To summarize the economics behind “G.I. Joe: Retaliation": the 2009 “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra” made enough moolah ($150 million domestic, $150 million elsewhere) to justify — nay, demand — a sequel. As for the aesthetics of the film, “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra” made enough moolah to justify — nay, demand — a sequel. Really. There are very few moments here where the filmmakers seem to have thought about anything else.
You expect your basic action blockbuster to follow a rigid, demographically driven template, but with surprising frequency, the pieces superimposed upon that template include funny dialogue, distinctive characters, ingenious action concepts, or all three. Not this time around: Every element seems built to open the wallets of adolescent boys with excess hormones. Apparently the retaliation is against the rest of us.
In James Bond fashion, there’s a pre-credit action sequence that has no relation to the rest of the film. Even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — go watch “Goldfinger” again — there’s also nothing right with this particular one. There is some effort to introduce us to the characters, but the effort is for naught. All you can say for sure is that one of them is Dwayne Johnson and another is Channing Tatum, reprising his role from the earlier film.
This sequence displays one of “GIJ:R”'s worst faults. The action scenes are cut in a way that makes it tough to tell who’s who, or who is on what side. We’ll see a Good Guy being shot at, and the camera cuts to what appears to be a reverse shot, showing the Bad Guy doing the shooting. Except it’s not a reverse shot; it’s a cut to some other random Good Guy. In a few scenes, the sides are clarified through color-coded clothing, but more often there’s just a hodgepodge of masked characters blasting away at each other.
What makes things even more confusing is that Snake Eyes (Ray Park) turns out to be Stormshadow (Lee Byung-hun); and whoever’s blasting into a high-security facility to release him might be the Bad Guys trying to rescue Stormshadow or the Good Guys trying to rescue Snake Eyes. The general confusion over allies and enemies isn’t helped when Stormshadow sort of switches sides. About halfway through, I wished I had brought a crib sheet.
All of this may be crystal clear to those raised on G.I. Joe comics, action figures and assorted geegaws. They weren’t around during my adolescence, so I was in the dark.
Worse yet is the pacing. “GIJ:R” is really nonstop action. Normally “nonstop action” isn’t meant literally and is intended as a compliment. But from halfway in or maybe earlier, director Jon M. Chu (most of whose previous films were dance-oriented) pounds away at us without pause; it’s easy to feel exhausted long before the end. Perhaps the relentlessness of the blam-blam-blam and the boom-boom-boom would have felt milder if the action sequences were original or amusing. There is only one notable set piece — a ninja battle on a sheer stone face — and even that overstays its welcome.
Did I mention there’s a plot? No? That’s because there isn’t one. Ha, I’m half-kidding; there’s a jumble of a story that I’d rather call a “plot” than a plot. Strangely enough, it has huge similarities to last week’s “Olympus Has Fallen": kidnapped president, assault on the White House, crazed nuclear ambitions. That one wasn’t very good either, but at least there was an attempt — only occasionally successful — at explaining stuff.
Johnson can usually charm his way past character problems, but the script here doesn’t give him anything — even his trademark self-deprecation — to work with. There’s no Rock in his role. Lee is a terrific actor who has starred in maybe half of my top-10 Korean favorites; he’s trying here, but again, the script leaves him out in the cold. Bruce Willis shows up halfway through in his familiar “grizzled legendary old army/marine/C.I.A. retiree” guise.
Normally I get pleasure from watching all three of those guys, but there’s none to be had here.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).