Framed for crimes against the country, the G.I. Joe team is terminated by the President's order, and the surviving team members face off against Zartan, his accomplices, and the world leaders he has under his influence.
To call 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' a sequel is a bit misleading. Really, it's an apology. After years of development and countless false starts, a live action adaptation of the hugely-popular 1980s G.I. Joe toy line finally came to cinema screens in 2009 under the title 'G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra'. Directed by Stephen Sommers of 'Van Helsing' notoriety, the film was not just a desecration of a beloved property from my (and many others') childhood, but an abomination against even the most basic competencies of filmmaking, storytelling and elementary school education. (Seriously, who doesn't know that ice floats in water?) Naturally, that didn't stop it from making tons of money, as terrible movies so often do. Remarkably, however, it was so bad that even most of the people responsible for making it felt the need to start over from scratch with the franchise's next entry.
Even at the time of the 'Rise of Cobra' travesty, I held out some measure of hope for a sequel. The G.I. Joe character roster is so extensive that a follow-up movie could easily focus on an entirely different group of characters and completely ignore anything that happened in the first film. Dump most of the original cast, hire some real movie stars and (most importantly) fire nitwit hack Stephen Sommers, and you can make a quick and painless reboot without necessarily even admitting that you had to reboot the franchise after just one movie. In a lot of ways, that's pretty much what 'Retaliation' does.
Officially, the movie is a direct sequel to 'Rise of Cobra', but if you've forgotten (or never seen) the events of that one, some quick recapping at the beginning will fill in all you need to know. The G.I. Joe team is now led by Duke (Channing Tatum). Cobra Commander and Destro, the two top leaders of the evil Cobra terrorist organization, have been imprisoned. However, master-of-disguise Zartan has kidnapped and is currently impersonating the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce).
Near the beginning of the picture, the evil President frames the Joes for treason and helps Cobra launch a sneak attack that wipes out almost the entirety of the team. This is a pretty convenient method of cleaning the slate. Only three of our Real American Heroes survive the assault: Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona), none of whom were in the last movie. On the run, this trio recruits the help of the original G.I. Joe himself, retired General Joseph Colton (Bruce Willis), to expose the fake President and foil Cobra's latest scheme to take over the world.
Separate from this, badass mute ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park, who was in the last movie) and his apprentice Jinx raid a Cobra fortress in the Himalayas to abduct Storm Shadow (whose apparent death at the end of 'Rise of Cobra' is not at all addressed) for reasons that are basically meaningless and only serve as an excuse for Storm Shadow to switch teams. For the majority of the film, these two storylines don't intersect and seem to take place in entirely different movies.
The rest of the plotting is insignificant. Lots of guns get fired, ninja swords slice, and stuff goes boom, all in bloodless PG-13 fashion.
Unlike the idiot Stephen Sommers, new director Jon M. Chu actually knows a thing or two about G.I. Joe and tries very hard to course-correct the franchise. He keeps the characters reasonably true to their comic book origins (technically, G.I. Joe started as a toy line first, but most fans consider the '80s comic written by Larry Hama to be the "canon") and loads the movie with familiar iconography that fans will appreciate. Its best scene is an extended homage to the famous comic book issue called 'Silent Interlude', which plays out an epic ninja battle without any dialogue. (The scene also functions pretty well as an homage to Shaw Bros. martial arts movies from the '70s.)
Chu takes 'Retaliation' seriously as a G.I. Joe movie, and as an action movie in general. While the film will never be mistaken as deep or intellectual, most of the egregious stupidity that plagued 'Rise of Cobra' has been pared back here. The screenplay by 'Zombieland' writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick effectively mixes in some humor and, more importantly, makes the characters likeable enough that we don't spend the whole movie wishing that we could punch each and every one of them in the face, as happened the last time. (That wasn't just me, was it?)
Johnson is ideally cast as Roadblock. As much as I disliked Channing Tatum in the last movie, I've warmed to him greatly since '21 Jump Street'. He's loosened up considerably as an actor. He and Johnson have great rapport. Bruce Willis is a welcome presence in any action movie, but honestly, he's barely in this one for more than a couple of scenes. His level of disinterest may not be as bad here as in, for example, this year's 'A Good Day to Die Hard', but he's clearly coasting and has just shown up to cash a paycheck.
Supporting players are more of a mixed bag. Palicki is OK, but Cotrona barely registers. Hip-hop star RZA pops in for a bit part, and he's absolutely atrocious. I don't understand how anyone could watch the dailies from his footage and not immediately hire another actor to redub all his lines. On the other hand, Walton Goggins from 'The Shield' and 'Justified' is a lot of fun in a small role.
The movie was originally scheduled for release in the summer of 2012, but Paramount yanked it at the last minute, allegedly to give it the 3D conversion treatment. However, rumor rapidly spread that the studio actually panicked after poor test screenings and demanded reshoots, specifically to add more Tatum. Indeed, some of the actor's scenes feel like they were shoehorned in after-the-fact. A lame action scene at the end also reeks of being thrown together quickly.
By and large, 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' is a quantum leap improvement over the godawful 'Rise of Cobra'. Of course, that's not a particularly high bar to clear. Sadly, the new movie is still fairly dull, tepid and generic PG-13 fodder. Even as the plot attempts to put the fate of the entire world at stake, none of the action ever has any consequences and I felt my interest level progressively draining. Still, with worldwide box office earnings that outgrossed the previous movie, perhaps it may lead the way to better sequels in the future.
Paramount Home Entertainment offers 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' in a few Blu-ray options. The standard 2-disc set contains a Blu-ray disc and a DVD plus a redemption code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. The 3-disc set under review here adds to that a Blu-ray 3D disc and a slipcover with lenticular artwork. Walmart stores will have an exclusive SteelBook edition of the 3-disc set, while Best Buy has a listing for something called the Extended Action Cut (also available overseas from Amazon UK). Details on that last one are unconfirmed at the time of this writing, though it appears to be 2D only.
If your Blu-ray player has BD-Live enabled, both the 2D and 3D discs will stream a forced trailer before the main menu. Once you get through that, you'll be presented with your choice of G.I. Joe or Cobra menu themes. (Other than the logo and color, they're not terribly different.)
For the purposes of this review, I watched the movie first entirely in 2D, and then again in 3D. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer for the 2D edition is, essentially, perfect. The movie's photography is rich and contrasty, with vividly saturated colors and inky black levels that don't compromise shadow detail. I'm not a fan of the color grading, which suffers the clichéd teal-and-orange look common to just about every damn movie made today. (Every actor's skin is orange, and even the snow in the Himalayas is teal.) I won't hold that against the technical quality of the disc, though.
The 2.40:1 image is also exceptionally sharp and detailed. The movie was shot on 35mm film. Grain structure is preserved without any artificial Noise Reduction filtering. The grain is more prominent in dark scenes than bright ones, but it adds an appropriate filmic texture and is never distracting.
No other unwanted digital artifacts stand out. I'm a nit-picker by nature and often strain to find things wrong with a video image, but couldn't spot any here. If I were reviewing only the 2D disc, I'd be inclined to give this a perfect score. However, our Video rating is a composite for both 2D and 3D, which forces me to knock it down a star for reasons explained below.
The 3D: Stepping into the Third Dimension
I saw 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' theatrically in 3D and wasn't impressed. The Blu-ray doesn't change that opinion much. The movie was originally scheduled for release in 2012 without any mention of 3D. The year's delay in release was allegedly imposed to give it a 3D conversion, which suggests that 3D was a last-minute decision made after production and photography. On the other hand, director Chu had previously worked in 3D on one of the 'Step Up' movies and the Justin Bieber concert documentary, so I can't be sure whether he planned for the conversion all along or not.
The end result is modestly effective in a few scenes. The opening animated prologue recap recalls a 'Call of Duty' game and makes fun use of layering images on multiple planes. Certain shots in the early action sequences work really well with a sense of depth, and I could be convinced that they were staged with 3D in mind. Yet the frantic camerawork in other shots and the constant rapid-fire editing don't mix well with 3D at all.
In other moments, bullets and ninja throwing stars fly toward the camera, and CG fighter jets poke briefly out of the screen. The mountainside ninja battle is not just the best scene in the film; it's also by far the best 3D showcase. The added depth enhances the perception of height and actually makes the action choreography easier to follow.
Unfortunately, the 3D is largely superfluous and adds little to the rest of the movie. The majority of shots in the film have only minimal depth or suffer gimmicky pop-up-book layering of flat images. Character faces almost never have any roundness to their features. An actor's nose rests on the same flat plane as his eyes or mouth.
I'd rate the 3D on this disc about a 3 out of 5. Combined with the 2D, that leaves me with consolidated score of 4 stars. Overall, I found the 2D version more enjoyable to watch.
Wow, what a fantastic, slam-bang action movie soundtrack this is. The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 track on the Blu-ray (both 2D and 3D discs) has hyper-aggressive surround activity (I love the dialogue in the rear channels during the prologue recap) and thunderous explosions. Despite this, the mix never feels swamped or bloated with bass. Dialogue is always clear and sound effects are crisply rendered. The shriek of metallic ninja swords clashing pierces the high end just as effectively as the dubstep music thumps in the low end.
Personally, I'd prefer an action movie soundtrack to be a little less bombastic, and to better balance quiet moments (even the extended dialogue-free passage here is noisy as hell) with all the sound and fury. By the end of the picture, I'd started to feel that the droning score and the assaultive sound effects had worn me down. However, that's more of an artistic issue than a technical one, and I can't fault the disc for it.
All of the bonus features are found on the standard 2D Blu-ray in the set. The 3D disc has none, nor does the DVD. I will assume, however, that standalone retail copies of the DVD edition should contain this same content.
As far as I'm concerned, 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' marks the first time that the G.I. Joe franchise has actually appeared on screen in live action form. That garbage in the 'Rise of Cobra' movie bore no resemblance to anything I know as G.I. Joe. Sadly, being a quantum leap improvement in every level still only means that the new film rises to the level of mediocrity. Whether that's all the fault of the writers and director, or too much studio and Hasbro corporate interference, I can't say. I wish it were a better movie, but at least I can recognize it as G.I. Joe. Hopefully, it's successful enough to pave the way for improvement in future sequels.
For its part, the 2D Blu-ray both looks and sounds pretty spectacular. The 3D is largely wasted and not essential, but has its moments. Bonus content is fair, if not as illuminating as one might hope. I'll rate this a qualified recommendation for G.I. Joe fans. General viewers will probably have less patience for it.
Now you know, and that's important, I guess.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.