Review: Dwayne Johnson and Adrianne Palicki make ‘GI Joe: Retaliation’ serious fun

I had fun with “G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra,” and I don’t remotely feel bad about it. Stephen Sommers isn’t a great overall storyteller, but when it comes to ridiculous action movies that seem giddy on their own invention, Sommers has done it right more often than wrong. I think “Van Helsing” is so bad and such a frustrating botch of a decent high concept that is almost erased any goodwill he’d ever built up as a director, but “G.I. Joe” felt like a nice rebound.

When I praised the film, I made the very clear distinction that I liked the energy with which he told the story and the reality that the movie created. I thought Channing Tatum was miscast in the lead, and when I recently rewatched the film, I feel like it’s pretty clear that Tatum hadn’t really relaxed into his own talents as a performer yet. I felt like the film had a pretty clear shot at kickstarting a series, and while I enjoyed it, I think Sommers didn’t care about doing “G.I. Joe” the way the fans would want to see, but instead used “G.I. Joe” as an excuse to make a Stephen Sommers movie that just happened to use a sort of sci-fi military premise that fit the title.

With “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” the new film that opens a week from today in theaters everywhere, I think the film is clearly in the hands of someone who grew up playing with the action figures and watching the original cartoon and also reading all of the comic books. Jon Chu is an ’80s kid, through and through, and he’s made a movie that honors the source material in spirit but that also works as a very energetic, very kinetic bit of pop filmmaking that should please action fans of pretty much any age.

The film opens with the Joe team in the field, on a mission, and it’s all pretty much there to show you the way they work together. The script by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick pretty much rebuilds the franchise with only one storyline that is carried over from one film to the next. When we last saw  Zartan, he had been infected by little nano-devices that allowed him to become someone else, and he had taken the place of the U.S. President. That’s exactly where he is as this movie begins, and he is ready to finally spring the next set of COBRA surprises.

First item on the agenda? Kill every Joe at once, then discredit them in the media, and erase them from the face of the Earth.

This film ultimately is the story of a small group of Joes who survive and their attempts to figure out why they were betrayed by their own government. They’ve dropped the power suits that were such an important part of the first film in favor of a far more traditional “Call Of Duty” shooter-style perspective in the action sequences. Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) is established early in the film as the guy that everyone looks up to. Not the leader in terms of chain of command, but absolutely the alpha male of the movie, and if you’re going to cast that person right now, you cast Dwayne Johnson. It worked for the “Fast and Furious” franchise (so well that they’re now thinking about spinning off his Luke Hobbs character into a stand-alone movie, reportedly), and it works for “G.I. Joe” as well. He depends on Flint (D.J. Cotrona), Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and to some extent Snake Eyes (Ray Park), and they all depend on him.

The bad guys are having a good time in this movie, with Firefly (Ray Stevenson) proving to be a big tall stack of badass alongside the new and upgraded Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey). Riding the line between good and bad, there’s Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), the mysterious ninja with the mysterious secret and the mysterious childhood and the mysterious best friend/worst enemy, Snake Eyes. Jonathan Pryce has a good time playing both the real President and the fake who obviously enjoys vilifying the Joe team members, believing them all to have been wiped out. The movie’s about the use of another city-destroying weapon, and as in the first film, there’s a scene where the thing gets used in a famous locale. In the first movie, they fired that nano-missile thing at the Eiffel Tower, and there was some crazy mayhem. Here, there’s a beat where a point has to be made, and London takes a whipping, and the Joes look outnumbered, pure and simple.

Bruce Willis makes his appearance later in the film, and he’s a last resort, the retired military man who the Joes are named after in the first place. Willis plays it as a guy who isn’t impressed by anything because he’s seen it all. When the Joes are betrayed, Joe Colton (Willis) doesn’t bat an eye. He just knows that there’s going to be some payback, and the Joes all seem to have fun with Willis. I’ll be honest, I could watch two solid hours of Adrianne Palicki rolling her eyes at Willis. She is a knockout in the film, and she is as credible in the action sequences as she is in the quieter moments.

DJ Catrona is fine, but he’s not given anything to do. Joseph Mazzello makes a stronger impression in his opening scenes, and Elodie Young is just right for playing the full-volume melodrama of the stuff between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. For those of you considering the two different versions and which to see first, I talked to Chu after the screening I saw of the film, and he said that the 3D process is something he resisted when making the film, but once he got into it, he found it really liberating. The 3D version is his preferred version, no doubt about it, and it’s definitely very pronounced. There’s a silly pulpy breathless quality to the filmmaking in general, and I think Chu seems like he really enjoyed shooting the action footage.

While “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is not a rough PG-13, I would say that parents need to decide how comfortable they are with some big swaths of military firefight and hand-to-hand combat. In my house, my wife has a big problem with movies that are all about whoever has the biggest gun is “right,” at least as far as the kids are concerned, They won’t be seeing this one in the theater, and they’ll be able to catch up with both films in the future. Looking at how well Chu paid off as a choice, there may be a lot more “G.I. Joe” in Paramount’s future. I will also point out that there is a prolonged sequence in the film where the Joes are actively working to kill “The President,” and there’s something crazy about a movie about these iconic American toys trying to take our Commander in Chief. Sure, we know he’s a fake, but there’s still a feeling that they’re doing something almost transgressive in those moments.

Whatever the case, this movie is breathless in all the right ways, and I think audiences will have fun with it. I had no idea what was going on in some scenes because I don’t know the source material very well at all, but overall, it’s pretty easy to jump in with this one and get what you’re watching right away. Sometimes you want a big fat slice of cheese, and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” definitely fits the bill.