Who, oh who, will save the Joes while they're out saving the world?
No one apparently. To borrow from Jack in the Box, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is one hot mess.
Waiting didn't help. The decision to push the film from last summer into this year was theoretically to allow the filmmakers to convert it to 3-D and quietly beef up the role for the suddenly hot Channing Tatum.
It's easy to understand the thinking. In addition to last year's winning streak in Magic Mike, 21 Jump Street and The Vow, the actor has five films out this year. He's also a perfect pick for Duke, the appealing all-American head of the elite G.I. Joe fighting corps. Tatum and Dwayne Johnson — back as Roadblock, Duke's massive No. 2 — have the whole BFF thing nicely honed. But even with the rework, Duke's presence is short-lived and not nearly enough to salvage the film.
Converting to 3-D during the delay didn't improve things either. Yes, director Jon M. Chu succeeds in making it seem like the ninja sais are being hurled right at you. And sure, some of the sheer rock-face rappelling and parkour running surpasses Chu's Step Up 2: The Streets choreography. But all the new bells and whistles in the world, and all the stylized stunts can't mask the movie's problems.
Do you really need 3-D when the basic pyrotechnics were already on steroids? The action sequences are so extensive that you can barely blink between explosions, which should satisfy any fanboy cravings.
The humor, when it works, offers Retaliation some redemption.
There is some very good snark thanks to those wild and crazy Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. But there is also a little too much leftover Spike TV stuff from their The Joe Schmo Show — by that I mean promising but half-baked.
Unfortunately all the structural rigor and cleverness they brought to zombie-fighting gets lost in Retaliation's overwhelmingly complicated, globe-hopping, enemies within, enemies without story line.
I will concede that adding a G.I. Jane to rough it up with the Joes was a nice touch. Adrianne Palicki's Lady Jaye does a surprisingly good job of holding her own against all the testosterone. I'll even buy that this tough chip-on-her-shoulder chick who is ruffled when the original Joe (Bruce Willis) asks her to hand him a pen, is totally fine slipping into a slinky little red number when a villain needs seducing. At least sneaking glances at Jaye changing gives Flint (D.J. Cotrona) some credible covert action to engage in. Otherwise the franchise's new hunk is wasted.
North Korea, where the film opens, becomes a running punch line that wouldn't survive were it not mostly in the good hands of Jonathan Pryce. Pryce, you might recall from 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, is our country's illustrious leader. Retaliation picks up and runs with the tantalizing hints that were dropped at the end: Could the President be an impostor? Could he have an evil twin? Should they adjust his meds?
Pryce turns the Prez into the movie's steadiest source of comic relief as the leader of the free world develops a sinister stand-up style. Warden Nigel James (Walton Goggins) comes in as a sarcastic close second in the humor category, which any action blast worth its salt really must have.
The warden's in charge of a super-secret prison in Germany where most of the surviving Cobras, and the Joes' central nemesis, are being held in big tanks in a weird state of suspended animation. The better to see them, I guess.
The incarceration hasn't stopped their nefarious planning. It's also the opportunity to give sworn enemies Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) a chance to team up for a change, and to add a female ninja named Jinx (Elodie Yung).
While the Cobras hang, the Joes are carrying out a super-dangerous mission in North Korea that goes south in devastating ways. The lesson to come out of that particular altercation gives the film its name — if you double-cross the Joes there will be payback.
Willis' Joe factors in relatively late in the game as the guy with all the big guns they need. He might have a souped-up tank or two in the garage out back. But it's too little too late and too bad since he's one of the movie's bright spots.
Instead, we are left with about a zillion individual plot lines to follow as the movie bounces from one global hot spot to another, D.C. being the hottest of them all. There are countless characters — old and new — to keep up with. Grudges — also old and new — pile up by the truckloads. Bullets rain down. High-tech gizmos abound. Freedom and the fate of the entire world, of course, hang in the balance.
It's massive, all the retaliation and the world saving stuff. And it's convoluted. Frankly no one should have to think that hard to keep up with the Joes.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Bruce Willis, Adrianne Palicki, RZA, Jonathan Pryce.
Director: Jon M. Chu.
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick.
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Brian Goldner.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 110 minutes. Intense sequences of combat violence and martial arts action throughout, and for brief sensuality and language. Playing at area theaters.