Here’s the key to mindless action movies: They need to have just enough story to keep the plot moving. Too little story — or too many plot holes — and the movie fails, regardless of how good the action is. Too much story, as is the case with “G.I. Joe Retaliation,” is just rude.
As viewers, we neither need nor want the amount of characters, subplots and narrative layers offered here. When trailers promote the opportunity to shut your brain off and enjoy action eye candy for 110 minutes, and you can’t because of a convoluted storyline, that’s annoying. To be fair, the ambition of director Jon M. Chu and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is admirable. However, failing to bring balance and cohesion to the narrative elements is a disappointment, considering so much less was needed for the film to fulfill its promise.
The basic premise is simple: With the villain Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) impersonating the U.S. president (Jonathan Pryce), the G.I. Joes (think Navy Seals, if you’re not familiar with the Joes) are almost entirely wiped out. Only Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) remain, and together they need to find out who’s after them and why, and then go on a ridiculous killing spree.
So, this is good old-fashioned revenge/comic book/kids' cartoon/Hasbro toys fun, right? Wrong.
Things get … complicated, and knowing who's good/bad in advance will help if you don’t absorb the brief tutorial in the beginning. There’s minutiae about nuclear warheads and a secret military weapon, and the original G.I. Joe is brought into the picture, allowing Bruce Willis to play the exact same character he did in “RED.”
Really grinding things to a halt, though, is this: With the help of fellow bad guy Firefly (Ray Stevenson), Storm Shadow (Byung hun-Lee) breaks über-villain Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) out of prison. This prompts a missing-in-action Joe called Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and his trainee Jinx (Elodie Yung) to track them down. So much time is spent on this, it takes away from the momentum of the main storyline; flashbacks to Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes’ training and discussions about Jinx’s worthiness add tedium to a narrative that's at its best when moving forward quickly.
The one good thing this tangential thread brings is an awesome action sequence set high in snow-filled mountains. Rope, wires and ziplines track Snake Eyes and Jinx as they fly through the peaks while keeping a valuable possession away from the bad guys. The camera work, staging and execution make this a true showstopper that’s beautifully done. If you're going to see this, the 3D up-charge is worth it for this scene alone.
The film, originally scheduled for release last June, was postponed for two reasons: Paramount wanted to add scenes featuring Channing Tatum and Johnson together, and the 3D visual effects still needed work. Even with the additional scenes, Tatum only appears for about the first half-hour.
It’s anyone’s guess why “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” becomes so bogged down with storylines that it’s hard to enjoy the mindless action. Yes, it’s as big and loud as advertised, but overthinking is not wise when your film should be comic-book simple.