Aggressively nationalistic, shamelessly pro-violence and achingly, unrelenting and one suspects proudly idiotic, G.I. Joe: Retaliation marries the steroidal firepower of the US armed forces with the narrative sense and technical elegance of a twelve year old playing with his action figures. Directed by Jon M. Chu of Step Up 2: The Streets and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never fame, the film, a sequel to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, sees a brand new gang of testosterone fuelled commandoes do battle with their arch nemesis, the freedom hating, President kidnapping, puppy murdering* Cobra Command. Sadly, what should be just ridiculous enough to be entertaining instead forgoes any sense of campy or knowing fun in favour of straight-faced machismo and bloodless, unexciting action.
After the events of the previous film, the nefarious shape-shifter Zartan has assumed the identity of the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce; Pirates of the Caribbean), from whose high office he frames the Joe’s for the theft of Pakistani nuclear warheads. Their numbers decimated by a surprise military strike, it is left to the few surviving members of the elite task force, namely Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; Fast Five), Flint (D.J. Cotrona; Dear John) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki; Red Dawn) to expose the conspiracy and clear their late comrades’ names. But things are further complicated when the villainous ordinance expert Firefly (Ray Stevenson; Thor) and rogue ninja Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun; I Saw the Devil) free Cobra Commander from his subterranean prison.
Although admittedly better – or at least, less awful – than Battleship or the recent Transformers films, there is still no mistaking G.I. Joe: Retaliation for anything other than the jumped-up, big-budget toy commercial that it is. Chu’s 3D action sequences are bombastic but tensionless, conceived and shot to offer adolescent viewers maximum opportunity to drool over the high-tech weaponry (the one exception being an impressive rope-swinging sword fight in the Himalayan Mountains). The characters, meanwhile, are written with all the depth and personality of the 3¾ inch slabs of plastic on which they’re based; that almost none of the actors from the previous film have returned presumably has more to do with the needs of the Hasbro merchandising department to sell a new line of action figures then it does with the integrity of the franchise as a whole.
At least The Rock has screen presence. Catrona and Palicki, on the other hand, appear to have been cast on little more than their blandly all-American looks. The latter’s mid-film monologue about being an empowered woman in the military is woefully unconvincing, especially considering that the total number of female characters with dialogue in this film is two. Korean actor Lee Byung-hun, a genuine talented in his native tongue, is equally unimpressive; a subplot involving his characters antagonistic relationship with Joe affiliated ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park; TVs Heroes) is underdeveloped and feels totally extraneous, although is almost worth it for the ridiculous cameo by Wu-Tang Clan frontman RZA as the sightless master of an ancient Japanese dojo.
Frankly, such absurdities are the movie’s only saving grace. Cobra Commander’s endgame is eventually revealed to involve an international summit, where Zartan plans to blackmail the leaders of the free world into destroying their nuclear arsenals, leaving them at the mercy of Cobra’s newly developed orbital weapons system “Project Zeus”. As Jonathan Price, intercut with images of giant Cobra banners being unfurled from the top of the White House façade, hams his way through a scene that makes the War Room sections of Dr. Strangelove look like C-SPAN footage, Chu and his writers, for the briefest of moments, seem to leave behind the tiresome “America f*ck yeah” fist-pumping and fully embrace the inherent goofiness of the material with which they are working.
Sadly, the fun is not to last, as the movies’ heroes’ storm to the rescue, guns blazing, engines flaring, brains well and truly left in neutral. The movie even wheels out Bruce Willis, cashing his second big pay cheque this month after Die Hard 5, as General Joseph Colton, the man after whom the G.I. Joe’s are named. Colton’s gigantic stockpile of unregistered guns, hidden in ever cupboard and cutlery draw in his unassuming suburban home, is meant to get us all pumped up for the big final shootout. That G.I. Joe: Retaliation was released on the same day that details emerged surrounding the full arsenal of weapons found in the home of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza is an unfortunate coincidence, but may nonetheless leave you with a sour taste in your mouth when you consider the average age of this movies’ target audience.