As franchises go, “G.I. Joe” was less a fixer-upper than the sort of thing you burn to the ground for the insurance money.
“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” with its biomechanical super suits and underwater shenanigans, was a borderline-unwatchable crapfest. Stiffly acted with a just-doing-this-for-the-paycheck vibe, it was less inventive than anything 8-year-olds could concoct while playing with the action figures.
“G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” meanwhile, improves on the original in every conceivable way. Compared with “The Rise of Cobra,” it feels like a best-picture nominee.
Compared with everything else in the marketplace, though, it still feels destined for the bargain bin.
“Retaliation” wastes little time distancing itself from its predecessor. Only Duke (Channing Tatum), Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and the president (Jonathan Pryce) return. Cobra Commander is back, too, but Joseph Gordon-Levitt had the good sense, or the right lawyer, to get out of playing him again.
Pretty much everyone else from “The Rise of Cobra” — Dennis Quaid’s Gen . Hawk, Marlon Wayans’ Ripcord and the thousand or so personality-free Joes — is dismissed with a voiceover telling moviegoers that, since the end of the Nanobyte Wars, Duke is now running the team. You know, because of the military’s strict adherence to its Last One In Is In Charge Doctrine.
“Retaliation” severs even more ties with a massacre that decimates the remaining Joes, leaving three of them — Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki, “Friday Night Lights”) and Flint (DJ Cotrona, “Detroit 1-8-7”) — cut off from the world, branded traitors and marked for death.
Holed up in an abandoned inner-city rec center, the three are forced to carry on without their high-tech gizmos and kajillion-dollar subterranean compound.
It’s the best thing that could have happened to the franchise, as it gives “Retaliation” a sense of realism that was sorely lacking in the original. Or at least as close to realism as you can get in a movie about a grown man named Roadblock chasing down a scarred freakshow who favors SS-style bondage gear. (Nothing here is much more outlandish than you’d find in any other comic book movie, yet a few of the characters and their costumes somehow still come off as pretty ridiculous.)
Although the creative team (if you can call it that) behind “The Rise of Cobra” couldn’t muster any real connection to the Joes, “Retaliation” director John M. Chu clearly loves the characters. Perhaps a bit too much.
Written by “Zombieland’s” Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, “Retaliation” is designed to appease fans. And, judging from the joyful yelps from the die-hards at the screening, it worked. But it’s not terribly inclusive if you don’t know your Destro from your Zartan.
Also helpful for newbies: Snake Eyes, the black-clad, masked ninja dude, is a good guy. Storm Shadow, the white-clad, masked ninja dude, is a bad guy. They have history. You’re welcome.
Their scenes provide the best action, whether they’re squaring off against each other or zip-lining into a side-of-a-mountain battle that must be thrilling for anyone who hasn’t seen Cirque du Soleil’s “Ka.” Chu stages their fight scenes with the balletic grace appropriate for a director best known for two “Step Up” movies and the Justin Bieber concert film — the latter of which also involved what some people consider dancing.
“Retaliation” occasionally sparks to life with small flourishes, such as the prison warden played by “Justified’s” Walton Goggins, who gets to stretch beyond his bumpkin-with-a-screw-loose wheelhouse for a change.
But most of the fun comes from Johnson and, as the original G.I. Joe, Bruce Willis.
The action vets class up the joint while bringing the requisite deadpan swagger, not to mention their respective trademark grins and smirks. They’re both highly entertaining.
They’re just not really playing characters. Johnson is essentially being The Rock while Willis deviates only slightly from his standard action-movie hero.
Then again, no one else is given much in the way of character development. Palicki and Cotrona’s code names might as well be Tough Hot Chick and Some Guy.
Still, and this can’t be stressed enough, “Retaliation” remains leaps and bounds ahead of “The Rise of Cobra.”
It’s a stunning reclamation of a presumed-dead franchise.
At this pace, “G.I. Joe” could crank out a genuinely good movie after only five or six more tries.
• • •
Christopher Lawrence is the movie critic for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org