Studio marketers love to call action movies “thrill rides,” but here’s the thing about thrill rides — they work because they occasionally stop to let you catch your breath before jolting you again. Roller coasters don’t just speed downhill for the entire ride; there are climbs and flat parts so that you can scream again all the louder when you take another plunge.
That’s not what happens in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” a movie not only designed for hyperactive 10-year-old boys but also apparently written and directed by them, even though the credits claim that Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 3D,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”) was behind the camera and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (who gave us the far superior “Zombieland”) crafted the inane dialogue and bang-clang-boom plot.
“Retaliation” begins with the GI Joe team flying into Pakistan to recover some loose nukes after the assassination of the nation’s leader has led to chaos in the streets. (“It’s not a country, it’s a riot with a zip code!” yelps a member of the joint chiefs.) The mission, led by Duke (Channing Tatum), goes well, but that night the Joes’ encampment is destroyed by enemy fire, leaving few survivors.
Turns out that the president (Jonathan Pryce) has been replaced by master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), and while the real POTUS is held captive in a bomb shelter, the fake one is conspiring with the villainous COBRA to take over the world. After apparently destroying and discrediting the Joes, the next move is to spring Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) from an underground prison by sending in Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee) dressed as Snake Eyes (Ray Park).
Wow, this sounds even stupider on paper than it did in my head. Anyway, surviving Joes Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) work to expose the fake president with the help of retired O.G. Joe General Colton (Bruce Willis), while on the other side of the world, Snake Eyes and Jinx (Elodie Yung) try to capture Storm Shadow, all in the name of selling toys. Or, rather, saving the planet. Whichever.
Anyone looking to discuss the MPAA’s ridiculous standards when it comes to screen violence can start right here; “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” has even more explosions, gunshots, hand-to-hand combat and people getting tossed off roofs than “Olympus Has Fallen” (another movie where the U.S. flag gets taken down from the White House), but since “Olympus” shows blood and people actually dying, it gets an R while “Joe” squeaks by with a PG-13.
The violence becomes all the more apparent because Chu never paces it. Early on, we get a few scenes in which people stop to have conversations — granted, they’re not all that interesting, but at least they break up the flow. Once the story picks up, however, it’s all ka-blam all the time, but rather than generate thrills and excitement, it ultimately becomes enervating. For a guy who’s made two movies based in music and dance, he has a surprising lack of rhythm here.
The cast pretty much plays it straight rather than go over the top — apart from Walton Goggins’ amusing scenery-chewing as the warden of the super-prison — but they’re all apparently on board for a movie with as much depth as a Saturday morning cartoon. Not that there’s anything wrong with Saturday morning cartoons, mind you, but there’s a reason they don’t last two hours.