What's the difference between an action figure and an action star? Very little in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which features no performances of note, even from such combat-tested thespians as Bruce Willis, Jonathan Pryce and Dwayne Johnson.
The sequel to 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the latest Joe is a near-surrealistic mashup of serious themes and juvenile humor, realistic locations and cheesy CGI. Adapted to 3-D after it was shot, the movie is also one of the most aggressive examples ever of the chucking-stuff-at-the-viewer aesthetic.
Retaliation continues the plot of its predecessor while cashiering most of its cast. That's not especially disruptive to continuity, since many of the characters wear masks and/or speak little, if at all. The Darth Vader-ish role of Cobra Commander requires two performers — one for the body and another for the voice — but might as well be played by a PVC doll with a handful of ball-and-socket joints.
Early scenes establish the personal chemistry of Channing Tatum's Duke and Johnson's Block — short for "Roadblock," oddly enough, not "Blockhead." When not killing people, the two engage in the sort of you're-a-girl-no-you-are taunts that action-flick makers seem to think are manly. Then the movie dispatches the Joes to Pakistan, where most of them are, uh, sidelined.
Only Block, Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and some other guy (D.J. Cotrona) remain active, although it turns out that the super-soldiers still have a few friends left in Tokyo, D.C. and other exotic climes that are mostly impersonated by digital pixels or Louisiana.
Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Jinx (Elodie Yung) and Blind Master (rapper RZA) offer their assistance. There's also an ambiguous role for Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) and a return to the field for retired Gen. Joseph Colton (Willis), who does fire off one decent aging-warrior quip.
The Joes, as might be guessed, are still battling Cobra, a cabal that does bad stuff. The group's disguise master, Zartan, has assumed the identity of the U.S. president (an unchallenging dual role for Pryce), and Cobra is using this clandestine takeover to provoke global war.
The scenario, scripted by Zombieland's Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, overlaps oddly with that of last week's equally silly Olympus Has Fallen. Both involve North Korea, potential nuclear Armageddon and a president held hostage in a bunker beneath his home. But Retaliation traps the prez in his own White House-like manse somewhere in Virginia, as if to admit that simulating the real presidential abode is beyond the filmmakers' abilities.
And so the movie proceeds, nestling a phony-looking Tibetan monastery amid actual mountains, and staging an absurd nuclear-disarmament conference at what looks like the genuine Fort Sumter. (The symbolism of that location remains inscrutable, but must mean something to someone involved in the production.)
First-time G.I. Joe director Jon M. Chu, who supervised a pair of those Step Up teen-dance movies, rarely trusts his actors to sustain an action sequence. Hand-to-hand combat is supplemented by various high-tech devices that recall the Transformers movies — another toy-derived franchise. Ninja-like warriors swoop impossibly through the Himalayas, battling in midair, while bombs, swords and even about-to-be-dead bodies fly at the audience.
The latter may not be the most tasteless thing in a movie that features a waterboarding joke. But the abundance of projectiles could make innocent bystanders wish that Block would live up to his name and obstruct some of the crud flying off the screen.