Though G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was considered by many to be a complete and utter write-off, it also had a cartoonish and flippant sensibility that resulted in a decent box office haul, making its sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, inevitable. The sequel, however, which finds new director Jon M. Chu and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick attempt to overhaul the series, loses that camp buffoonery and replaces it with an all-too serious military realism that’s sluggish and irritating.
When Cobra member Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) assumes the identity of the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) with his nanomite technology and calls for the obliteration of the G.I. Joe initiative, only a few members make it out alive. Those that survive – Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) – must band together and find a way to stop Zartan and the other Cobra’s before the world as they know it is brought to a violent end.
An unusual blend of sequel and reboot, G.I. Joe: Retaliation picks up exactly where G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra left off, assuming most of the baggage the original left behind. Reese and Wernick use a ridiculously clunky opening to set the scene and introduce the new G.I. Joe team – this time lead by returnee Duke (Channing Tatum), whose exit is far too premature – before plunging the audience headfirst into a narrative that’s convoluted and chock-full of puerile dialogue and one-dimensional characters.
It’s only during one or two action sequences – a Himalayans set piece, in particular, is breathtaking, captured brilliantly by cinematographer Stephen F. Windon – that the film ramps up an inch or two, only to be crushed back down by an incessant need to please its target audience with futuristic gadgetry, brief female nudity (Lady Jaye delivers a supposedly meaningful speech about misogyny whilst half-naked and being ogled at through a TV screen by Flint) and lots and lots of explosions.
The whole thing is impaired further by Chu’s lifeless direction, which adds very little to proceedings. More than anything, it highlights the fact that a director best known for his work on the Step Up franchise and for bringing wild child Justin Bieber to the big screen is in no position to handle a big-scale action film, particularly one that wants so hard to reflect current political, environmental and warfare issues, when it should be more concerned with delivering on streamlined action.
It’s not even like the actors compensate for the middling narrative or downright redundant direction (the post-conversion 3D, too, is mostly a darkening waste of money). Johnson fails to inject much-needed energy like he did in Fast Five, while Palicki and Cotrona simply blend into the background for much of the film. It’s only Tatum and Bruce Willis as the original Joe who make any kind of impact, yet their roles are so limited that the audience are left to spend much of the time praying for some kind of a lifeline which, sadly, never comes.