I stand before you, humbled, and tasked with explaining, in comprehensible terms, just what the heck 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' is all about. Attaining comprehensibility, however, is a chore the filmmakers didn't wrestle with, doubling-down on pure adrenaline and big movie star charisma. It's a risky move and sometimes it works. Sadly, this is not one of those cases.

While there are chuckles to be had (I mean, that Cobra Commander helmet is just too incredible to dismiss) there isn't enough whiz-bang in this film to fully deflect the utter lack of a story or absence of intriguing characters. It is, surprisingly, the lesser of the two 'G.I. Joe' films, with Stephen Sommers' 2009 'The Rise of Cobra' featuring much more team spirit, pep and fun.

We open with the briefest of reintroductions – though the only two members of the G.I. Joe squad making a return from the first is Channing Tatum's Duke and a big rubber suit with Ray Park inside as Snake Eyes. Duke is shown getting all bromanc-y with The Rock (Roadblock) to the point of playing video games and tickling his kids. Then he's killed during the first battle, the one where the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) orders a hit to take out all the Joes.

Don't worry, it's not the real president (cause, heck, The Rock voted for that guy) but master of disguise Zartan of Cobra - the ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world! But before they can do that, they've got to get the band back together. This means sending in the ninja Storm Shadow to the underground bunker holding Cobra Commander and Destro. CC is sprung, but Destro is left on ice (well, in a stasis tube, actually) for reasons that will become clearer, I suppose, in the third film. Now, with a proxy in the White House and access to all the nuke codes and the secret orbiting satellites of “Project Zeus,” Cobra can go before the leaders of the world and force them to bow to their will.

But. . .not so fast. Three members of the G.I. Joe team (Roadblock, Adrianne Palicki as Lady Jaye, filling in for Rachel Nichols' Scarlet, and D.J. Cotrona as Flint) survive the sneak attack, plus somewhere out there is Snake Eyes and his ladyfriend Jinx. In time, they are able to suss out that the White House is being controlled by bad guys (maybe it's the removal of the American flag with one of a red snake on a black background that clues them in) plus they hook up with Bruce Willis, a heavily armed retired Joe that asks to be called Joe.

There are, to be sure, moments of joy in the film. A centerpiece action sequence at a monastery atop a cliff (think 'Black Narcissus' but more violent) that involves Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and lots of red-suited cannon fodder zipping across mountains is quite engaging, as is virtually any moment when The Rock fires a humongous gun. The Rock is, no question, a charisma machine, the uncontested heir apparent to Schwarzenegger, and when he pursues Ray Stevenson's Firefly (whose secret weapons are exploding fireflies) in a tank, on foot and then on a boat is something of an energy surge.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of dead space between these sexy moments. The outrageous uniforms and high tech weaponry is ladled out just a little at a time, and there's an awful lot of The Rock hanging around plain-looking computer monitors instead. These mundane moments play like something out of any typical government special forces film, blowing the opportunity to exploit the cartoonish fun of 'G.I. Joe' to its fullest.

The film may win some over by tapping into the nostalgia of a ten year old boy in the back yard playing with his action figures and I'd be hard pressed to quibble with anyone's dalliance with nostalgia. However, as in those afternoon sessions in the grass, there's no sense of an authorial hand. The plotting is scattershot, evoking a tale told by a child who is making it up as he goes along. The big showdown and nefarious revelation, while devilishly hammed up by Jonathan Pryce (containing some shockingly anti-Korean gags), is just too preposterous to understand, let alone take seriously.

“It's a 'G.I. Joe' movie!” fans may protest. “Don't overthink it!” I wouldn't dare, but I would like to at least “think it” while I drowned myself in popcorn and Mr. Pibb. Unfortunately, this outing doesn't even allow for that.


'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' is in theaters now.

Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.

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