After a clunky, expository, digital trading cards-style recap of the status of the applicable major players following the events of The Rise of Cobra, the movie gets off to a promising start. In particular, the chemistry between Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock and Channing Tatum as Duke is loose and playful in all the right ways. Was Retaliation more of a buddy comedy actioner built upon this solid foundation it might have nailed the slippery tone necessary to make a concept this inherently laughable work.
Unfortunately for audiences who will inevitably see it anyway, the plot makes other demands. Ripping off the basic premise of The A-Team, the G.I. Joes are framed for treason and decimated by the government under orders from the president (Jonathan Pryce), who has been replaced (borrowing the Senator Kelly ploy from X-Men) by master of shape-shifting Nanomite disguises Zartan (Arnold Vosloo, reprising his role).
The remaining Joe crew is overly reliant on second-stringer Flint (D.J. Cotrona is about as charismatic as a department store mannequin), leaving Dwayne Johnson and Adrianne Palicki as Lady Jaye to shoulder the burden of carrying the film.
As capable as those two are at transmuting mediocre material into reasonably entertaining fare, the story spreads its focus over a couple of subplots that tie in to the lacklustre grand finale, each of which is as uneven as the primary narrative thrust. Most notable of these is the ongoing feud between Storm Shadow (South Korean superstar Lee Byung-hun, I Saw the Devil) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park).
Knowing what he has in Lee — a handsome and very capable actor — director Jon M. Chu (Fast Five) makes sure to take every opportunity to strip the white suited ninja to the waist and pull his mask off. A showdown between the two fan favourite swordsmen is among the film's highlights and the subsequent rope swinging ninja battle is a show-stopping action set piece, even though having a bunch of tiny masked men swinging up your eye sockets in 3D is a tad invasive.
On the flip side, the martial arts storyline also gave Chu the atrocious idea to cast RZA as a wise guru type. His complete inability to act or enunciate is, quite frankly, embarrassing and serves as a wet fart in the face of suspension of disbelief. Elsewhere, veteran actors like Walton Goggins, Ray Stevenson and Jonathan Pryce spice up every scene they're in, fully recognizing when it's appropriate to start gnawing on the scenery like rodents riding a sugar rush.
Jabs at North Korea and the American public's support for aggressive foreign policy are sure to garner cheap laughs, but they're not enough to keep the simple revenge story of Retaliation from sputtering out of control. Even the inclusion of Bruce Willis, for what amounts to an extended cameo, and a number of unexpected twists fail to tip the scales.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation takes a big, glistening, muscle bound swing but comes up with a miss. (Paramount)