G.I. Joe Retaliation: Make That Redemption

Dwayne Johnson takes the baton from Channing Tatum in a whirling sequel that's much better than the original

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Paramount Pictures

A cadre of Cobra Commander’s naughty Ninjas has broken into a Himalayan redoubt, where the skin-seared Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) has gone for a depilatory ritual more painful than any endured by the 40-year-old virgin. His valiant companera, the foxy Jinx (Elodie Yung), is having trouble fighting off the onslaught when an unexpected ally arrives: Storm Shadow’s old rival Snake Eyes (Ray Park). Hand-to-hand or sword-to-sword, Snake Eyes and Jinx engage the invaders in frenetic Shaw Brothers martial-arts style, proving that a dozen men can’t contain one pretty woman, and that bullets are no match for a Hasbro Master’s saber.

That’s just the overture to an amazing action sequence midway through G.I. Joe Retaliation. Toting Storm Shadow in a body bag, Snake Eyes and Jinx escape the high fortress on cables with the Commander’s Ninjas in fierce pursuit. A half-mile above sea level, they whoosh between Himalayan peaks, rappel up the steep face of a mountain and dodge 3-D gunfire until they wipe out their foes and reach safety. These few minutes give audiences an exhilarating trip, full of the snazziest stunt work that modern Hollywood or old Hong Kong could offer; and it has little to do with the central story line. It’s just a bonus, a fabulous throw-in, that expert filmmakers put together because it seemed impossible to achieve, and they could do it.

(READ: Find Hasbro’s G.I. Joe as one of the all-TIME 100 Greatest Toys)

The second live-action movie episode based on the Hasbro toys, the Marvel comics and the 1980s TV cartoon series, Retaliation follows G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Released without press screenings in the summer of 2009, Rise survived the belated contempt of critics to earn $300 million worldwide — a hefty number that barely covered the film’s $175-million production budget plus marketing costs. Undaunted, Paramount went ahead with a G.I. Joe sequel, pegged to hit theaters last June. But when Battleship, another expensive action picture based on a Hasbro toy, bombed at the domestic box office, the studio shelved Retaliation until now, ostensibly to convert the movie to 3-D. Demoting an expensive action picture from a prime summer slot one year to Easter weekend the next suggests little faith in the merchandise. Audiences were left pondering the imponderable: Could the second film actually be lamer than the first?

Au contraire — for Retaliation is less a sequel than an antidote to the calcified mound of crap that ostensibly inspired it. In fact, sequel is hardly the word for a movie that junks many of Cobra’s characters, flies off on tangents familiar only to acolytes of the Joe canon and tucks in tropes from the mythology of nearly every other superhero, including Batman and James Bond. Retaliation also enlists Dwayne Johnson, Hollywood’s premier action enforcer, for its starring role, and finds room for Bruce Willis, as the original G.I. Joe, to strut his veteran machismo. Two movie studs eye each other warily across the generations, then exchange the grim grin of comrades and get to work.

(READ: Corliss’s review of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra)

The big difference, though, is the blithe fun that Retaliation embodies and communicates. No cinema masterpiece, this is an assured example of popular moviemaking — junk food with the expected carbs and a savory taste. For this, we credit director Jon M. Chu; his background in putting dance on screen (two of the Step Up sequels and TV’s The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers) could account for the grace both of the action set pieces and of the supple, prowling camera, even in closeups. The script also has more wit, and a higher tolerance for geopolitical impudence, than a sequel requires or may need. No surprise, since the writers are Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose screenplay for Zombieland had exactly those tonic, subversive qualities. Kudos as well to stunt coordinator Steve Ritzi and fight coordinator Thomas DuPont, for rescuing the physical action from the CGI wizards and giving it some old-fashioned kick.

(SEE: Corliss’s review of Zombieland)

All you have to know about the first movie are that Channing Tatum played Duke, the lead Joe, and that it ended with Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), the main mercenary of Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey), being installed, through nanomite technology, as the President of the United States (impersonated by Jonathan Pryce as Joe Biden with a mean streak). Retaliation allows Duke and his best buddy Roadblock (Johnson) a few scenes of homoerotic bonding — competing at video games and target practice while joking about each other’s panties and the prospect of an all-night sing-along session with Roadblock’s two kids — before Duke falls victim to a fate worse than karaoke. Tatum disappears, for now, though theoretically available for a G.I. Joe: Resurrection; and Johnson inherits the hero role.

A Cobra strike eradicates most of the Joes stationed in Pakistan’s Indus Valley, leaving just three survivors — Roadblock, Flint (D.J. Cotrona) and Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) — who have dived into a deep well; they escape by crushing themselves into a six-legged, Star of David formation that scales the narrow circular walls. (Last summer, in The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne took a half-hour of screen time to manage a solo escape that the Joes’ teamwork accomplishes in less than a minute.) Falsely proclaimed enemies of the state headed by the Zartan-President, the trio must sneak back to Washington, find the captive real Prez, unmask the evil fraud and defeat Cobra Commander’s wholly-owned Armageddon subsidiary, the Zeus Industrial Complex. In the B-story, Storm Shadow has infiltrated an underground prison to free Cobra Commander — his confederate before the Himalayan hit — and the prime Cobra bruiser Firefly (Ray Stevenson), who’s here mainly to exchange killer punches with Roadblock.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Dark Knight Rises)

While the action figures pummel one another, and flesh-seeking bullets buzz toward their targets like homicidal houseflies, and the Vader-like Commander exhales threats of comic-book grandiosity (“Soon the world will cower in the face of Zeus!”), Zartan revels in his malefic power. Forget last week’s White House Doomsday fantasy, Olympus Has Fallen, with North Korea invading the President’s residence. In Retaliation the bad guy has already assumed power at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and he’s loving it. In public, he solemnly indicts the Joes for treason by citing the Pogo comic strip (“We have met the enemy and he is us”); in private, he quotes a Bounty commercial (“I get to blow stuff up — I’m the quicker blower-upper”). A mad genius who seemingly aspires to be Comic-in-Chief, President Zartan purrs, “They call it waterboarding, but I never get bored,” like a kid who decapitates toy soldiers, just for the fun of it.

Somehow convincing the heads of all the nuclear nations, including North Korea, to show up at Fort Sumter for a no-nukes conference, the Evil Prez announces that he has Death Star weapons hovering over each nation’s capital, poised for a bigger, better Hiroshima. (His pin number for these awful devices: 1776.) Unless they accede to his whims, millions will die, he points out, adding cheerfully, “The good news is: No global warming summit next month.”

(SEE: TIME’s Top 10 Sequels Better Than the Originals)

Politically puckish, or make that reckless, the script winks at the annihilation of U.S. soldiers in Pakistan, at the notion of a U.S. President as the nonhuman secret agent of a foreign power and at the nuclear cratering of London — bye-bye, Parliament; toodle-pip, Ferris wheel — which one-ups Cobra’s biochemical blitz of Paris. Retaliation also raised cheers from members of a preview audience when they saw that the suburban home of Willis’s General Joseph Colton conceals more heavy artillery than the fallout shelter of Wayne LaPierre’s dreams. So silkily and insistently does the movie promote its destroy-the-world schemes that, when the Evil Prez goes on TV to accuse the Joes of plotting to steal Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, even a peacenik may briefly think that that’s not such a crazy idea.

Before the liberal in me rails overmuch against the arrant blood lust of action films, or condemns Hasbro’s toys and tanks as a starter set for the NRA lunatic fringe, the movie critic in me must intervene. Nobody, among these filmmakers or in the mass audience, takes fictional violence any more seriously in action-adventures than they did for 70 years of Westerns — when a shoot-out routinely resolved all differences — or for decades of Bond films and superhero movies, when the world was always a hairbreadth from the Rapture. Any potential impact on deranged minds is almost irrelevant in the cartoonish, PG-13 Retaliation, which pirouettes between straight-faced comic-book archetype and jaunty parody. (Please, any crazy people out there, don’t go on a shooting rampage this weekend. Or ever.)

(READ: Corliss on the relation of pop culture to Columbine, Va. Tech and Aurora)

The two poles of the movie’s tone can be seen in the performances of Lee, the lithe, sleekly contoured star of such Korean films as I Saw the Devil and The Good, the Bad, the Weird, and Walton Goggins, formerly of The Shield, as the warden who holds Cobra Commander in a prison so deep “it’s in international jurisdiction.” Lee is all business, Goggins all pleasure. A sort of subterranean Pryce, the warden truly enjoys his work, addressing Storm Shadow’s intrusion by saying, “Welcome to Hell,” and confessing he’s a longtime fan of the Ninja’s work. His appearance is curtailed, but while he’s on screen Goggins radiates a connoisseurship of evil. As Martha Stewart might say, being bad is a good thing.

Off-screen, and beyond Retaliation’s myriad story threads, is another odd Hollywood plot: Dwayne Johnson’s mission to infiltrate franchises — to extend and often improve them. Back when he was The Rock, he made his movie-acting debut in The Mummy Returns as the giant marauding insect who was spun off as an ancient Egyptian rebel hero in The Scorpion King. In 2011 he showed up as Vin Diesel’s nemesis-turned-abettor in Fast Five, the most enjoyable of the Fast and the Furious movies, and will be back in this summer’s Fast & Furious 6. Last year he replaced Brendan Fraser in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, a sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth; he is now at work on another installment. Johnson also has fronted more than his share of remakes: Walking Tall, Gridiron Gang and Escape to Witch Mountain.

(READ: Mary Pols on Dwayne Johnson in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island)

He’s massively muscled, and plays characters with finely honed killer instincts. Yet Johnson projects a gentle, generous soul, expressed through one of the most beautiful faces in movies. The villain of The Mummy Returns morphed into the hero of The Scorpion King because producers recognized the attractive disposition inside the stolid, elaborately tattooed frame. An action figure with a sweet core, Johnson can pump up the humanity of any franchise, whether he’s playing a stepdad who becomes a hero in Journey 2 or, as here, a stud soldier who treats Flint and Jaye like his grown children and shepherds them through peril. Following those younger Joes, the Retaliation audience is encouraged to clamber up on Johnson’s huge soldiers and go along for a pretty cool ride.