CONTAINS SPOILERS AND GRUNTING
I confess: I absolutely love the first G.I. Joe movie. Whereas Michael Bay, auteur of the increasingly dreary Transformers series, looked at his source material - a plastic Hasbro toy and a cheap Saturday morning cartoon for children - and thought he could turn it into Proper Cinema with Real Characters and Emotional Depth (he couldn't), Stephen Sommers looked at exactly the same source material and recognised it for what it was - colourful pantomime nonsense. G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra is four hundred times as mad as the maddest Bond movie, it's outlandish, ridiculous, completely implausible and outrageously enjoyable comicbook fun. Forget the angst and portentousness: G.I. Joe is an eye-boggling romp.
Not any more, though. This sequel is mostly drab, has no sense of fun, and is more concerned with badass Very Special Forces militarism rather than the gadget-laden superhero shenanigans of Sommers' film, and with Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson tooled up with enough firepower to shoot Neptune out of the sky, it almost feels like an Expendables offshoot. G.I. Joe: Retaliation kicks off with the unit on a mission to recover a loose nuke in Pakistan: they succeed with little difficulty, but then the whole unit is shot up by a sudden air assault, leaving just three survivors. It all harks back, of course, to the first film's substitution of maniac Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) for the President (Jonathan Pryce), who's gearing up for an arms summit with the other nuclear nations (including North Korea). Can they get back to the States and find out what's happened and foil their schemes of world domination - or destruction?
With most of the first film's cast not returning - no Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols, Christopher Eccleston, Dennis Quaid or Sienna Miller, and Channing Tatum isn't in it very much even after reshoots - it's mostly concerned with characters we've never seen before, including Dwayne Johnson, Adrienne Palicki and Elodie Yung, roping in veteran Bruce Willis along the way. None of the action sequences are anywhere near as exciting as the spectacularly destructive Paris chase or Cobra's assault on the Joes' desert base from the first film, and the increased emphasis on guns rather than fantastical gadgetry makes the film tend towards the dull as well as the noisy. You would have thought that director Jon M Chu's background in musicals (including two Step Up movies and the Justin Bieber movie, none of which I've seen and I'm proud of it) would have perhaps given the action a touch of grace, in the way that John Woo used to stage his gunfights like dance numbers - but no, they're no artistry about them. Maybe a director with a background in effects-heavy action movies might have done a better job.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation was originally scheduled for last year but was abruptly pulled so they could post-convert it into 3D for purely artistic reasons; frankly it wasn't worth the wait (I saw the 2D version and there's not one single frame where an artificial perspective effect would have been of any use at all). With the exception of a massed ninja fight with everyone dangling by ropes off the side of a mountain, the near-constant gung-ho cheerleading for America (Willis' entry code for his fearsome gun arsenal is 1776) means there's no room for fun, and it takes itself far too seriously for what should have been a silly piece of cardboard popcorn fluff. That's a fatal error, and let's hope the recently announced G.I. Joe 3 doesn't continue the trend.