The first G.I. Joe was a solid entry in the “so awful it’s actually rather enjoyable” genre. It was big, brash, clumsy, and unintentionally hilarious. It wallowed in ludicrous CGI vistas, overcooked backstories, and an undersea arctic base that gets crushed by sinking ice. Sinking ice! And in what has become one of my favorite absurdist cinematic howlers of the last decade, there’s a scene where Duke (Channing Tatum) rides his motorcycle up to a funeral, stares tragically at a woman, she stares tragically back at him, and then he slips on his sunglasses and rides off.
While it’s raining.
Sunglasses in the rain. The mind reels.
So it’s with a twinge of pathos that I confess G.I. Joe: Retaliation isn’t actually horrible. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it good. But as a movie that’s a bit more adroit, a bit more knowing, and a bit more stripped down than its predecessor. It’s a decent popcorn flick.
It also gives us a new hero in Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) who, like three-fourths of Johnson’s other characters, is stoic yet vulnerable, solid, and blandly noble. Unlike Johnson’s other characters, as far as I can remember, Roadblock also happens to be handy with a gattling gun. That may be a shout-out to the toy line; I can’t remember.
His early scenes with Duke, who’s actually his superior, showcase a genuinely entertaining and touching banter between the two men. These are both actors who know how to riff, and Retaliation has the good sense to give them a few early chances to do so that build audience investment. When tragedy strikes, decimating the Joes and leaving Roadblock virtually alone to avenge his comrades, director Jon M. Chu manages to pull some genuine emotion out of it.
From then on out, unfortunately, it’s all business, and Johnson is reduced to the requisite and mechanical male fulcrum for the surrounding action. Joining him on this descent is Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianna Palicki). These two are both serviceable in their roles here – especially Palicki, who’s a welcome sight after her first-rate work as Tyra on Friday Night Lights – but the script doesn’t ask much and they deliver accordingly. Bruce Willis shows up as the retired General Colton, and has a fun sequence pulling every manner of weapon from every conceivable place you could squeeze a secret compartment or false bottom in a suburban home. But mostly Willis is just there for stunt casting.
The international terrorist organization Cobra secretly captured the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) and slipped the nanotech-assisted shapeshifter Zartan (Jonathan Pryce, again) into the White House. From there, they plan the usual bit of world domination, this time involving a faux nuclear disarmament summit and an Earth-orbiting superweapon. It’s up to our trio of Joes, cut off from aid and declared criminals by the impostor president, to save the day.
There’s an almost utterly useless subplot involving the forever-masked ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park, but who can tell?) and his rivalry with Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) over the death of their master (the aforementioned overcooked backstory from the first film). But it does give us the gobsmackingly bad performance of RZA as the ninjas’ new leader; the one time Retaliation descends (or ascends) to the same level of sultry, opulent awfulness of the first G.I. Joe.
There are some decent fisticuffs (Ray Stevenson, as Firefly, provides a convincing foil for Johnson here), a ninja battle in the mountains, and a surprisingly stripped down climactic assault on Fort Sumter – yes, Fort Sumter – to rescue world leaders. The action is what it is.
Retaliation has two genuine joys, one of which is Pryce. I don’t know if it was improvisation on his part, or the actual script, but it’s amazing how much time Retaliation hands Pryce to devilishly ham it up as Zartan while undergirded by a real sense of comic timing. For reasons I do not fathom but will be forever grateful for, Walton Goggins also chews scenery for ten minutes as a prison warden. It’s these moments and other gags peppered throughout that reveal the film’s aims to be modest, but self-aware.
It ain’t sunglasses in the rain. But it has its perks.