‘Retaliation’ aims, shoots as latest ‘G.I. Joe’ installment

April 7, 2013
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."

In the opening set-up of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” a character named Duke (played by Channing Tatum) exclaims, “Drive it like you stole it!”

To which his partner Roadblock (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) snarkily replies, “As your friend, you need a new catchphrase.”

And that mentality pervades the new chapter of the “Joe” films (of which this is the second, for those keeping score). The first flick, 2009’s “The Rise of Cobra” was directed by journeyman helmer Stephen Sommers, and it adequately checked all the boxes of summer action excess entertainment. It was goofy, slim and on par with typical '80s tough-guy fare that would have undoubtedly starred the likes of Schwarzenegger or Stallone.

But “Retaliation” wants you to forget all about that, loudly hammering its coffin in the first 20 minutes with the death of one of “Cobra’s” leads, and passing the torch to a new band of Joes, who apparently take their missions much more seriously... well, as seriously as you can take a blockbuster based on a bunch of dolls.

After their opening mission, a Cobra henchman posing as the U.S. president (played by Jonathan Pryce) deploys the group to Pakistan chasing what he claims is a stray nuclear weapon. A Cobra ambush awaits, and Roadblock is forced to pilot the group and expose the straightforward plot and expose the presidential charade.

While there is a more efficient narrative approach to “Retaliation,” it still finds the time to jam in an arsenal of big flippin’ guns, tricked-out military vehicles and Bond-like gadgets, and rawhide-tough banter between its characters. And speaking of tough, it’s no surprise that “Retaliation” added another weapon to its arsenal in the form of Bruce Willis as the original Joe. Unfortunately, this bit of stunt casting draws a blank, as Willis seems about as interested to be here as he was to star in the last abysmal “Die Hard” flick.

This leaves Johnson as the film’s heavy hitter. It has been widely reported that the film, scheduled to be released last summer, was quickly yanked to go through reshoots in order to pad it with more Channing Tatum, after his star status took off at the start of last year. But he vanishes after a promising start in which he and Johnson bounce off one another quite well, leaving Johnson to shoulder the bulk of the picture. And there is no one else in the cast who comes close to matching his charisma.

Director John Chu is a veteran of the “Step Up” film franchise, and he still finds a sense of levity within the leveling of all things inside the Joes' radius. The film stalls when it tries to dip into backstory (musician RZA tries, and fails miserably, to play the wise ninja master), but remains mercifully in the moment for much of the runtime.

The battle scenes are choreographed with punch and panache (the cliffside ninja attack delivers on the trailer’s promise), and there seems to be a strong attempt to hit “Control-Alt-Delete” to restart the franchise altogether. It marginally succeeds – the film still only serves as a brainless concoction of zippy action sequences mixed with hokey jokes - but “Retribution” does provide a better starting point for future entries than anything promised in its predecessor.

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