First clue that something was amiss: nearly the entire original cast abandoned ship. Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow remain; big-time movie star Channing Tatum fulfills his contractual obligation to reprise Duke; and the face of Arnold “Mummy” Vosloo returns for three still shots as the chameleonic Zartan, who spends the rest of the film in the shape of President Jonathan Pryce. That’s it. Never a good sign.
The framework of a plot is more simplistic this time around: President Zartan tricks the Joes into an ambush that slaughters nearly the entire team (apparently no one stayed behind at home base to keep things running); then Cobra Commander proceeds to use his puppet to try and take over the world through ridiculous negotiations and the third-act destruction of a major European city, whose removal from the face of the planet concerns everyone for about fifteen seconds and then is never mentioned again, let alone mourned. The surviving Joes cobble together a team and an intervention plan. There are bullets, explosions, and large vehicles based on toys, or perhaps vice versa.
Instead of taking advantage of the massive team of Joes that have accumulated over the decades, outside Duke and Snake-Eyes we’re reduced to a handful of newcomers to the movie. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is Roadblock, all muscles and revenge and spouting team-leader rhetoric. Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights) and D.J. Cotrona (nobody I know) are Lady Jaye and Flint, summed up by one character as “Miley Cyrus and Ryan Seacrest”. Bruce Willis, channeling his RED character instead of John McClane for a change, appears midway through as the eponymous Joe, with no explanation as to why an entire covert-ops squad was named after a single guy. Before the ambush we’re given mere seconds to spot Joe Mazzello (also in theaters in Jurassic Park 3-D!) and Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars!) as second-stringers who don’t last long. Though the team has a few lighthearted scenes early on, the glumness of vengeance and the unimportance of character traits become the norm.
Cobra Commander himself is a one-note Vader clone, but a few of his minions enjoy themselves. The aforementioned Pryce is almost too loose and flippant as undercover evil President. Ray Stevenson (Punisher War Zone; The Book of Eli; Thor) is appropriately gleeful as the psychotic Firefly, an arsonist who doesn’t care whether or not his inconsistent Southern (?) accent annoys you. The always lively Walton Goggins (Justified) appears too briefly as a mouthy prison warden.
Most of the action consists of standard military firefights, oodles of shooting down hordes of meaningless henchmen. The Rock is allowed a few hand-to-hand tussles, with only a little showiness toward the end. The swordfights are edited in the modern, dissatisfying style in which every single sword stroke is a separate take, all stitched together in a row with no continuous, unedited flow of multiple actions and counteractions allowed. Some of the vehicles are mildly interesting, including a motorcycle that splits apart into missiles like a kamikaze mini-Voltron, and a one-of-a-kind “Ripsaw Tank” that plays a pivotal part in the grand finale, performing so agilely that I expect to see a fleet of them in Fast & Furious 7.
In general I came away with the impression that this was meant to be an intentionally retro homage to the jingoistic shoot-’em-ups of my childhood. All throughout are elements of an old-fashioned sensibility at work. The President is an elderly white guy instead of the Obama clone mandated for every other Hollywood production today. The American military is treated as a positive force (this doesn’t bother me; it’s just so uncommon anymore). One character walks away slowly from an explosion ten feet behind him. One gunfight is set in a clichéd warehouse full of explosive boxes and flimsy catwalks perfect for railing kills. The token female character is hard as nails in battle, but is first in line when someone has to go undercover at an upper-class shindig in a fancy dress. If you’ve never seen an episode of The A-Team or the dozens of films that it imitated and inspired, then Retaliation might seem more revelatory to you than it was to me.
My favorite viewing moment happened at the film’s expense. I had to share the theater with a party of 12-15 children, roughly ages six to ten, who were refreshingly well-behaved overall. The loudest response from them occurred during Lady Jaye’s obligatory underwear scene, in which she stripped down to her skivvies presumably as an interactive game for the audience to help her check for scratches or unsightly moles. To this all the kids responded in unison and at top volume, “EEWWWWWWWW!” This earned a heartier laugh from us adults than anything else in the movie.
For the MCC record, there’s no scene after the end credits, though I did notice a very special thank-you to the weapons manufacturer that created the Ripsaw Tank specially for the movie. Their site doesn’t have an online store yet, so we’ll have to return some other time once ordering instructions and delivery options are posted.