Forget almost everything about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, because the film no longer matters.
Its sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, is all about a fresh start, including a pair of new screenwriters, a new director, and a new protagonist. Most of the heroes from the original G.I. Joe are nowhere to be found in this film, and one of the major characters isn't around for long.
New doesn't mean different, though, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation follows along its 2009 predecessor's story line of an elite fighting force in major danger facing extinction at the hands of sworn enemy Cobra. Among the many casualties in a post-operation celebration-turned surprise massacre is Duke (Channing Tatum), leader of the G.I. Joes. When we last saw the fearless soldier, he was positioned as the future of the film franchise. Of course, that was before Tatum was a major star.
For now at least, the G.I. Joe franchise belongs to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Roadblock, Duke's best friend.
The new character's name is unimportant because the muscular super soldier is just a variation of almost all of The Rock's roles: tough, but with a soft side for family and friends, quick with put-downs but no-nonsense in battle, bruised but never beaten.
It falls to Roadblock to lead the remaining Joe team: Lady Jaye (Toledo's Adrianne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), Jinx (Elodie Yung), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park), the only returning hero from the first film — and not coincidentally, a fan favorite. MIA from the previous G.I. Joe adventure — and without explanation — are Scarlett, Heavy Duty, Ripcord, and General Hawk. So much for audience investment in characters.
Also absent is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the evil Cobra Commander. Unlike Tatum and his glorified cameo, Levitt has outgrown playing in the toy soldier universe now that he's moved on to the likes of The Dark Knight Rises.
This time, Luke Bracey plays Cobra Commander, though the difference between the actors isn't apparent since the villainous mastermind now sports a full mask.
Things aren't going well for the supreme leader; he was captured in the first film and is imprisoned deep underground in a special facility. As part of his punishment Cobra Commander has been medically paralyzed, though fully conscious of his surroundings. He's rescued from this hellish purgatory by the resurrected Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and the new baddie, Firefly (Ray Stevenson). Having that time to reflect on the sins of his past hasn't changed Cobra Commander's grand schemes: He still plans to take over the world with doomsday weapons.
He also has the backing of the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce). In one of the few holdover elements from the first film, Cobra's master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has assumed the president's identity, while the real commander-in-chief is locked up and hidden away.
Roadblock and the other G.I. Joes must stop Zartan and Cobra, but their race-against-the-clock mission requires more manpower and firepower than they can muster. They turn to the original G.I. Joe, Gen. Joe Colton (Bruce Willis), long-since retired from action, but with a small-war arsenal hidden throughout his house. Joe is crusty — he refers to Lady Jaye by her birth name, Brenda, much to her irritation — but still skilled in killing bad guys.
He's also underwritten. In Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's script, Willis is under-used, a name-brand novelty with a few funny lines about old age and dealing death. Reese and Wernick's play-it-straight script is a letdown, given their witty and funny genre spoof Zombieland. In a film ripe for parody or gentle pokes, the writing duo don't provide the actors with much more than standard action film dialogue and gags.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation's lone highlight is the tense and fun ninja-style battle high atop a sheer mountainside pitting Snake Eyes and Jinx against Cobra minions. It's a delirious, cartoonish sequence as the foes swing precariously at each other on cables, and director Jon M. Chu can't resist pausing the action each time a Cobra soldier meets his Looney Tunes-inspired demise and plummets to his death.
With a resumé of dance films, Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, and the Justin Bieber documentary, Never Say Never, Chu has a decent handle on pacing his first action film. Perhaps the best compliment for G.I. Joe: Retaliation is that it doesn't drag and it does exactly what you expect it to.