fight scenes involving the close-knit core members of the Joe team: There’s the wily old sergeant Roadblock (Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), the amiable but slightly dense captain Duke (Channing Tatum), the rookie Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and the slinky Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).
On assignment in Pakistan, though, things go terribly wrong and the Joes find themselves cut off by their commander in chief, blamed for the mission’s failure and forced to go all ghost protocol. Team members have to hike it through a desert and figure out how to get back to Washington (Roadblock’s hometown) and investigate the strange behavior of their president from off the grid.
Jaye, who seems to be the systems analyst as well as the only member of the Joes who could plausibly sidle up to the president while posing as a Fox News correspondent (the president, analyzing her perfect figure, says she certainly looks “fair and balanced” to him), manages to trick him into giving up a DNA sample. Thanks to a handheld gadget, Jaye figures out that he’s not really the president. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to stop him, especially since the mysterious figure known as Cobra Commander has escaped from his escape-proof dungeon and is ready to get back into the world-domination game. For the Joes, it’s time to round up the troops and kick some heinie.
The main purpose of the plot is to link together lots of shootouts, sword fights, and blowing stuff up, but there’s nothing wrong with any of that. Most of the action scenes aren’t new, but at least they’re entertaining, and a sequence in the middle of the movie set in Japan on a mountain, with rival teams of ninjas rappelling past each other while trying to cut off one another’s lines, is thrillingly realized by director Jon M. Chu. (Previously Chu directed the second and third Step Up movies but has never tackled anything on this scale before.) Based on Joe 2, he won’t have a lot of trouble finding his next job. He’s not Christopher Nolan, but on the other hand he’s more impressive than Stephen Sommers, the director of 2009’s nutty G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
Chu has a feel for the camaraderie of military folk and establishes a warm bond between Duke and Roadblock, who spend as much time in Roadblock’s living room playing shooter video games as they do shooting actual bad guys. When Bruce Willis finally turns up late in the film as Gen. Joseph Colton, the elder statesman of the outfit , there is a well-played connection to America’s past military glory: Colton has one of General George Patton’s famous ivory-handled sidearms. And it’s reserved for shooting Cobra Commander.
It’s said that Hollywood changed the concept of G.I. Joe from an individual American grunt to an international team in order to make the movie more marketable overseas, but Retaliation actually has a fairly patriotic tone, with most of its heroes being Americans and a stirring moment of triumph involving our flag. Also, the notion of a president who hides his true intentions under a veneer of amiability will go down easy with conservatives. Retaliation isn’t a must-see but it’s a rousing pro-American popcorn movie that’s worth the ticket price.