G.I. Joe: Retaliation Review - An Improvement On The Original In Every Way

Here's a film with a lot stacked against it. Stephen Sommers' execrable G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra opened to a critic-wide drubbing and barely cracked $300m at the box office which, for a film costing almost $200m, isn't exactly a glowing endorsement for a sequel. Somehow, the star-studded follow-up, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, has finally made it to our screens, incredulously receiving a budget in excess of the original's, while the majority of critics will be going in dubious over a 9-month release delay, reportedly to add 3D to the film, though rumoured to largely be re-shoots in order to take advantage of Channing Tatum's fast rise to fanfare last year. It would be remiss to call G.I. Joe a particularly good film by any conventional standard, but it is a fun, breezy time at the cinema and a massive improvement over the original in terms of direction, writing and acting. Packed with absurd action, sly humour, beefy leading men and gorgeous leading ladies, Retaliation ticks most of the boxes that the original failed to, and though ultimately completely disposable as an entertainment, it will do the job on a Friday night after a few beers. Though most won't care to remember, The Rise of Cobra concluded with the evil Zartan (Arnold Vosloo, who is mostly relegated to a few CGI glimpses and nothing more here) having assumed the identity of the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce, again slumming it like he means it). In Retaliation, he ends up slaughtering most of the G.I. Joes and frames them as traitors, while freeing the villainous Cobra Commander. The survivors, led by Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), seek help from General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis) - the G.I. Joe - to stop Cobra Commander's plan of holding the world hostage with a powerful weapon of mass destruction. Two things are clear about the 9-month delay to G.I. Joe: Retaliation; it sure as Hell wasn't spent giving Channing Tatum anymore screen-time - he's in the film for around 20 minutes - but in taking his time with the 3D post-conversion (a usually unsavoury tactic), director John M. Chu (Step Up 3D, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) delivers one of the crisper experiences of three-dimensional blockbuster action in recent memory. Controlling the chaos with a coherence lacking in too many actioners these days, spatial awareness is at an all-time high, and slow-motion is judiciously employed for the lightning-fast ninja moves throughout (especially during a perilous mountain-side ninja battle royale, ostensibly the film's highlight). The plot is, appropriately enough, not much more complex than what a kid might concoct while acting out combat with a bunch of action figures, though that's largely to the film's benefit. The narrative arc is for the most part incidental to the banter between the soldiers - Johnson and Tatum's gassing at the start demonstrates sure chemistry - and the action which, like the game of Call of Duty the pair are playing at the start of the game, is largely concerned with offense and defense-based objectives that cause as much mayhem as possible. Only one glaring plot point doesn't stick well at all - the mid-film allegiance shift of one character - whereas the rest keeps refreshingly to the point. One unexpected pleasure, however, is the charming hilarity of the script; Johnson's likeable persona makes the various zingers and one-liners go down a treat even when little of interest is happening story or action-wise. Moreover, there's a truly novel political self-awareness; barbed gags aimed at Fox News and the absurdity of nuclear warfare make this a rare action pic that wears its left-wing politics on its sleeve even if it still has time to keenly salute the troops by the time the credits roll. Daring to question the absurdity of mutually assured destruction while delivering some entertaining action and smart laughs, this is one sequel that papers over the cracks of the original, even if there's still room for number three to be much better. Some of the supporting turns are a bit questionable - not enough Bruce Willis and too much RZA - but by and large this is a surprisingly good time that deserves at least a modicum of success. Benefiting hugely from rock-bottom expectations, G.I. Joe: Retaliation sets a low bar that it clears effortlessly thanks to Johnson's charismatic performance and a humourous script that demonstrates surprising political awareness. G.I. Joe: RetaliationG.I. Joe: Retaliation is in cinemas today.
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Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.