G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was the second-worst Hasbro-derived sci-fi/action movie of summer 2009, a very competitive title. I'd like to say that the franchise only had room to go up, but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen would be sitting in the corner, taunting me if I did that, and it's best not to tempt the universe like that. So let's instead say that a worse G.I. Joe movie would have been startling as all hell, particularly since even the kind of people primed to like movies like The Rise of Cobra were pretty vocal about how much they didn't.
Happily, my characteristic rhetorical flourish of throwing an ironic reversal in at this point is totally unnecessary: G.I. Joe: Retaliation is so much better than the first movie by every imaginable yardstick other than its spectacularly bland title, that trying to cram them both into the same conceptual universe seems quite impossible and insulting to the sequel. It is, as a spin-off, much closer in both letter and spirit to the kind of stories told in the beloved '80s cartoon show and attendant toy line. As an independent narrative, it is more coherent and has a hugely more clearly-defined central conflict. Where the first film was edited to be as jangling and messy as all the unbridled hate for continuity could muster, the sequel is relatively clean legible, with multiple action sequences where you can plainly follow the principals through every step of their battle. Where the first film indulges in a sinfully ugly palette of synthetically boosted colors, the sequel keeps things to a shiny but plausible field of visually appealing tones. Where the first film plopped characters from the series' mythology in recklessly, just as banal fan service, the sequel limits itself to a containable, sensible number of feature protagonists and antagonists. Where the first film is a rancid violation of everything that makes cinema even a little bit tolerable in any regard, the sequel is merely empty and mediocre.
Sorry, I had ironic reversal blue balls.
But yeah, let's not get carried away with ourselves: Retaliation is not a particularly great motion picture. It is still, ultimately, a dumb and loud action movie, without the sense of humor or the visionary sense of how to stage a fight scene that would let it be a brilliant dumb action movie. Though I am compelled to say that switching the director up from Stephen Sommers to John M. Chu was an inspired, if off-kilter choice: having chiefly made his name with Step Up 2 the Streets, Step Up 3D - as fine a cheesy 3-D movie as has yet been made or, I daresay, shall ever be - and Justin Bieber: The Clearly Necessary Concert Doc, Chu surely doesn't sound like somebody ready to tell the story of a paramilitary group fighting an international terrorist organisation, and yet, think about it for a second. Dance pictures are about human bodies moving in intricate patterns relative to one another. Action pictures are about human bodies moving in intricate patterns relative to bullets. Honestly, it's so intuitively correct that the skills required to make one kind of movie exciting are broadly applicable to the other, I'm a little surprised we don't see more crossover (personally, I'm hoping for a John Woo melodrama about ballerinas).
Perhaps it's thus unsurprising that what is, by a fantastic margin the best thing in Retaliation, and plainly the best action sequence in months, is a battle sequence that's almost totally about bodies in motion. Two good guys are trying to escape down a cliff, and they are being chased by a whole army of bad guys, color-coded for our ease of use. There are swooping camera moves as the two sides race across cliff faces, swinging swords at each other (the part that was in the trailer); there are electrifying shots of speed and timing as characters race down ziplines. It is beautiful and exciting. Also, everybody involved is a ninja. Should have mentioned that. Automatic point for ninjas.
Nothing in the film comes at all close that level (my pick for second-best scene: a high-tech prison break that is brightly choreographed, but has some choppy editing), and like most action movies based on 25-year-old toy lines, any time that the action slows down, it's replaced by a frankly tedious go-nowhere plot in which the elite fighting squad called G.I. Joe (which, it was implied in the last film, was a multinational group; it is implied here to be a high-level division of the U.S. military) is betrayed by a man posing as the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce, having unseemly fun as a remorseless villain and giving unquestionably the most appealing performance in the movie), but who is actually an operative of the diabolical terror group Cobra, whose rise was the focus of the last 90 seconds of The Rise of Cobra. The specifics of the evil plot are convoluted more than they have any right to be: the fake president tricks all the nuclear of the world into giving up their nukes so that he can blindside them with an even more amazing superweapon that destroys a major world capital in one extravagantly well-done VFX sequence that lasts for about 20 seconds, kind of a shabby send-off for the literally millions of people who presumably die in that span, but that's the difference between a PG-13 and R rating, I suppose. If you don't show the unfathomable mass death, it's not in poor taste.
The film assembles a tidy group of characters left untapped by the first movie: Dwayne Johnson plays Roadblock, the highest-ranking Joe to survive Cobra's devastating attack on their compound (at least, until the third film sees fit to resurrect Channing Tatum's Duke, who puts in a few minutes of screentime before dying in a conspicuously off-screenish way), Bruce Willis plays General Joe Colton, who gave the Joes their name, and Adrianne Palicki, Ray Park, D.J. Cotrona, Elodie Yung, Ray Stevenson, Byung-hun Lee, and Luke Bracey fill in the various warm body roles on either side of the Joe/Cobra divide, not one of them given enough detail to have any sort of character to develop or personality to inhabit, though Palicki, as the featured woman, is of course given much cause to appear in skimpy outfits. You know, because counter-terrorism.
Obviously, it's not a character piece (though Lee's Storm Shadow and Park's Snake Eyes, the films two ranking techno-ninjas, have a relatively well-developed B-plot that feels like the relic of a much different screenplay), and if nothing else, Johnson and Tatum have outstanding buddy chemistry. That's not really enough to hang a movie on, and certainly, Retaliation spends a lot of time wandering, biding its time between explosions with largely irrelevant and anonymous busywork. Sometimes it flares to life, and it is moderately satisfactory mindless entertainment in those times (though as far as crappy action films at the multiplex right now, I unhesitatingly throw my vote behind Olympus Has Fallen: worse CGI and absolutely no sense of humor, but the action is more consistent and the stakes are more clearly defined). Still, it is ohmigod so much better than The Rise of Cobra, and that's really the only thing that a sane, if soul-deadened person could have demanded.