G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) was the first film to launch Hasbro’s successful action figure property to the big screen, sported a big budget, the direction of The Mummy’s Stephen Sommers and still managed to be quite a remarkably stupid movie. What’s more, in spite of the inclusion of Larry Hama (the character creator and Marvel Comics writer who shaped the franchise as we know it), the film managed to alienate fans left and right, from the unrecognizable depiction of Cobra Commander to the oddity of putting lips on the ninja mask of Snake Eyes (the post-millennial equivalent of putting nipples on the Bat suits in 1997’s Batman & Robin).
Thus the announcement of a new director (in John M. Chu) and a new direction for the film series was welcome news across the message boards. That said, part of the new path for the G.I. Joe cinematic saga apparently included the need to kill off virtually the entire cast (Channing Tatum’s appearance as Duke amounts to a cameo) and reboot from virtually ground-zero. Luckily, Retaliation remains a sequel that retains the burden of tying up loose ends and cliffhangers from the first film (such as Arnold Vosloo’s Zartan impersonating Jonathan Pryce’s President of the United States) and maintains a few characters from the first film while almost completely eschewing that film’s style.
The great news about G.I. Joe: Retaliation, especially for fans, is that its own style errs much more closely on the side of the comics and cartoons it is based on. Cobra Commander actually looks like Cobra Commander again (even if he sounds more like Darth Vader in need of a chloraseptic spray), Snake Eyes is still played by Ray “Darth Maul” Park and has a more practical and less anthropomorphic costume and famous characters like Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), The Blind Master (The RZA) and “the Original G.I. Joe”, General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis) make their triumphant appearances in the saga.
The bad news about G.I. Joe: Retaliation is that it is still essentially an expensive toy commercial aimed directly at the target audience of young-to-teen boys and girls who are likely to buy Hasbro’s toy tie-ins with the movie. Thus, the film stops making sense almost as soon as Walton Goggins’ over-the-top prison warden starts to chew up the scenery. By the time the (admittedly clever) James Bond-Esque world-ending scenario plot is presented and unraveled, the film is already showing signs of collapsing under its own weight. Retaliation also revels in its special effects budget, but so often uses it for bad taste demonstrations of power (if you thought killing off the prior film’s cast was bad, the destruction of London – a centerpiece in the previews – is wince-worthy in an intentionally “Fun” movie).
But “fun”, it can be, with Willis at his most whisper-sarcastic, Johnson at his most martially artistic and Adrienne Palicki’s Lady Jaye appearing to be mere eye candy (to please the teenage boys in the audience) but kicking just as much ass as the guys (to please the teenage girls in the audience). There is no denying this is a fun and often spectacular (even in its blue screen moments) film. Those more realistic film fans may enjoy the extras on the DVD and Blu-Ray, delving deeply into the effects and making of the film and pretty much disclosing the entire story, which is just as fun (and funny) and not quite as “dumb” as watching the film in a single sitting can be.
For fans who bought the toys, watched the cartoon and read the comics during the ‘80s and now have like-aged children of their own (all of which I did and do), might I suggest proceeding to watch this fun film with your kids, but compromise so that you can leave the commentary track on. The film will remain a treat for the eyes, but you can more easily gloss over those parts that will make you apologize to your brain.