2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of The Cobra won over few fans when it was released and though the box office take was respectable, Paramount (and fans) felt the response should have been more positive. Blame was largely rested at the feet of director Steven Sommer’s who had committed similar filmmaking sins with Universal’s much derided Van Helsing (and to a lesser extent, The Mummy Returns), throwing cartoon-like spectacle at the screen at breakneck speed with precious little character elements to fill the intervening moments. With G.I. Joe: Retaliation, sweeping changes were made, including replacing much of the cast and bringing in Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the main draw. Many of the changes work, though several storytelling flaws remained.
The Production: 3.5/5
“Everybody wants to rule the world”
America’s elite Special Forces group, the G.I. Joes, are framed for treason after completing a high-pressure mission to recover loose nukes. All but three, Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (Joseph Mazzello), are killed and they vow to clear their name and avenge their fallen brothers and sisters in arms. They suspect the President of the United States of America – the only man who could have ordered the strike upon their team – may not be who the world thinks him to be, and set about to uncover the truth and have their revenge.
Seeking to set the potential Joe franchise on more stable (and respectable) footing following the generally disliked and noisy G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra, Paramount attempted to hit the reset button, leaving behind the entire cast except for Channing Tatum’s Duke and Jonathon Pryce’s President. Stephen Sommers, director of 2009’s Rise of the Cobra, took most of the blame for the cartoonish, loud and comically sloppy earlier outing though that film wasn’t as nearly as bad as the critics suggested and the pseudo-sequel/reboot isn’t quite the remedy, though there is still much to enjoy.
Jon M Chu’s direction is confident and the set-pieces largely cohesive and entertaining. Briskly paced with the action upping the ante until the fully armored finale, the plot for Retaliation is entirely more focused than its predecessor film. Besides the good-guys on the run angle, which admittedly is well-worn, there are some good elements that provide for solid set-pieces, including the prison break of Cobra Commander and Storm Shadow, and the stolen identity of the U.S. President by the nefarious Zartan (played all-too briefly by Arnold Vosloo).
However, the elements that help raise this film above its predecessor also give way to some of the problems that weigh it down. There’s simply too much story trying to be told. Besides the Joe’s making their way back to U.S soil and investigating who betrayed them, the story adds in a replay of the Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) / Snake Eyes (Ray Park) rivalry, complete with an excursion to a mountain-top retreat where Blind Master, played by the RZA, delivers some Zen rehabilitation for a Storm Shadow injured in his prison escape, right before Snake Eyes swings by to recapture him (one of the highlight action sequences). Then add to that the Joe’s seeking help from the original G.I. Joe (Bruce Willis), the evil Cobra plot, a surviving Joe with father issues, and it all adds up to an action-vessel with just a few too many characters and story elements to service.
There is a likeable camaraderie between Johnson’s Roadblock and Tatum’s Duke character, filling the opening portion of the film with genuine character moments that seem to promise something unexpected in a film like this. But it’s too short-lived. When Duke isn’t involved, the interaction between the remaining cast lacks sparkle and draw except for Bruce Willis and The Rock enjoying a little snappy dialogue. Adrianne Palicki’s Lady Jaye character by turns is proving her equal with her male Joe’s, but in the next scene is forced to use her sexuality to progress the mission. It’s a defeating turn for the character. Finally, Joseph Mazzello’s Flint is very one-note, adding little to the film beyond the requisite doubting Thomas, “we’re screwed”-style commentary.
Director Jon Chu capably handles the spectacle of the action sequences nicely. The visual effects are slick and at times nicely creative, and even the person-to-person combat moments are well choreographed and performed, but the necessary compelling story that threads these bits and pieces together is too weak to give us a fully rounded action film experience. The hurried sense that kicks in at the start of the second act takes over and doesn’t relent until the dust settles at the very end. This sequel is a more competently made film than the 2009 predecessor, but there’s still plenty of work to do to give G.I. Joe a genuinely successful turn on the big screen.
3D Rating: NA
Paramount’s UHD release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation is good, but not a significant upgrade over the already fine Blu-ray release from a few years ago. The added resolution isn’t mind blowing, and while the HDR grading gives the colors a deeper saturation, with skin tones richer, brighter colors with richer contrasts, I don’t know the difference is enough to say the upgrade is worth it. Certainly, if you don’t already own the films, I’d err on picking these up over the previous Blu but replacing your Blu’s with the 4K might not be all that worth it.
Detail is strong and grain apparent (the film, framed at 2.35:1 was shot on 35mm).
The UHD disc comes with the same previously available Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio track from the Blu-ray release. Here’s what I wrote of the audio for that release:
[This audio] will knock your G.I. Joe action figures off your shelves. It’s a full-bodied and zealous audio filled with superb clarity in all the whizzes and bangs – and there are plenty of them. Dialogue is clean and clear and direction effects and immersive surround sounds are aplenty. Henry Jackman’s score also hits all the right notes, as it were, though isn’t as standout or thematically catchy as one might expect (though the restrained bombast compared to Alan Silvestri’s score for the first film is welcome). This is a fine audio for stretching your components.
Special Features: 3/5
An okay collection of special features assembled here. In addition to a reasonably good commentary track from the director and one of the producers, several behind the scenes featurettes covering key pieces of the filmmaking (visual effects, filming a key scene, character profiles, etc.) that in total runs just over 70 minutes. The almost four minutes of deletes scenes contains to revelations.
Commentary by director Jon M. Chu and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura
- Mission Briefing—A look at pre-production, previsualization, storyboards and more.
- Deployment— As filming begins, we take a closer look at the stunts, costumes and more.
- Two Ninjas—Focus on two G.I. JOE favorites, SNAKE EYES and JINX, and the filming of the Dojo sequence.
- The Desert Attack—An in-depth look at the filming of this pivotal action sequence.
- COBRA Strikes—Highlights of the villains featured in the film.
- The Lone Soldiers—Behind-the-scenes as ROADBLOCK, FLINT and LADY JAYE go on the run.
- The Monastery—An examination of the Himalayan escape sequence.
- Fort Sumter—An all-access view of the epic climax.
Familiarity with the first film isn’t necessary but the result certainly favors those familiar with the G.I. Joe universe. For many this film treats the G.I. Joe history with more respect than the 2009 film which may explain the feeling of how a familiarity to the G.I. Joe universe would have helped.
The Rock was a great casting choice for the film’s main protagonist – an intense actor at times whose likeability is as buff as his muscular tone and whose appeal in the world at the time was rising, and it’s positively stratospheric right now (2021).
G.I. Joe: Retaliation, following the release date delay by 9 months, was expected to falter at the box office. And like Paramount’s other ‘troubled’ production, World War Z around that time, the Joe sequel surprised many with a healthy opening weekend on its way to a global box office haul of $372 million. It may have taken in $30MM less domestically than the 2009 film, but the international markets more than offset that, helping it take in almost $70MM more in global receipts. But it wasn’t enough for Paramount to mount a sequel and it remained dormant until this year’s standalone Snake Eyes film which, by all accounts, has also disappointed.
For full disclosure I should note that the son of one of my good friends and colleagues appears in the film, briefly, as a young Storm Shadow during a flashback sequence.
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