“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is a movie based on kids’ toys, and on the cartoons and comic books churned out to sell them. It stars Dwayne Johnson as a fightin’ man named Roadblock, and has Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis playing soldier, too (not for nearly as much screen time as the ads would suggest, but still). It’s the sequel to 2009’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” remembered (vaguely?) for a splashy effects shot of the Eiffel Tower toppling. Not the sort of pedigree that makes us expect “Zero Dark Thirty-One,” but at least we can count on some 3-D fireworks to help us choke down the nonsensical geopolitics.
Or not. Director Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 3D,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never”), whose prior credits somehow screamed “action choreography!” to producers, manages to make dull work of all the pop combat. One of the few things giving the movie a spark, ironically, is the fun being had by a slumming Jonathan Pryce as the president’s nanotechnologically disguised, evil-doppelganger replacement. He’s a poor man’s Merkin Muffley gone bad, and he’s even got James Carville fooled. Sample loopiness: “They call it a waterboard — but I never get bored!”
Pryce’s villain doesn’t wait long to reveal his charade to the audience, but those who caught the first installment know going in that he’s secretly the nefarious Zartan. But to his “fellow Americans,” the faux-prez declares that the military’s elite go-to unit, the G.I. Joes, have gone rogue. That leaves Roadblock, Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) scrambling to clear their names (“G.I. Joe: Ghost Protocol”?) and stop Zartan and masked master terrorist Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) from taking over the world. (Their plan involves, among other things, using a killer satellite to destroy London much like Cobra wrecked Paris last time. Apparently the filmmakers have their own over-the-top plan: to redefine “Eurotrash.”)
Other franchise regulars feature in narratively random cutaway mayhem, like so many action figures yanked from the toy box and scattered around the playroom. The Joes’ silent mystery man, Snake Eyes (Ray Park, “Star Wars”), tangles with ninja antagonist Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) in a mountaintop retreat, and apparently it’s all supposed to feel pretty momentous. What it really feels like is a pair of costumes posing as characters, engaged in a drawn-out fight that’s as tediously generic as they are. At least an ensuing high-altitude zipline chase is fresh enough to nudge us back from the ledge.
Good luck recalling any other would-be set pieces a couple of days after you’ve seen “Retaliation.” Do you remember, though, the old promotional tag dubbing vintage, molded-pecs G.I. Joe “a real American hero”? How funny that Pryce, a tweedy Brit playing a bad guy, should be the one person doing anything remotely heroic for this dud.