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G.I. JOE: RETALIATION

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Gun fetishists should warm to this sequel to “The Rise of Cobra,” the dismal 2009 entry that initiated a would-be live-action franchise based on the long-lived Hasbro toy line that in turn spawned numerous comic books and animated TV series. The soldiers who make up the G.I. Joe elite force ooh and ah over their weaponry almost as much as Steven Colbert does over his Sweetums, or the muscle-car fanatics do over their souped-up vehicles in the “Fast & Furious” movies. One scene in particular, in which Bruce Willis, smiling his trademark smug smirk as a retired general, reveals the staggering arsenal he keeps concealed in his suburban house to the younger heroes, should send pulses racing in those who drool—as the task force members do here—over all the assault weapons and other military paraphernalia he has on hand.

But if such gun-show displays leave you cold, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” will probably do likewise. It’s a cartoonish action spectacle dominated by firefights, explosions and martial-arts combat, all in the service of a story that would be considered dumb even in a low-grade comic book. It starts in the middle of things, with the US President (Jonathan Pryce) somehow having been taken prisoner and replaced by Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), a leader of the malevolent Cobra outfit that’s out to conquer—or destroy—the world. Zartan has been turned into a duplicate of the president through advanced nano-technology.

Cobra’s scheme then continued with the assassination of the Pakistani president. But though the Joes—now led by Channing Tatum’s Duke, with Dwayne Johnson’s Roadblock his right-hand man—foil a terrorist attempt to highjack Pakistan’s nukes, one of their number—the masked Snake Eyes (Ray Park) is fingered as the assassin. Having been captured somehow (like so much of this background, the “how” is never explained), he’s transported to an underground prison where he’s to be kept in stasis alongside the Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey).

But he turned out to be another Cobra agent, the white-masked Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), who engineers the escape of Cobra Commander, though he’s injured in the process. CC joins “President” Zartan and brutal enforcer Firefly (Ray Stevenson) to destroy all their nukes prior to demanding their surrender in the face of the group’s satellite-based doomsday weapon. Meanwhile, Zartan orders an attack on the G.I. Joes—named by him as traitors—which leaves Duke deceased and only Roadblock, pretty Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and stud Flint (D. J. Cotrona) alive and looking for justice. And the real Snake Eyes (Ray Park), joined by sexy recruit Jinx (Elodie Yung), tracks down Storm Shadow, who’s persuaded to join the good guys when he’s made to realize that his turn to evil as a child—when he was wrongly accused of murdering his martial-arts master—had been engineered by Zartan.

All of this leads to a big confrontation between Cobra and the remaining Joes, of course. Guess who wins. And guess whether the countdown of the doomsday machine will be stopped precisely three seconds before it’s set to go off.

This is utterly silly stuff, played without the saving grace of humor. (The groan-inducing banter between Duke and Roadblock certainly doesn’t qualify, nor do Zartan’s acerbic insults, directed at such easy targets as an unnamed North Korean leader). That’s not to say it isn’t proficiently made—the effects are good, and director Jon M. Chu exhibits the choreographic expertise he perfected in a couple of the “Step Up” movies and a Justin Bieber documentary in the staging of the action sequences, even if the editing by Roger Barton and Jim May renders some of the fights pretty messy. (A battle on cables in a mountain gorge is especially well crafted, though its similarly to scenes in several other movies makes it less effective than it might have been.)

But the acting is strictly comic-book quality throughout—including the supporting turn by Wayne Goggins as a prison warden—with Johnson and Tatum just striking poses and Willis using his “Die Hard” shtick to an irritating degree. Pryce seems to be winking at the material with his over-the-top double turn, but if so it doesn’t work.

“Retaliation” is aimed squarely at the mentality of the target audience of the toys it’s based on—adolescent boys. They’ll probably revel in its pointless—but also bloodless—mayhem, which at one point includes the complete destruction, though from a distant point of view, of London. And they’ll probably swallow its absurdly macho attitude, too. Those of more mature years who share that mentality will probably devour it, too. But everyone else will find it just a bombastically brainless summer behemoth that’s arrived a few months early.

OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN

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In a weird way, “Olympus Has Fallen” is like “Zero Dark Thirty.” Both are ego boosters for the damaged American psyche, assuring us all that however much suffering terrorists might inflict, we have the strength of character and determination to be victorious over them in the end. But there’s one enormous difference between the two films. Kathryn Bigelow’s was intelligent, gritty, nuanced and real, a complex study of the difficult work of confronting genuine threats ; Antoine Fuqua’s is dumb, slick, shallow and cartoonish, a piece of jingoistic claptrap that merely panders to patriotic emotion. And the fact that it’s effectively produced somehow makes it worse.

The plot is an absurdly simple one. The White House is taken over in a massive attack by North Korean terrorists who may or may not be in cahoots with their government, and their leader Kang (Rick Yune) holds President Asher (Aaron Eckhart), the Veep (Phil Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) hostage in the impregnable bunker beneath the ruined mansion. Kang demands of Acting President Trumbull (Morgan Freeman), the Speaker of the House, the withdrawal of American troops from the DMZ and the Seventh Fleet from the far Pacific. He also tries to extract from the Defense head, the Vice President and the President a series of codes that will initiate a special program designed to prevent accidental missile launches by incapacitating the ICBMs en route to their destinations.

But Kang hasn’t reckoned with Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), a Secret Service agent who moved to a desk job months earlier after failing to save the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd, in what amounts to little more than a cameo) in an auto accident. He witnesses the assault on the White House and gets involved, eventually winding up the sole defender inside the mansion. A former Navy SEAL, he systematically eliminates most of the remaining terrorists with gun, knife and/or martial arts prowess—including a former colleague who’s turned traitor—pausing from his good work only to get the president’s young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen)out of harm’s way. Banning also takes out a secret US weapon that’s been installed by terrorists in the White House to blow up Black Hawk helicopters sent in on a rescue mission and saves the Secretary of Defense from public execution before taking on Kang man-to-man in the final reel. The guy’s literally a one-man army who puts Captain America to shame. And he doesn’t even have a shield!

This sort of goofiness has been a staple of action movies even since the first “Die Hard,” but here the implausibility level reaches heights that would beggar the skyscraper in the earlier movie. How, for example, did Kang get his hands on that secret Pentagon weapon to use against the helicopters? That’s never explained. Nor are we told where the plane that launches the original phase of the assault on Washington comes from—or how it’s equipped with devices that easily fend off US warplanes and missiles with some sort of magic aura. Then there’s the land assault, in which heavily-armed men are disgorged onto the White House lawn from a caravan of sanitation trucks that, for some reason, have gotten past security. And how does Kang know about that Top Secret system that defuses US missiles—though he intends to use it for another, more nefarious, purpose?

One could go on and on in this vein, but the holes in the plot are exceeded by the picture’s indulgence in the most ham-fisted appeals to righteous patriotic indignation. It’s not enough to show the White House and the Washington monument turned to rubble (the double dose an apparent effort to outdo the famous moment of destruction in “Independence Day”); Fuqua has to add a scene in which the bullet-riddled flag is torn from the mansion’s roof and tossed contemptuously onto the lawn. At such moments—and there are many—you can count on Trevor Morris’ brassy score to blare out deafeningly, and it’s even louder at the points when it’s playing on nationalistic sentiments.

Butler does his sensitive macho shtick here well enough, and handles the action proficiently. Eckhart is rather bland as the President, and Dylan McDermott chews the scenery almost as much as Yune in his secondary role. (Robert Forster isn’t far behind in that respect as an arrogant general.) Happily Leo is almost unrecognizable in a thankless part that requires her to mimic continued physical humiliation, while Judd overdoes things in her small role and Radha Mitchell gets little chance to shine as Banning’s physician wife. But Freeman wisely underplays in his usual style as Trumbull, and Angela Bassett is similarly soothing as the head of the Secret Service. The technical credits are all pro, though the effects sometimes look considerably less than today’s highest-grade examples.

In addition to “Zero Dark Thirty,” you can compare “Olympus Has Fallen” to “Air Force One,” though on a much grander scale. But times have changed since 1997, and what once seemed silly, exhilarating fun now comes across as shameless exploitation of the audience’s patriotic impulses. Perhaps that’s evidence of how far Hollywood action movies have declined from their former Olympian heights.