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Putting Reboots on the Ground

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, the 2009 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 3-D 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 Johnson). Now the target of the U.S. government, the group has to go off the grid to investigate. 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? RZA as a blind ninja expert? Bruce Willis as the cocky grizzled risk-taker — again? While 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 while 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.

If G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra taught 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 illogicality. But don’t say you weren’t warned. As a wise man once said: “Knowing is half the battle.”