I can't profess to being a fan of the G.I. Joe universe, but I can swear allegiance to over-the-top cartoon action films. This was the main reason why I fell head over heels for Stephen Sommers' G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra back in 2009. Not having to worry about fealty to the source material, I found the Joes' first live-action outing to be an absolute blast, filled with grandiose play-set sequences and an aesthetic that knew it was based off a Saturday morning cartoon. While G.I. Joe: Retaliation has some of that spirit in it, it feels compromised in far too many areas to reach the childish absurdity of its predecessor.
The first compromise we're forced to deal with is the cast. With the exception of Ray Park portraying the stoic (and non-speaking) Snake Eyes, the entire hero roster has been replaced (minus a criminally underutilized Channing Tatum) with a crew made out of cardboard. Even Dwayne Johnson (who I'm a die hard fan of) gives a very by-the-numbers performance as de facto leader Roadblock. Only at the very beginning do we get some face time with him, but it's not enough to last throughout the picture. Even Bruce Willis feels checked out here, and I know he still has the capacity to deliver stellar work after seeing him in Looper. This feels like a quick trip to the bank for him. And the less said about D.J. Cotrona, the better. He is a black hole of personality. I actually thought his underplayed demeanor was going to mean he would end up being a traitor, but I was wrong. He's just like that, I guess. Rounding out the Joes is the token smokin' hot female member, played by Adrianne Palicki. She's alright, but the fault with her character lies in the writing more than her performance. An attempt to give her some emotional backstory concerning her father falls flat, and since that's the only real trait she's saddled with, she ends up just being another piece of eye candy for the teenage boys to ogle.
However, the villains in this movie do seem to be having fun, especially Jonathan Pryce as the impostor President. He's easily the best part of the film, chewing up lines like he never left the set of Tomorrow Never Dies. It's a fiendish delight every time he's onscreen. Also worth mentioning is Ray Stevenson as main henchman Firefly. While he doesn't get quite enough screen-time, he still goes all out in each scene he's in, laying on one of the best (and thickest) bad guy accents I've heard in a while. He certainly gets the best gag in the film when his motorcycle disassembles into a bunch of missiles. Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, stepping into the sorely missed Joseph Gordon Levitt's jackboots) also doesn't get quite enough time to really cast an imposing shadow, but he does an admirable job. His motivation is wonderfully delivered when he responds to the question of, "What do you want?" with a pitch perfect, "I want it all."
The only one lacking in the charisma department is Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow, but that's more to do with his strange and out-of-place subplot. In fact, both he and Snake Eyes fall victim to this side-story so much that it actually pulls down the rest of the film. The only redeeming qualities come from a special appearance by RZA as a blind master, and the best action sequence in the film. You've seen it in all the trailers, the ninja fight alongside a mountain. It's exactly the kind of juvenile action figure mentality the rest of the movie doesn't seem interested in.
And that's where the biggest (and most fatal) compromise comes into play for G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The original film went out of its way to sell itself as an off-the-wall kids' product, complete with an attack on an underwater base and super-suits that enhanced the wearer's strength and speed. This sequel seems to think that people wanted a more "down to earth" take on the Joes, trading in most of its cartoonish heritage for a rather drab and more realistic aesthetic. You get little cartoony flourishes here and there (that motorcycle missile bit being the cream of the crop) but they are all in the first half of the film. The big climactic battle at the end is just people shooting people and some tanks. That's it. For something as outlandish as G.I. Joe, final battles should take place in space or something equally ridiculous. This film seems stripped down (I'm sure the budget is a big factor) and less silly, which is a disappointment after the goofy glee of the first movie. For a film that is tailor-made to sell toys, G.I. Joe: Retaliation feels like a bare bones package. Director Jon Chu is supposed to be helming a new version of Masters of the Universe, and if it's visual palette is anything like this film, I won't be too excited for another trip into Eternia (not that I'm at all excited for a Masters of the Universe movie).
G.I. Joe: Retaliation is at best a decent distraction, but it fails every criteria set by its predecessor. If another sequel is coming our way (and the box office returns seem to solidify that eventuality), I hope it returns to the outlandish roots it spawns from. This is a Saturday morning cartoon made into a feature film for God's sake. If there aren't lasers, robots or a guy dressed like a giant snake, I may just stay home and make a movie with my action figures.