‘G.I. Joe’ is a Real American Zero

The movie is like a video game, but without the fun of playing

Right in the middle of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which is one sort of action movie, there’s another, better one that lasts five or six very good minutes.

We’re in the Himalayas, where the fancy ninjas such as Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park) go for a little me-time and to brush up on their training. With a sword to my head, I couldn’t tell you who was fighting whom, but on the face of a mountainside, with dozens of ninjas hooked up to mountain-climbing ropes, the slash-and-plunge combat served up by director Jon M. Chu (who made the tasty second and third Step Up films) makes for a lucid and exciting sequence. It may be hoked-up digitally beyond anything resembling human behavior—it’s Spider-Man behavior, with the climbing ropes used for mile-long swings—but it works.

Then we’re dragged back to the other movie, the one in keeping with the concerns, the body count and the general “eh” quality level of the first G.I. Joe film released four years ago.

The stars of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which is not to be confused with G.I. Joe: Appeasement or G.I. Joe: Let’s Talk Through Our Differences, are Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock; Channing Tatum as Duke; D.J. Cotrona as Flint; and Adrianne Palicki as Lady Jaye. The plot concerns the murder of the Pakistani president; stolen nukes; a frame-up job by arch-fiends COBRA (not the insurance people, for the record) disgracing the Joes. The Joes fight back. Spoiler: They win.

Now and then the screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose Zombieland I liked, fire off a peculiar zinger that catches your ear, especially when Jonathan Pryce (in the dual role of the real U.S. president and the evil lookalike now running things) escalates global warfare with a demented sort of élan. Many are killed. The Joes truly enjoy their killing. They kill with style and a smile. Bruce Willis plays the ur-Joe, Joe Colton, who joins the Joes in the retaliation promised by the title and whose kitchen drawers and cupboards are filled with lovingly ogled weaponry.

The directive behind this sequel, clearly, was non-stop action. Let’s think about that phrase a second. Do we really want our action movies to deliver action that does not stop? Ever? I get a little tired of action sequences that won’t stop. G.I. Joe: Retaliation has some trouble with tone: One minute it’s wisecracks between Johnson and Tatum as they’re sitting on the couch with their little Xbox joysticks, and the next, London is flattened (millions dead, presumably, though we never hear about it) by the antagonists’ weapons of mass destruction. The screening I attended was full of preteens to whom G.I. Joe: Retaliation has been marketed.

I submit that playing with G.I. Joe action figures when you’re that age, as I did, and apparently everyone in the cast of this movie did, according to the film’s press materials, is not the same experience as a preteen soaking up this amount of PG-13-rated slaughter. That’s what the Xbox is for, after all.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (PG-13) ★★☆☆☆

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