GI Joe Retaliation: Now With More Ninjas

GI Joe Retaliation Poster

On the scale of toylines that get turned into movies, 2009’s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra fell somewhere between Michael Bay’s first two Transformers movies.  It was slightly more of an incoherent mess with no regard for the source material than Transformers, but at least managed to not be an offensive and racist mess like Revenge of the Fallen.   Mostly, it just made me sleepy.  I actually fell asleep on my first two attempts to watch it, not getting all the way to the end until the third try.  Like how you hear about mental techniques designed to help people withstand torture, I think my body has just been conditioned to shut down during Stephen Sommers movies.  Even with a new director I was wary about a sequel, but the fact remains that way back at the tender age of 19, my very first tattoo was a Cobra insignia.  I’m immensely fond of the original cartoon and the surprisingly well-written 80’s comic book series, and truly believe that somewhere in there lies the potential for a great series of films.  When it comes to fulfilling that potential, GI Joe: Retaliation doesn’t quite get there, but it’s definitely aimed in the right direction.

Retaliation is technically the sequel to The Rise of Cobra, but in a lot of ways it feels like a soft reboot.  Only a handful of actors return from the original, including Arnold Vosloo who sees just a couple minutes of actual screentime as Zartan, and Ray Park as the perpetually-masked ninja commando Snake Eyes.  Only Byung-hun Lee gets to expand much on his original part as the deadly Cobra ninja Storm Shadow, which I am thankful for as he was one of the only pieces of the first movie that I felt really worked.  Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who I desperately want to see make an amazing movie someday) makes his franchise debut as Roadblock, and he’s good enough here to carry the movie on his shoulders whenever it starts to lag between the handful of impressive setpieces.  Fellow newcomer Bruce Willis seems to be having fun as the team’s namesake, General Joe Colton, and Ray Stevenson is another great addition as the explosives-obsessed saboteur Firefly.  With that much cast shakeup it really does feel like a fresh start, and the costume design reinforces those changes with an overall look that is much closer to the authentic GI Joe style.

Roadblock

Ehh, I guess it’s pretty big…

The plot borrows from the recent animated series GI Joe: Renegades, with Cobra initiating a scheme to turn the Joe team into wanted outlaws while they seize control of the government.  The idea has potential but it ends up being a minor inconvenience at best and the movie seems to shift from idea to idea without ever fully capitalizing on any of them.  A supermax underground prison run by Walton Goggins, for example, seems like something worth expanding on but it just sort of goes in the “squandered potential” pile.  The B story, which focuses on Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s origins in the Arashikage ninja clan, honestly could have been its own movie.  Snake Eyes’ protege Jinx (Elodie Yung) makes her debut, and RZA was a pretty cool choice to play Blind Master.  There’s a great hallway duel that feels like an homage to the yearly “silent” issues of the GI Joe comic, and a unique and impressive mountainside ninja battle.  They’re some of the best scenes in the movie, but part of me also felt like they took away some of the urgency from the much bigger issues facing the team.  There’s also a major event during the film’s climax that I won’t spoil, but which ends up bizarrely ignored.

Cobra Commander and Firefly

This shot right here would have been the greatest moment in the life of six-year-old me. 32-year-old me still thinks it’s pretty rad.

Any issues Retaliation might have had as a film are, however, smoothed over with a good bit of fan service.  In addition to the aforementioned ninja action, Cobra Commander finally looks and acts like the villain GI Joe fans know and love, and the unfurling of Cobra banners down the front of the White House feels straight out of the cartoon.  Roadblock breaks out his trademark oversized artillery, and nobody is wearing the terrible Halo-inspired armor from the first movie.  Every scene with Firefly in action is entertaining and Ray Stevenson, like Dwayne Johnson, has a knack for elevating whatever he’s in.  There are even HiSS tanks, my favorite mode of Cobra transportation from the cartoon, and their design is really faithful and identifiable.  Now I’m not saying fan service is everything, and it can’t save a terrible movie, but in my opinion it can certainly enrich an otherwise middling film.  When it comes to action movies I’m sure there will be more substantial offerings here and there throughout the summer, but if you’re a GI Joe fan looking for an appetizer before blockbuster season officially kicks off in May, I’d advise ignoring the aggregate reviews and checking this one out.  It’s certainly not perfect, but I had a lot of fun with it flaws and all.

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About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on March 31, 2013, in Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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