Dwayne Johnson's introduction to the Fast & Furious films acted like a shot in the arm to the flagging car franchise, so producers of GI Joe: Retaliation were likely looking to pull the same trick twice by bringing him into their sequel. On this point there's good news and bad news. The good? This is a better film than its dire 2009 predecessor The Rise of Cobra. The bad? Retaliation is still a preposterous and messy 3D spectacle devoid of any kind of soul.
This time around there's no Sienna Miller, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or Dennis Quaid, instead there's a fresh Joes team that includes Roadblock (Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), Flint (DJ Cotrona) and founding member Joe Colton (Bruce Willis). Channing Tatum returns as Duke, but an attack on the Joes in the film's opening act from Zartan - posing as the US President in the guise of Jonathan Pryce - means the team is forced to regroup in a bid to foil Cobra's plans for mass global destruction.
Naturally the action is fast and frantic, dialogue comprised almost entirely of clunking one-liners ("They call it waterboarding, but I never get bored.") and a plot that feels like it's been unearthed from a lost Roger Moore James Bond movie. World domination, it's the same old dream for Cobra and Pryce's scenery-chewing Head of State (riffing on George W Bush six years too late).
Nuclear disarmament and giant space weapons also figure in Zartan's nefarious scheme, drawing Retaliation into a realm that was so precisely parodied by the Austin Powers films. This will provide a giddy nostalgic thrill for those who miss the hollowed-out volcanoes of early 007 outings, yet the film is executed without a hint of of irony or self-awareness it can't help but leave the film feeling badly dated.
Johnson fares best out of all the franchise newcomers, anchoring the film with his formidable physical stature and natural big screen charisma. He brings boots to asses for his numerous action scenes and motivates his troops by reciting Jay-Z lyrics, but Roadblock's historical penchant for cooking sadly doesn't get much of a look-in. His awkward buddy scenes with Tatum (added in reshoots) also don't do him any favours.
Whereas The Rock injects much-needed personality into the film, the likes of Cotrona and Palicki may as well be set-dressing. The former is so underwritten he hardly registers, while the latter seems to do little more than cycle through a series of revealing outfits. Retaliation also marks Willis's most blatant paycheque role since the risible Cop Out - he's barely in the movie.
In the end it's The Rock who saves this from being a completely pointless blockbuster endeavour, but if you're looking for moustache-twiriling megalomaniacs, eyebrow-raising heroes and daft bon mots then you're better off just watch The Spy Who Loved Me.