Retaliation proves shallow, entertaining

DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON, WHO PLAYED ROADBLOCK IN RETALIATION , POSES for a photo at the movie’s premiere in Sydney, Australia.

Why does a studio decide to delay a movie? In many cases, it could be due to production issues, or too much competition in a busier time of the year. However, in the case of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it was simply because the movie was just not good enough to be released to theaters. That’s right, Retaliation was supposed to be released months ago, and yet studio execs decided that the film needed to undergo stringent rewrites and reshoots before they were even willing to show it to the public. Still, was there any point in releasing a sequel to G.I Joe anyways? Marketed as something of a reboot, Retaliation certainly wasn’t off to a good start after rumors regarding its delay hit the media outlets. So where exactly does this anomaly of a film stand?

Retaliation has a relatively basic premise. Cobra Commander has been on ice (no, literally) for a while now, and the titular G.I. Joe team has been experiencing something of a testosterone-fuelled golden age in the meantime. Alas, you can only go so long thinking you’re unstoppable until you’re rudely awakened by exploding firefly robots … even writing it sounds ridiculous. Anyways, with the Joe team in tatters after the aforementioned firefly attack, members of Cobra are able to not so subtly rescue their boss from his frozen, underground prison. With Cobra Commander free, the organization begins plotting to take over the world (didn’t see that coming, did you?). The Joes gather what few resources they have left and initiate a counterattack to stop Cobra and save the world. A more clichéd plot could not have been written by anyone besides Michael Bay.

There’s a certain level of amusingness to seeing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson punch people. The man is absolutely enormous, and seeing him go toe to toe with people who are almost always half his size is just absurd. Why would you ever want to fight him? Unless you’re Vin Diesel, you’re going to lose! Indeed, Johnson’s post-Disney contract career has been interesting to watch. He went from wearing tutus in movies like The Tooth Fairy to swearing and sweating a lot in Fast Five. He continues his action hero motif in Retaliation where his character, Roadblock, is one of the Joes’ more highly ranked members. He takes command shortly after the surprise Cobra attack on the team, and proves that he has enough acting chops to shoot a light machine gun and run around at the same time.

Meanwhile, D.J. Cotrona and Adrianne Palicki round out the core members of the team. Neither of them are particularly compelling, with Palicki being used primarily as eye candy and Cotrona relegated to telling a few bad jokes. Ray Park gets to play the silent ninja Snake-Eyes, but seeing as how he is both silent and completely masked, not much can be said about his acting ability. Byung-hun Lee fairs a bit better as his Cobra ninja counterpart, Storm Shadow, his plotline being one of the emotional (if you can even call it that) centers of the film. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Elodie Yung, who plays Jinx, Storm Shadow’s cousin and Snake Eyes’ current apprentice. I would rather have seen her used as the outward, vicarious manifestation of Snake Eyes’ emotions, but I guess the writers didn’t even think of that.

I will admit, however, that Roger Baker and Luke Bracey as the voice and body of Cobra Commander, respectively, are infinitely better than the travesty that was Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Cobra Commander in the first film. The Cobra Commander in Retaliation moves, speaks, and sounds as you would expect of Cobra Commander. Unfortunately, the performance doesn’t go beyond nailing the base essence of the character; the role was like any other evil villain/mastermind role, but even more thinly written. Jonathan Pryce was the only actor that seemed to be succeeding in this film, his Zartan/President character proving the snarkiest and most amusing of the characters. Finally, Bruce Willis continues to portray a caricature of his action hero characters, this time as the aged-but-still-proficient general after whom the G.I. Joes got their name.

The writing in this film is bad. The plot is paper-thin, and the characters are even thinner. Any attempt by the writers to provide depth or emotional nuance to the characters either comes off as forced, or just so pathetic as to make you laugh. I find it difficult to pin acting faults on any of the cast when I feel like they were just let down by a terrible script. That is, except for one actor: rapper RZA. His Blind Master is so terrible that I can’t even begin to explain it. I haven’t seen such a poor performance since Hayden Christiensen in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. You may be thinking, “oh, that’s just hyperbole,” and it might be, but RZA is still really, really bad. Thankfully, he doesn’t have much dialogue and is only in the film for a few minutes. Overall, though, the state of the script is pretty disappointing, especially considered it was written by the minds behind the funny and clever Zombieland.

Now, the film’s direction, by Jon M. Chu, is not quite as bad as the writing. Sure, some questionable decisions are made in terms of the overall film, but Chu still proves fairly adept at setting up Retaliation’s bread and butter: action sequences. Some of the action may be downright ridiculous, but his use of slow-mo and showcasing of fun ninja battles, including a mountainside battle that was particularly well-staged, prove that Chu knows his way around a blockbuster. Still, this doesn’t excuse the choices he makes regarding his actors and some of the more inept set pieces in the film. What also struck me was just how bad the music was; it never seemed to mesh well with what was happening on screen, and the stereotypical Asian melodic undertones during the ninja sequences were particularly embarrassing.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that was this bad on paper. Despite this, I still really enjoyed it. I didn’t go in expecting much beyond action and hoping that it was moderately better than the first film, and I left with both of those desires satisfied. Retaliation is a diversionary kind of film, escapism of the highest order, a brainless hyperactive mess where explosions, special effects, and style are deemed more important than character and story. Yet, it was still a blast. I wouldn’t recommend spending money on this film, but it is certainly worth a look if you’re looking for something to distract yourself with. Or if you’re looking for the next great drinking game movie.