Franchise reboots are multiplying at an alarming rate. No longer do filmmakers wait a decade or two for the memory of the last failure to fade. Instead, like a quick fix for a frozen computer, they push a few buttons and, voila, fresh start.
Take, for example, 2009’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which transformed toy soldiers into Channing Tatum and Dennis Quaid. It was annihilated by critics but performed well at the box office, which means “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” is being billed as a reboot. Except it’s not.
There’s a new director, Jon Chu — the man behind a couple “Step Up” installments and the Justin Bieber documentary — and “Zombieland” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick signed on. But rather than wiping the slate clean, the filmmakers integrate, seemingly at random, elements from the last film. The derided, skin-tight black leather armor may have disappeared, but Tatum returns, as does a plot point involving a villain masquerading as the U.S. president. The writers resuscitated one deceased character, but left others incapacitated. They stay just faithful enough to the last film to make this preposterous CGI-centric 3D extravaganza feel like a confused patchwork of new and old.
It’s as if the computer successfully restarted but half the icons disappeared.
As the movie opens, Tatum’s character, Duke, leads his team to Pakistan on what turns out to be a suicide mission ordered by the fake president. But this villain underestimates the Joes, and a few survive, including the new de facto commander, Roadblock (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Now the target of the U.S. government, the group has to go off the grid.
All the nefarious threads lead to their archenemy, Cobra Commander, who seeks total world domination. The heroes’ scheming includes tracking down the original G.I. Joe, now a curmudgeonly general, played by Bruce Willis. Meanwhile, a needless subplot carried over from the past film follows one of the Joes, the mute ninja Snake Eyes. He now lives in the Himalayas, answering to the cartoonish Blind Master, played by an over-the-top RZA.
Total world domination? A Wu-Tang Clan rapper as a blind ninja expert? Willis as the cocky, grizzled risk-taker — again? Although this all sounds utterly hilarious, the film’s comedic intentions remain cloudy. For all its absurdity, the movie takes itself awfully seriously. Yes, the goofy one-liners are there, but so are the earnest back stories about making it against all odds.
And although “G.I. Joe” is merely a movie based on Hasbro toys, the action — the real point of all this — feels just as lifeless. With so many sequences obviously computer generated, the excitement bleeds right out of the fight scenes. Almost nothing is plausible. The fact that a spray of machine gun fire obliterates throwing stars without so much as touching the man hurling them is of minimal ridiculousness compared to the zip-lining chase scenes across mountainous cliffs.
The brightest points of the movie come and go in the first 30 minutes with the bickering banter between Johnson and Tatum. For a couple of muscle-bound ruffians, they certainly have impressive screen presence, which explains why Johnson has the dubious honor of jump-starting so many franchises. (Look for him in “Fast & Furious 6” this year — or don’t.)
If “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” teaches us one very small thing, it’s that box office returns have more to do with familiar franchise names than film quality. People may flock to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” despite its inert illogic. But don’t say you weren’t warned. As a wise man once said, “knowing is half the battle.”
(115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for combat violence, martial arts action, brief sensuality and language.