Comedy legends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner get together almost every night to watch a movie, and Reiner says they love movies that contain the line “Secure the perimeter!”
Note to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner: Rent “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” the moment it becomes available on home video. It’s your kind of movie.
“Retaliation” is a sequel that doesn’t want to be a sequel. For starters, almost the entire cast of 2009’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” is missing, presumed dead, and the original star, Channing Tatum, dies in the first 20 minutes.
If “Retaliation” had been released last summer, as originally planned, I would have considered that a spoiler. But it has been well established that “Retaliation” was yanked from the release schedule at the last minute because preview audiences were incensed the filmmakers would kill off Tatum’s character, Duke, the leader of the elite special forces team called G.I. Joe.
The sequel’s release date was pushed back until this spring so that Tatum could shoot additional scenes, (as well as to convert “Retaliation” to 3-D, which does little except spoil the movie’s look). Many people believed this meant the moviemakers would magically un-kill Tatum, but the new footage all occurs before Duke’s demise.
Turns out that the added scenes don’t reduce the sting of Tatum’s death so much as ease the transition to the new star, Dwayne Johnson, whose character is code-named Roadblock (they all go by catchy code names, in case you’re not up to speed with the G.I. Joe mythos). “Rise of Cobra” was a team movie that maintained the spirit of the 1980s comics and cartoons that inspired it, but “Retaliation” is an often brutal action vehicle for The Rock. Johnson may as well go back to calling himself The Rock when he makes movies like this, just as serious authors used pen names when they wrote paperback thrillers.
The Joes are sent to secure nuclear warheads in Pakistan, now in the midst of a civil war. They do this without a hitch, but as they wait for the transport planes that will bring them home, a squadron of friendly gunships swoops in and blasts them all to kingdom come. Only three Joes survive, Roadblock and a pair of young and sexy recruits, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona).
With the help of a few tight-fitting outfits, Palicki at least makes an impression, but Cotrona is so bland it’s a wonder he was chosen to survive the ambush.
Roadblock tells the others they were betrayed by their leaders and that they must prove their innocence by tracking down the villains and foiling their scheme, which is the underlying plot of all but one of the “Mission: Impossible” movies. By an unexplained leap of logic, Roadblock intuits that they were betrayed at the very top.
“There’s only one man who can authorize a strike like that,” he says, “and I voted for him.”
Sure enough, technical genius Lady Jaye determines that the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce) is an impostor, because he used to say “pop” and now he says “soda.”
Viewers of the first film already knew this, because it concluded with Cobra’s master of disguise Vartan taking the president’s place. The phony president calls a news conference to accuse the Joes of attempting to steal Pakistan’s nukes, and announces that, thank goodness, all the traitors were killed in that air strike.
One other Joe has survived, the silent and faceless ninja Snake Eyes, because the filmmakers would have been insane to get rid of the franchise’s most popular character. Again played by martial artist Ray Park, Snake Eyes features in a convoluted subplot practically annexed onto the rest of the movie. He and a new character, the female ninja Jinx (Elodie Yung), sneak into a Himalayan monastery to capture his sworn enemy, Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee).
This leads up to the sequel’s one genuinely thrilling sequence, a dizzying cliffside battle, where Snake Eyes and Jinx take on a ninja army while rappelling at high speeds and swinging from one Himalayan mountain face to the next. All of this is impossible — at the height depicted, they would need oxygen masks – but it is crazy fun in the middle of a movie that is needlessly grim.
While “Rise of Cobra,” directed by Stephen Sommers, was a summer popcorn movie at its most disposable, it was aware of itself. It established a comic book world where the good guys could have a massive subterranean base beneath the Sahara, and the bad guys could have a massive subaquatic base beneath the polar ice cap.
The sequel, directed by Jon M. Chu (of the second and third “Step Up” movies), throws away that stylized setting and mistakenly sets up shop in the real world. A grown man wearing a Halloween costume like Snake Eyes looks natural in an underground base with rows of CGI tanks in the background, but looks ridiculous strolling through a suburban home.
The suburban home belongs to a retired general played by Bruce Willis in a performance that would qualify as a cameo if he had any less screen time.
The violence is more personal and sadistic this time around, and is even more appalling when shown in the abstract. The Eiffel Tower was destroyed in the first film’s action centerpiece, so to out do that, the sequel demolishes many more landmarks in a sequence that refuses to account for the accompanying carnage.
The sequence has the callous eye toward mass destruction usually found in the works of Roland Emmerich. The camera is high enough above the earth that we are not supposed to consider the hundreds of thousand, perhaps millions, of human lives wiped out as special effects buildings collapse.
If this actually occurred, it would be one of the greatest disasters in human history. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 would pale in comparison to this attack. But in the end, the heroes puff out their chests to collect their medals in front of the Washington Monument, and smile as if good has triumphed over evil, not sparing a thought to the allied nation across the ocean whose people will be grieving for decades to come.
But hey, what do we care? They’re not America. Our perimeter is secure.
“G.I. Joe: Retaliation”
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of combat violence, brief sensuality, language and martial arts action
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Who’s in it: Dwayne Johnson, D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Channing Tatum
What it’s about: After the G.I. Joe team is betrayed and ambushed on a mission to Pakistan, the three survivors (Johnson, Cotrona and Palicki) vow to find the Cobra villains responsible, and stop their plan for world domination.
Verdict: “Retaliation” is a sequel that doesn’t want to be a sequel. It jettisons the original movie’s comic book sensibilities and abandons almost its entire cast, but brings back its star (Tatum) only to kill him off in the first act. With its sometimes brutal tone, the sequel basically transitions the concept of G.I. Joe from a team of military heroes to another action franchise for Johnson, who might as well go back to calling himself The Rock. One other Joe, the silent ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), does return in a convoluted subplot that plays like another, slightly better, movie. Near the end, the villains destroy a major city in a show of force, and it is appalling that none of the good guys bats an eye over what would rank as one of the greatest disasters in world history. Apparently, if it happens in a country that isn’t America, it doesn’t count.