I had a soft spot for 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and I have a soft spot for this, even with its flaws. If you remember the end of the last film (and never mind if you didn’t), Zartan is impersonating the President of the United States in one step of Cobra Commander’s grand plan for world domination.
I think this is supposed to take place right after the last film, but no matter. All you need to know is that the President is not the real President, and the Joes are not aware of it. They’re busy raiding a nuclear arms facility in Pakistan — a mission devised by Zartan (Arnold Vosloo/Jonathan Pryce) to wipe out the Joes when they call for transport after the mission.
All of them, save for Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Roadblock (The Rock), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) are killed. Fortunately Snake Eyes (Ray Park) is away on another mission training with Jinx (Elodie Yung) and quite possibly the worst actor in the entire film, RZA as the aptly named Blind Master.
Meanwhile Firefly (Ray Stevenson), whose army of exploding robotic fireflies would seem like a dead giveaway to anyone who’d expect to fight him, and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) who is somehow able to bring a knife to a gunfight and still survive, infiltrate the high-security prison where Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) and Destro were stored after their capture in the last film. Cobra Commander is sprung, while Storm Shadow is injured and sent to a mountain monastery to recuperate. Jinx and Snake Eyes are sent to track him down while Flint, Roadblock, and Lady Jaye hide out in Roadblock’s old neighborhood, trying to figure out who was behind the desert ambush.
The biggest positive of this film is that it’s not difficult keeping track of all 12 major characters, which may sound like lackluster praise, but then it was one of the many, many problems with Michael Bay’s Transformer movies. The director, Jon M. Chu (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never), replacing Stephen Sommers, also takes time to get to know the Joes, adding a bit to the relationship between Roadblock and Duke (Channing Tatum) as well as more depth to Storm Shadow than any film based on a line of toys should give. For the most part they’re just faces and costumes, but after sitting through The Host’s two hours with half the characters, Retaliation is miles beyond that film in terms of character development.
But of course there’s a lot of faults. The action scenes in particular are so erratically shot that it’s difficult, even impossible at times, to understand who’s doing what to whom. The editing in Roadblock’s final fight with Firefly appears to be hacked by a digital machete it’s so confusing. Snake Eyes’ confrontation with Storm Shadow is almost equally muddled and has the added low of stealing directly from The Matrix — not just bullet-time, either, but specific moves and shots. And their ziplined escape from the monastery appears to have been meticulously planned by the two, but the movie never shows that part, so we’re not sure what in the sequence was actually planned by the characters and what is spontaneous.
It’s also a victim of its plotting. For an action film, it’s loaded down with a story that’s constantly reiterating bits of information that we already know. The President, for example, is early on revealed to be an imposter, yet the entire second act of the film is based around the Joes trying to catch up. The Joes even know that he’s an imposter, but they have to prove it to another character in return for his help, and how they do so is handled like a chore for the screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Zombieland). Similarly, the final plot of Zartan and Cobra Commander has almost no set up. But the plan is pretty clever, and sets up a good-enough Angry Birds joke.
With a little more effort, especially in the direction of its action scenes, this could have been impressive, but ultimately it’s just coasting on its brands whether it’s the toy line or The Rock (I do love Cobra Commander’s costume). No one’s expecting anything great from this flick; sometimes people just like to watch toy commercials. And Patton’s gun, at least the most famous one, was a revolver, not a pistol.