What must Bruce Willis have felt when he discovered that his seven or so minutes of G.I. Joe: Retaliation screen time offer much more agreeable Bruce Willis-ness than the entirety of A Good Day to Die Hard? Or that his cameo, shot two years back and rich with quips and guns and old-soldier gravitas, isn't even the best part of this long-delayed sequel to a toy commercial? Or that the basics that the last Die Hard botched — showing us where combatants are in relation to each other, or letting us in on the reasons why combatants are combatants — here are no-sweat aced in scene after scene, even in the crazy-pants one where a ninja vrooms his motorcycle over an improvised ramp and then jumps off as said motorcycle folds in on itself, becomes four separate flying bombs, and suicide-dives into the front doors of a government prison?
Seriously, how must Bruce Willis have ached when he realized that, less than a year after his strong work in Looper, he needs G.I. Joe more than G.I. Joe needs him?
It's not enough to call this the rare franchise action movie to bring the goods; it's the even rarer one whose creators seem to understand what the goods even are. Your ticket should come with a fight card: squad versus squad, bruiser versus bruiser, ninja versus ninja, second-string ninja versus ancient ninja training lady, jeep-tank versus tank-jeep, bullets versus throwing stars, everyone versus Walton Goggins, dumb pleasures versus your higher brain function.
It's a common complaint that Hollywood doesn't make good movies anymore, just event pictures. Sadder still is that at this point even a competent event picture is itself an event. This one pushes right past competent into mostly legitimately enjoyable. Ninjas swing and zipline through Himalayan peaks, giving dizzier Spider-Man thrills than The Amazing Spider-Man bothered to. A three-soldier escape from deep in a well is more satisfying — and abbreviated! — than Bruce Wayne's ponderous pit-climb last summer. Charming Dwayne Johnson declaims Jay-Z as scripture to pump up his Joes before a mission; he's so commanding that nothing pump-uppable in you is likely to languish un-pumped. Serious dialogue is hilarious — "I'll cyberblast an encoded beacon every six hours!" — and comic dialogue is sometimes confounding: "They call it a waterboard, but I never get bored." In short, if you think it's possible you might have a good time at a picture named G.I. Joe: Retaliation, you almost certainly will have a good time.
The movie is still dumb as catbutt. It's an honest and accomplished dumbness, however, where the stupidest stuff seems to be there because the movie would be less fun without it. Silent masked ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park) is hauled by government agents into a quadruple-secret deep-underground maximum-security supervillain prison, but nobody bothers to take his mask off or remove his weapons first. Those ninjas rappelling down cliffs in this season's best chase scene never realize that maybe they should just cut their enemies' lines. And of course Bruce Willis' retired badass — based on the original '60s G.I. Joe dolls — has an arsenal of weapons hidden in every drawer and closet of his home. The script, from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, is touched with absurdist comedy and even some of-the-moment wingnuttery. Here's a movie in which gun-toting lugs become convinced the president is an imposter who they have to take out — not really something we should be encouraging so soon after 2016: Obama's America.
The villain's grand plan involves tricking the globe's nuclear powers into unilateral disarmament and then zapping the suckers with a weapon from the skies. "Soon the world will cower in the face of Zeus!" the Cobra Commander shouts from beneath his Hasbro face-plate; once the world is finally cowering, and billions of people seem doomed, that imposter president (a funny Jonathan Pryce) exults that at least he won't have to go to another global warming summit. Even the usual tough girl-empowerment business is stamped by Fox Nation boyishness: As the heroic Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) laments that her father didn't believe women should be soldiers, her co-Joe Flint (D.J. Cotrona) takes a PG-13 peep at her in her thong. One caveat for the Red Dawn crowd: In the interest of international grosses, the flag-waving is minimized, save ones bearing the logos of toy lines. If it's any compensation, RZA shows up as a blind sensei in a dojo that looks like a mini-golf course.
There is a story here, about the Joes being betrayed and mostly wiped out by our government. It's smooth and crowd-pleasing. There's also a better, funnier story about the studio making the mistake of killing Channing Tatum off 20 minutes in and then delaying the movie a year to give him a couple more scenes. But the story that actually matters is that of the director, Jon M. Chu, who comes to dudes-fighting filmmaking from the most welcome of backgrounds: directing dance. When his characters battle, we see the bodies of accomplished physical performers moving together through space, mostly in shots that the eye can actually track. That's a tradition the movies forget for years at a time. Here's hoping he lands a musical soon — or maybe Die Hard 6.