03/28/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

Zaki's Review: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

Read my 2009 review of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra here

Now that's more like it.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation is the Joe movie I've been hoping to see since I was a little kid, and it's exactly the kind of movie that its predecessor, 2009's exercise in cotton candy excess G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, isn't. First, some helpful context: I'm someone who grew up pretty much right smack in the middle of the demo that toymaker Hasbro targeted when they laid out their "G.I. Joe vs. Cobra" multimedia assault in the early '80s. Toys, action figures, comic books, I was immersed in all of them, with the Marvel comic books especially serving as one of those beacons that stayed with me through a wide swath of my childhood.

The mythology laid out in those books is rich with a depth of characterization that belies its action figure roots, and when the first flick hit theaters three-and-a-half years ago, while I didn't go in with a lot of expectations (the trailers had already steeled me for that), I did hope to see some vestige of that rich mythology reflected in the planned franchise-starter directed by The Mummy and Van Helsing's Stephen Sommers. Instead, what we got were characters bearing familiar names and appearances, but walking through a plot they didn't quite seem to fit in. The Rise of Cobra felt like it was made by people who were interested in marketing a brand without fully understanding what that brand meant.

What this sequel does so masterfully then isn't just to recapture and reflect the ineffable magic that made the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero franchise such an omnipresent cultural force and merchandising juggernaut in its prime 1980s heyday. Rather, it manages the more-impressive feat of doing so by building on that execrable first film rather than taking the least-resistance path of ignoring it and starting over from scratch. After all, we're currently in a cinematic moment where even a proven success story like Spider-Man isn't spared from the grip of the dreaded insta-reboot. But where Spidey demurred, G.I. Joe dares.

Retaliation has the Joe team, led by Duke (Channing Tatum), with the massive Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) serving as his second-in-command, unaware that the ruthless terrorist org Cobra's master of disguise Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), has infiltrated the White House (as we saw at the close of movie one) and taken the place of the prez (Jonathan Pryce). After the Joes are wiped out in a sneak attack under "presidential orders," the survivors (including Flint, played by D.J. Cotrona, and Lady Jaye, played by Adrianne Palicki) seek aid from the only man who can help: John McClane, er, General Joe "G.I. Joe" Colton (Bruce Willis, becoming master of the quick paycheck gig).

Before long, the newly-escaped Cobra Commander (who isn't played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but who is wearing his trademark faceplate, so a net positive) unleashes a deliciously cockamamie plan to disarm the world's nuclear arsenal and control it for himself. While the steel-masked Destro sits this installment out (presumably because his CGI mask was too expensive to animate), the Commander is aided by the saboteur Firefly (Ray Stevenson, doing some kind of accent that's never been heard by man). Also along is ninja assassin Storm Shadow (Byung-Hun Lee), whose parallel plotline involving the Joes' mute commando Snake Eyes (again played by Ray Park) will prove richly rewarding for longtimers.

Unlike The Rise of Cobra, which could never quite decide on the right tonal terrain to occupy, the sequel situates itself neatly in the exact kind of "reality-plus-one" that the concept requires. It's obviously out there, but it plays straight with itself and doesn't wink at the audience. In effect, this is a movie pointedly made by Joe fans in precisely the same way the first one wasn't, with writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (of Zombieland fame) going down the line of the first film's flaws, various and sundry, addressing the majority of them in a way that enriches the film series while also nesting in several nods to that mythology I alluded to earlier.

When Retaliation was delayed from its mid-summer berth last year and pushed back nine months to its current late-March release, while the official party line from home studio Paramount was that they needed time to post-convert the project into 3D, there was rampant speculation it was really to expand the role of Channing Tatum, whose presence here really doesn't amount to more than an extended cameo. While they denied this the whole time, something I never thought I'd say after the last one is that I wish they had given him more to do. I really liked him here. Not sure if it'll be possible, but I hope they find a way to bring back next time (should next time happen).

Another place I need to eat crow is when it comes to director Jon Chu. When it was first announced that Sommers wouldn't be returning to helm the sequel, I was initially elated, but that elation turned to unease when Chu signed on. With a filmography consisting of two Step Up movies and one Justin Bieber movie, I was understably wary of what Chu would bring, but let me say right here and now, I was 100% wrong. The movie's many fight scenes are brutal when they need to be and balletic when they need to be, with a particular bravura turn coming about halfway through in an extended ninja battle on a mountainside that's entirely dialogue-free, neatly homaging writer Larry Hama's memorable "Silent Interlude" comic story from 1984.

Speaking of Hama, in my interview with the legendary Joe creator last week he mentioned the need to build in "drop-in" moments in the ongoing comic narrative so that those who hadn't been around for the whole ride wouldn't be turned off by the mountain of narrative that preceded them. I think Retaliation accomplishes much the same trick. While it certainly rewards those who suffered through the first one (and based on its box office returns, there were a few...) by building on certain plot threads and using our familiarity with certain characters (and actors) to make even their reduced screentime more meaningful, it also serves as a perfect entry point by itself and hopefully points the way for more entries to come. Yo Joe. B+