By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 16, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
Jaimie Trueblood

As befits an elite commando squad loosely inspired by a 49-year-old series of Hasbro toy soldiers, the G.I. Joes in G.I. Joe: Retaliation are a team of government combat renegades so wholesome and upstanding that they make the A-Team look like unsavory back-alley punks. The squareness ends with their one-dimensional personalities, though. When they go into attack-the-enemy mode, the action is videogame vicious and fast, with a raucously propulsive heavy metal soundtrack to set off every jaw-smashing punch, lightning-timed sword thrust, and hail of bullets. Retaliation is a 3-D sequel to 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and in its trivial and dehumanized way, it’s a triumph of hyper-violent, razor-sharp style over formulaic substance. We’ve been watching these teams of U.S. government-approved military-jock ”outsiders” plunge into combat for decades now — they go all the way back to The Dirty Dozen and include The Expendables and other, scruffier rip-off versions. But Hollywood has now evolved to the point that it can deliver these kinds of thrills with maximum brute force and keep the impact so light that the result can still be regarded, at least by a sizable segment of the audience, as a ”harmless” diversion for 14-year-olds.

In G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a collective of otherworldly invaders called Cobra has infiltrated the White House, kidnapping the president and replacing him with a look-alike double. Both are played by Jonathan Pryce, who gives a deviously smirky and fun bad-guy performance as the fake president. He orders the Joes to be wiped out, and the plan almost works. (Channing Tatum’s Duke is one of the casualties — a fittingly timed kill-off, since Tatum is now far too big a star to be stuck in movies like this one.) But three of the Joes survive: the sexy, no-nonsense Lady Jaye, played by Adrianne Palicki with a look-how-in-control-I-am delivery that starts off cloying but grows on you; D.J. Cotrona as the cute but rather blah Flint; and Roadblock, played by Dwayne Johnson with a shaved head, tattooed biceps the size of canned hams, and his usual Obama-on-steroids blunt-spoken affability.

Retaliation was directed by Jon M. Chu, who made two of the Step Up dance films, and he brings a high choreographic snap to much of the movie, especially during a martial-arts battle set on a mountainous vertical stone cliff, where the combatants skitter over the surface at death-defying angles as they try to annihilate each other. I also liked the swarms of tiny electronic firefly bombs that erupt, with a satisfying percussive exactitude, into fireballs, and the final nuclear game of chicken between leaders at a world summit. It’s much more tense (not to mention funnier) than the nuclear showdown in Olympus Has Fallen, and this time the North Koreans are villainized in a way that’s more mocking than saber-rattling. I don’t want to make G.I. Joe: Retaliation sound good, exactly — it’s well-executed technocratic action fluff. But it did leave me buzzed rather than drained. B-