March 28, 2013 at 9:02 AM ET
So fetishistic about high-powered weapons that it qualifies as an NRA wet dream, "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" pretty accurately reflects the franchise's comic book and cartoon origins, which is both a good and a bad thing: good if you're a 12- to 15-year-old boy, bad if you're just about anyone else. Still, Hasbro's concept about elite macho soldiers fighting weird, elusive villains has hit the mark with target audiences over the decades, and Dwayne Johnson's presence atop this sequel to the 2009 action nonclassic likely will propel it past its predecessor's $302 million worldwide box-office take.
After spiriting a defector out of -- where else? -- North Korea, Duke (a returning Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Johnson) relax by -- what else? -- playing a video game. However, there's more trouble afoot. When last seen, the president of the United States had been displaced by a look-alike imposter installed by the sinister world domination-seeking organization Cobra, and now it's time to cash in on the charade. Sending the G.I. Joes into Pakistan to remove some nukes, the faux president then betrays America's best fighters by attacking their base, leaving just four survivors: Duke, Roadblock, Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki).
While the president calls for global disarmament, the better to victimize those who might comply, more bad guys materialize, including Snake Eyes (Ray Park, of Darth Maul fame) and the ferocious Firefly (the imposing Ray Stevenson from HBO's "Rome"). A whole Japanese subplot involving ninjas and a strange guru (RZA of Wu-Tang Clan) seems like filler to allow the Joes time to lick their wounds and figure out how to get to the alleged president. But no matter what, director Jon M. Chu (the last two "Step Up" films, the Justin Bieber concert film "Never Say Never"), never forgets that his primary obligations are to whip together some sort of action sequence every 10 or 15 minutes and to make sure to provide close-ups and, if possible, practical demonstrations of as many fancy pieces of artillery as possible to make the heavy-ammo crowd drool.
So in the midst of cartoonishly scripted and indifferently presented scenes devoted to good-guy intelligence work and bad-guy thuggery are two big scenes that are eye-popping for different reasons. The first, nearly an hour in, is one that makes the whole Japanese side story pay off; opposing teams of fearsome ninja fighters treat sheer rock mountainsides almost as parkour athletes use walls, jumping down into voids, throwing zip-line cords across great distances in order to slide from one cliff to another, many of them plummeting to their doom. It's like "Spider-Man" times 10 in a dazzling sequence in which conceptual novelty is strongly served by visual compositions and action choreography well beyond anything else in the film.
The other scene is equally arresting but in a rather more dubious way. Having agreed to help the G.I. Joe squad get to the evil president, retired Joe founder Gen. Joe Colton (Bruce Willis) invites the warriors to his home to offer them access to his personal arsenal. In every drawer, cabinet, closet and desk is a hidden trove of ever-more awesome weapons, a veritable candy store of firepower that's photographed in the lethal-hardware equivalent of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The sequence climaxes and epitomizes the film's extreme idolatry at the altar of the gun, a posture that will be a massive turn-on for the target audience but might give pause to those who still care to remember that the "Dark Knight Rises" shooting happened less than a year ago.
Chu and screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (Zombieland) clearly know their intended audience and what it wants: a less mechanized, more human-based younger brother to Hasbro's other cash-cow franchise "Transformers." Injecting the ever-personable Johnson into the proceedings helps a good deal, the returning Tatum and Byung-hun Lee (as Storm Shadow) are easy on the eyes and, for nonfans, it's by some distance easier to take any of the "Transformers" entries.
"G.I. Joe: Retaliation" was held back from its original 2012 release date so it could be converted to 3-D. Perhaps the bean counters know best as to whether this was worth the effort, but aesthetically the effect is negligible and sometimes, especially when the framing of action is tight, quite awkward and off-putting. This is 3-D that does not enhance a film that was not originally intended for it. The visual effects and CGI are highly variable, with one brief sequence toward the end of a major world capital being destroyed looking laughably cartoonlike.