Beyond general soullessness and stupidity—and all the other things associated with the phrase “in association with Hasbro”—the biggest problem with 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is that it’s a lumbering beast, bogged down by too many characters and an incomprehensible plot. Some of that is endemic to the franchise: With the individual members of the G.I. Joe squad and Cobra Commander’s rogue army each needing some service, streamlining the script into a brisk summer entertainment was never going to be easy, but its dense plastic-toy mythos and perfunctory love story made for an irony-free Team America: World Police. Sequels, just by their more-is-more nature, stand to exacerbate the problem, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation feels even more larded down by characters and conflicts no one could possibly care much about. Director Jon Chu improves on the action choreography—based on this and Step Up 3D, he exploits the extra dimension as well as anyone—but a better model of shit is still shit.
Picking up at the cliffhanger where The Rise Of Cobra left off, Retaliation has Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), Cobra’s master of disguise, impersonating the U.S. president, played by Jonathan Pryce. With Zartan stationed at the Oval Office, the Joes are set up in a raid that takes out most of the crew, with only Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) surviving. Enlisting a little help from retired general Joseph Colton (a barely conscious Bruce Willis), this skeleton crew travels from the Himalayas to the White House to stop…well… some nukes-related scheme that doesn’t a lot of sense. Whatever the case, here’s the rare film to make an evil scheme out of global nuclear disarmament.
Though Chu’s G.I. Joe lacks the lightness and spirit of adventure that partially redeemed the original, he compensates with an elegant marshaling of digital effects, particularly in a sequence where the Joes engage in a little kung- and wire-fu around a Himalayan monastery. At times, G.I. Joe: Retaliation has a sense of its own ridiculousness—Pryce seems to be having a good time, anyway—but not enough to soften the mass death, hardware fetishism, and militaristic zeal that gets in the way of its escapist fun. Adaptations of children’s toy lines apparently need to be treated with the utmost seriousness.