If you’re going to make a movie designed to sell toys, you may as well show how much fun it is to play with them. Although almost none of the original characters remain, G.I. Joe: Retaliation continues the spirit of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra by happily embracing big vehicles and weapons to deliver set pieces on steroids that never feel overbearing. It’s not a particularly smart movie or one with compelling characters, but without any irony it takes one of the villain’s lines to heart: “America likes the guy who blows stuff up.”
The evil organization Cobra has their Master of Disguise, Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), impersonating the President (Jonathan Pryce), and is using his power to set up plans for world domination (a true evil organization doesn’t play small ball). Zartan quickly moves to eliminate the G.I. Joes, and only three manage to survive: Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cortona). As the trio make their way home to uncover why their unit was wiped out, Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) is freed from prison by Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). Snake Eyes, who wasn’t present when the Joes were attacked, pursues Storm Shadow so he can bring his arch-nemesis to justice for killing their master.
Snake Eyes really is off in his own little movie for most of Retaliation, and I have to admire the purity of the character. He’s a walking set piece devoid of a face, a voice, and a personality beyond being “mysterious”. This time around, he barely even has to interact with the other Joes. His half-spinoff has him paired with aspiring ninja Jinx (Elodie Yung), and chasing down Storm Shadow while the main plot happens on the other side of the world. Having a voiceless, faceless character lead a sizable chunk of the film is a testament to the film’s priorities. Character development and storytelling aren’t as important as having ninjas fight each other as they repel off a mountainside.
Thankfully, Retaliation doesn’t leave personality behind completely, and Johnson does a fantastic job of carrying his half of the storyline. Colorful characters like the villains Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Cobra Commander get their time, but Johnson is the quintessential action hero we all love to see. He’s perfectly suited to the big guns, big explosions, action-figure world of G.I. Joe, and he can fire off a one-liner as easily as firing off a canon. He’s also necessary because his supporting characters have nothing to do other than Jaye using her looks for infiltration and Flint doing…I’m not sure. Much like the 3D post-conversion, he adds absolutely nothing to the picture.
The best characters, Snake Eyes and Roadblock, are the standouts partially because they’re in tune with the film’s true lead: action. That’s all G.I. Joe: Retaliation is meant to be. Director Jon Chu understands that’s why people show up, so his task is to make sure the set pieces deliver, and for the most part he succeeds. The fights are fast-paced, the explosions are plentiful, and the Joes get fun toys like remote controlled bullets while Firefly has exploding robot bugs and a motorcycle that fires missiles and is also made of missiles.
G.I. Joe came from comics and Saturday morning cartoons, and the movie wholeheartedly embraces that bloodless and slightly brainless approach. When a major city is casually leveled to the ground, an offhanded remark about rebuilding is all that’s required. The doomsday device is a briefcase with a big red button because what else would it be? Like all the best toy commercials, G.I. Joe: Retaliation makes you forget you’re buying a piece of plastic. It lets you imagine that you’re part of the action, and free to feel like a kid again—a reckless, violent, gleefully destructive kid.