Offering a more straight-faced brand of idiocy than its cheerfully dumb 2009 predecessor, G.I. Joe: Retaliation might well have been titled G.I. Joe: Regurgitation, advertising big guns, visual effects and that other line of Hasbro toys with the same joyless, chew-everything-up-and-spit-it-out efficiency. Largely devoid of personality, apart from a few nifty action flourishes courtesy of helmer Jon M. Chu, Paramount’s late-March blockbuster, pushed back from a 2012 release (ostensibly to allow for a 3D conversion), may have trouble matching G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s $302 million worldwide gross. But with no shortage of merchandising and other cross-promotional opportunities, it should still score significant attention from targeted male viewers.
Appreciably rougher and grittier in feel than the Stephen Sommers-directed The Rise of Cobra, Retaliation makes any number of ham-fisted bids for topical relevance, and naturally almost every one of them represents an affront to good taste. Among other things, the film is a sort of accidental comedy about nuclear warfare, as much of the silly plot concerns a global summit where the hope of mass disarmament soon gives way to the threat of mass annihilation. Elsewhere, the script (by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) finds our trusty Joes raiding a North Korean compound shortly before they head to Islamabad, where they wind up framed for the assassination of Pakistan’s president.
All this geopolitical mayhem is being orchestrated by the U.S. commander-in-chief (Jonathan Pryce) — or rather, the dastardly doppelganger who’s impersonating him with the aid of super-sophisticated “nanomite” technology (because latex is just a little too Mission: Impossible). The president’s stand-in is a high-ranking member of Cobra, a secret network of megalomaniacs bent on wiping out the G.I. Joes once and for all, and in the early going, they come perilously close.
Tatum Channing's Screen Time Is Brief
Probably aware that no one in the audience could possibly care about any sense of continuity with The Rise of Cobra and its eminently forgettable characters, the filmmakers have opted to retain just a few key players this time around. In what feels like an odd miscalculation given the actor’s recent popularity, Channing Tatum’s Duke is around for only about 10 minutes to pass the baton to a fresh G.I. Joe unit led by the physically imposing Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and rounded out by Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), both of whom evince far less charisma than the military-grade weapons provided them by Gen. Joe Colton (Bruce Willis, phoning it in).
Actor To Watch: Byung-hyun Lee
Providing a bit more interest is the Joes’ ninja faction, chiefly Snake Eyes (Ray Park), whose inexpressive mask stands in marked contrast to the piercing gaze of his longtime nemesis, white-clad swordfighter Storm Shadow (Korean star Byung-hyun Lee). Along with newcomer Jinx (Elodie Yung), these returning characters figure prominently into the picture’s finest moment, a fight scene in the Himalayas that employs wirework and stereoscopy to highly vertiginous effect. The visual grace of this sequence is no surprise coming from Chu, who demonstrated a real flair for staging in the two Step Up pics he directed. But as in those movies, sustaining a narrative or transcending a patchy script seem beyond his abilities.
One of the least savory aspects of the franchise is the unseemly pleasure it takes in the wholesale destruction of foreign cities, which goes hand-in-hand with its jingoistic portrait of American military might. Audiences who thrilled to the sight of Paris under biochemical attack in Cobra will be pleased to watch London endure an even more horrific fate here, although the sequence is tossed off in quick, almost ho-hum fashion, with no time to dwell on anything so exquisitely crass as the spectacle of the Eiffel Tower collapsing.
Meatheaded and derivative as it is, G.I. Joe: Retaliation is hardly the nadir, as hollow corporate products go; certainly it’s nowhere near as aggressively off-putting as the Transformers movies, the other action-figure adaptations in the Hasbro universe. The dialogue has improved markedly since the earlier outing, and the lensing and editing, while hardly models of coherence, just about manage to avoid excessive jumpiness. Andrew Menzies’ production design, with sets standing in for everything from a Tokyo skyscraper to a Nepalese monastery, proves resourceful within the confines of a largely New Orleans-shot production.
With the exceptions of the often mesmerizing Lee and the ever-reliable Johnson, the performances are merely serviceable.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.