If you want to know what GI: Joe Retaliation is like, first you need to watch this and this. Done? Now imagine it trying to be realistic while still maintaining a PG-13 rating, stupid comic reliefs and over-the-top action sequences and there you go. That's G.I. Joe Retaliation.
The film is the new entry in the G.I. Joe movie franchise and sequel to G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, which I didn't watch because the ticket was like ten bucks and staying home to drink my own urine is free, and I figured both things would probably amount to the same experience. The sequel, however, apparently resented that reasoning, so it refused to explain anything that had already been established in the first film, which got me confused at some points. Especially the ninja bits.
Synopsis of the story: the G.I. Joe are an elite military unit of the U.S. government who are deployed to Pakistan in order to prevent some terrorists from getting their hands on a nuclear device. The mission, though a success turns out to have been a decoy, and most of the “Joes,” as they are called, are attacked and killed during their R & R. The ambush was carried out under direct orders from the POTUS, who turns out to be a member of a terrorist organization called “Cobra” in disguise. Now this organization will use their edge to take over the world by breaking their leader out of prison and carrying out a convoluted plan to disarm all nuclear nations and threaten them with a mysterious device called “Zeus,” and the surviving Joes have to try to stop them. Meanwhile, ninjas.
I feel the writers of Retaliation (Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) may have been trying to channel some of the Nolan Brothers' (Christopher and Jonathan, directors and writers respectively of the new Batman series, Memento, The Prestige, among others) style in their script, which seems to be a bit more than they can chew. The movie has that same kinetic pacing and gritty tone that we've seen in The Dark Knight and Inception, but it lacks the secret ingredient that made those films memorable. What is it?
Well, what was it that made The Avengers such a box-office and critical success? What about Iron Man? The answer is: a strong context to all the action.
You may think that audiences flock to to cinemas just so they can watch mindless explosions and shoot-outs, but if that's the case, why then don't you simply hand them a flyer at the entrance of the theater with the protagonist's face on it written “This is the dude/chick you're supposed to root for” and make the movie an uninterrupted sequence of action scenes without any dialogue or characterization whatsoever? That would save the studios a lot of money on screenwriters.
The reason why that's not the case, though, is because you need to care for the parties involved in order to enjoy the spectacle. You need to have a bond with the characters, you need to get immersed in the story. Otherwise you can just flick the TV channels between the UFC, NASCAR, and some gun documentary on the History Channel and you'll get your fix of brawls, car chases and bullets without risking having your butt-print fade out from the couch.
G.I. Joe Retaliation offers only the flimsiest of contexts before throwing its explosions at you, and that makes the experience bland and unappealing. The ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), for instance, who is one of the central characters, is not actually a character at all, unless “being a ninja” counts as a personality trait. He's a silent plot device, a moving object that attracts henchmen and fights them without having any emotional reactions whatsoever to the world around him. There are only two characters, Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and Lady Jaye (Adriane Palicki), who ever get some perfunctory backstory, but their personalities or their actions never seem to be affected by their pasts in any way, so their histories are immaterial. They could have grown out of the ground the day before the movie starts and that would invoke the same empathy from the audience.
And the most baffling part is that the ninja bits and the G.I. Joe bits feel totally unconnected, like they're two completely different movies swapping places on occasion. There's a whole business with a secret clan and secret betrayals that happens with the ninjas that could have been cut from the movie and replaced with Jamie Olivier teaching a recipe for Créme Brulée, for all the good it did to the overall story arc.
If you're the kind of person who likes the taste of their own urine, you may enjoy this movie. Otherwise, go watch something else.
P.S.: You know how Bruce Willis is front and center in pretty much all the posters? Yeah, he's only got like five minutes of screen-time. Tops.