It’s tough to say if I would be as generous with my praise of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” if I weren’t such a big fan of its director, Jon M. Chu, but given the mechanical one-dimensionality of most big-budget franchise films, the sequel earns its critical bona fides simply by being made by a director who has sincere affection for the source material. Although its delay from the summer of 2012 to spring 2013 spawned rumors of a troubled production, extensive reshoots, and a last-minute effort to squeeze the now-hot Channing Tatum into more scenes, Chu’s follow-up is remarkably cohesive – a fun, sweeping and yet understated sequel that should whet the appetites of action fans without overdosing them on pop confectionaries before the summer buffet truly starts.
After staging a successful rescue of nuclear warheads that nefarious foreigners planned to unleash on the rest of the world, Duke (Tatum), Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) cut short their high-five practice when a helicopter detail bombs their desert camp and leaves the Joe team for dead. Only three members survive – Roadblock, Jaye and Flint – but they sneak back into the U.S. with the intention of finding out why the President (Jonathan Pryce), the only person with the authority to call such an airstrike, would attack his first line of defense.
Rendezvous-ing with Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and his new charge Jinx (Elodie Yung), the remaining Joes set a plan in motion to find out if the Commander-in-Chief is who he claims to be. But after COBRA Commander (Luke Bracey) and Firefly (Ray Stevenson) uncover their team’s whereabouts and use the President’s new security contingent to hunt them down, Roadblock and co. race to stop an imminent nuclear showdown which may decide the fate of all humanity if the world’s leaders are not stopped in time.
It’s hard to imagine a director whose personality undermines the weight and uniqueness of his source material more so than Stephen Sommers – a guy who squandered Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man in one fell swoop -- and his franchise-launcher, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” felt like a G.I. Joe movie in name only. Conversely, Chu’s film exudes canonical authenticity, not just utilizing second- and third-generation Joes, but creating vehicles (hovercrafts! H.I.S.S. tanks!) that resemble ones created for the toy line/cartoon series, and making frequent references to pockets of mythology that longtime fans of the property will appreciate.
While the plot itself is about as complicated as an average episode of the cartoon – possible Presidential impersonator threatens the balance of world power and it’s up to Joes to right it again – there are some genuinely interesting narrative choices, at least if you’re more than vaguely familiar with the characters. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee), who have always formed the series’ most interesting rivalry, are forced into an unlikely partnership that offers some real dimensionality to their history, and in a way, changes the polarity of their personalities. And while Lady Jaye is decidedly less tomboyish than she was portrayed in animated form – truthfully, here being more like a next-gen Scarlett – the filmmakers use her sexuality to great effect while providing Palicki with equal opportunities to show her physical and intellectual strength.
As the film’s de facto star, Johnson continues to demonstrate not only an impossibly ever-increasing physicality, but also boasts seemingly indefatigable charisma, making Roadblock’s thirst for vengeance – or, sure, “justice” – seem positively charming. Meanwhile, Bruce Willis contributes a turn unworthy of his recent, excellent work in “Looper” – and yet one evocative of his lackluster enthusiasm for most of his other projects these days – as Joe Colton, the “original” G.I. Joe, lending the film some nostalgic gravitas but basically staying on screen long enough to legitimize the excitement of fans who saw him in the teaser trailers. (To be fair, almost all of his one-liners are fully deserving of the eye roll Palicki gives him at one point, so one can hardly fault him for being underwhelmed by his character.)
Coming off of the “Step Up” films and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” Chu has demonstrated an aptitude for controlled chaos – creating a ballet that really uses contemporary film techniques to maximize the impact of large groups of people making sweeping movements. He adapts that skill easily to the demands of fight choreography, creating several terrific action sequences that manage to be as unique as they are exciting. In one sequence, Snake Eyes and Jinx dispatch opponents as they swing back and forth along the side of a cliff face, which recalls the inventiveness of classic wu shu martial arts choreography even as the filmmakers clearly use the most modern technology available (CGI, etc.) to augment it into something genuinely epic.
As one might expect, there are more than a handful of loose ends once justice has been served and peace has been restored (not the least of which being that it’s entirely unclear how the Joes would convince the world that the President is a phony). And in one really, really incredibly messed up scene, London is reduced to ashes, and the destruction is effectively forgotten once COBRA has been dispatched from the White House grounds. But there’s something to be said for a film which aims to please in a sincere and straightforward way, without attempting to be the biggest ever – indeed, it's merely trying to right the many wrongs inflicted by its predecessor, at least to fans.
Ultimately, Chu’s calling card will continue to be the films he directed in the “Step Up” series, but it’s only because he first did with them what he has now successfully accomplished with 'G.I. Joe': to take an ailing film series with a questionable following, rediscover its essential appeal, and reconnect it with its audience. 'Retaliation' is no masterpiece, but it’s a movie whose fun doesn’t feel like a four-letter word -- popcorn entertainment that not only rivals what you see during summer, but surpasses what you see from Sommers. [B-]