“Knowing is half the battle” was one of the most popular catchphrases to come out of the classic G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoon from the 1980s. Always uttered after the educational, public-service shorts that accompanied each episode of the cartoon, the line was intended to let kids know that avoiding live power lines and stranger danger (among other dangers to be aware of) was another important part of the war G.I. Joe was fighting. It all contributed to confirm that G.I. Joe, despite the constant warfare, was a show for kids.
The G.I. Joe team has come a long way since those early, toy-promoting battles with the villainous forces of Cobra. But with the upcoming premiere of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, that catchphrase has some relevance again today – but for very different reasons. The biggest obstacle in the box-office battle for Retaliation just might be audiences’ knowledge of the film’s predecessor, 2009’s disappointing G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.
Now under the direction of Step Up 2: The Streets and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never director Jon Chu, Retaliation effectively – and successfully – reboots the live-action G.I. Joe franchise with an almost entirely new cast and various tweaks to the tone and continuity of the franchise. While Channing Tatum and several other members of The Rise of Cobra cast return for Retaliation, the focus is clearly on the new blood this time around – though fan-favorite ninjas Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow both return and have expanded roles in this second film.
The film’s story begins with the G.I. Joe team being framed by a shape-shifting Cobra soldier posing as the U.S. President (a situation teased at the end of The Rise of Cobra). They’re later attacked in an explosive ambush, and the surviving members of the team must go underground to regroup. In order to expose the impostor in the White House and bring the recently freed Cobra Commander to justice, the team gets in touch with the G.I. Joe who started it all: General Joe Colton (Bruce Willis). As Cobra Commander’s world-shaking plans become clear, it’s up to the remaining members of the G.I. Joe team to stop Cobra, save the (real) President, and clear their names.
The team in this iteration of G.I. Joe is led by series newcomer Roadblock, a massive heavy-weaponry specialist played by Dwayne Johnson. The wrestler-turned-actor is a nice fit for the role, and though it doesn’t push him the way some of his other recent roles have (Snitch, for example), he’s clearly in his comfort zone with tough-guy roles like this. He seems to be enjoying the part, and Roadblock’s debut benefits from his enthusiasm.
Other new additions on the G.I. Joe side include Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), who doesn’t add much to the story beyond eye candy, and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), whose sole purpose seems to be taking orders and then disobeying them (he’s a loose cannon!). Elodie Yung joins the cast as female ninja Kim “Jinx” Arashikage, who shares in some pretty spectacular fight scenes and holds her own alongside Ray Park’s Snake Eyes, which is no small feat.
Rounding things out is Bruce Willis as Gen. Joe Colton, the founder of G.I. Joe, who gets some of the film’s best lines (but precious little action). Wu-Tang Clan rapper-turned-actor RZA also makes a brief cameo as the sight-impaired sensei for Snake Eyes and Jinx, Blind Master.
On the Cobra side, the most significant addition is Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone) as the pyromaniac mercenary Firefly, who provides a nice counterpart to Roadblock and wields some of the film’s coolest weapons and high-tech equipment. Luke Bracey takes over the Cobra Commander role played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Rise of Cobra, but he’s only seen without his mask for a fleeting moment and spends most of the movie talking through a voice modulator.
Of the returning characters, ninja rivals Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) receive some of the best attention in both action sequences and story arcs during Retaliation, with Storm Shadow getting as much screen time as his silent G.I. Joe counterpart this time around. Their beefed-up presence in Retaliation likely stems from fans’ feedback to The Rise of Cobra, which heavily favored more ninja action in future installments of the series.
This sort of fan service feels like a recurring theme in Retaliation, which does a better job of blending mainstream appeal with fans’ expectations than its predecessor. It doesn’t hurt that the director of Retaliation clearly has a knack for eye-catching choreography, either.
There are quite a few impressive set pieces in Retaliation, but the most memorable is a sequence featuring Snake Eyes and Jinx fleeing a mountaintop Cobra stronghold by grappling, swinging, and mid-air fighting their way across a sheer cliff while transporting some precious cargo. It’s a long scene consisting of some great slow-motion action shots and spectacular choreography that blurs the line between practical effects and computer-generated elements. The sequence also serves as a showcase for the film’s 3-D effects, which do a nice job of immersing the audience instead of distracting from the movie.
It’s also worth noting that despite all of the action, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a relatively bloodless feature. At times, the PG-13 film feels like a study in implied violence, with Storm Shadow viciously slicing, stabbing, and otherwise cutting his way through good and bad guys alike without a single drop of blood to be seen. Chu accomplishes this by framing all of the action so that the messy results of sword and gun fights are always just outside the shot, leaving the audience to mentally fill in the bloody picture. It’s something you might not notice unless you’re looking for it, which makes it an even more impressive accomplishment.
While G.I. Joe: Retaliation doesn’t quite hit the high marks set by other notable second-chapter installments of comic-book and action-figure genre films (a la Spider-Man 2 or X-Men 2), it improves on its predecessor in a big way and helps erase some of the ill-will and skepticism generated by The Rise of Cobra. Retaliation is a genuinely fun, popcorn adventure that leaves you looking forward to the next installment instead of wondering if the franchise is worth saving.
And with hundreds of G.I. Joe characters that have yet to make their live-action debut, there’s more than enough source material to fuel a third movie and give people a reason to yell “Yo, Joe!” again.