movie review

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins Is Nice to Look at, Sometimes

Henry Golding in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Henry Golding in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. Photo: Paramount Pictures

If we absolutely must have G.I. Joe movies, surely they shouldn’t be this joyless. Even those of us who were devotees of the toys (and cartoons and comics) as kids — and believe me, at the age of 11, I was probably the biggest G.I. Joe nut in all of Springfield, Virginia — haven’t exactly been clamoring for a film series based on the Hasbro property. Still, the 2009 Stephen Sommers picture was stupid fun, the kind of adventure you could imagine two 11-year-olds cooking up as they bashed their action figures around.
That was followed by 2013’s extensively reshot G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a cynical act of brand management distinguished primarily by its willingness to kill off much of the earlier film’s cast in the first act (perhaps because some of them, like Channing Tatum, had become big stars in the intervening years and didn’t want to be wedded to a never-ending G.I. Joe franchise). So now comes Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, a reboot and origin story, concocting a new history for one of the more interesting members of the G.I. Joe team. But it feels so pro forma, so uninventive and glum, that if you told me everybody making it had an Uzi pointed at their head, I might believe you.

Snake Eyes was always a mysterious character — not because we didn’t know much about his past, but because we couldn’t see his face and he didn’t talk. Remember, these are toys, made for kids. If anything, we knew more about Snake Eyes’s past than we did any other G.I. Joe’s because the other characters were usually blank slates distinguished primarily by their weapons and costumes and skills. (There was Pilot Guy. There was Skiing Guy. There was Minesweeper Guy. Then there were my two favorites, Diving Guy and Paratrooper Guy. That wasn’t what they were called, of course; I’m pretending to have forgotten their actual names so that I can hang onto what little shred of dignity I have left.)

The fact that no G.I. Joe really comes with an ironclad backstory gives filmmakers an unusual degree of freedom in cooking up pasts for these people; they could literally be anyone from anywhere. In the case of this movie, Snake Eyes starts off as a young boy who sees his father murdered by a group of sinister men, one of whom likes to roll a pair of dice before killing his targets. We then see our hero as an adult (played by the disarmingly handsome Henry Golding) working for a Yakuza boss, helping smuggle guns in fish carcasses. When Snake Eyes saves a fellow worker, Tommy (an eerily charismatic Andrew Koji), from being executed, he’s suddenly whisked off to Tommy’s family compound near Tokyo, home to the Arashikage Clan, who have been a clandestine source of power for centuries. To join the clan, Snake Eyes must complete several “challenges of the warrior,” which seem to vary from rappelling up a wall to fighting three giant magic anacondas. One challenge requires him to try and take a bowl of water from the Arashikage Clan’s Hard Master (don’t ask) while also holding his own bowl of water and not spilling any. It should provide a terrific opportunity for some impressive, elegant choreography, especially given that the Hard Master is played by Iko Uwais, the bottled-lightning Indonesian star of The Raid films.
But no — it’s all cut, cut, cut, cut.

The action in Snake Eyes is instantly forgettable, even if the locations and costumes are sometimes fun. You can occasionally sense director Robert Schwentke — a German American journeyman whose work has varied from the terrific (2017’s The Captain) to the solid (Flightplan, The Time Traveler’s Wife) to the let us never speak of this again (R.I.P.D.) — trying to assert some visual imagination. There’s one rain-soaked, neon-drenched street fight featuring long takes and swooping camera moves that gave me some early cause for hope, and Alec Hammond’s production design, particularly at the Arashikage Clan’s compound, occasionally enchants. (There’s also a great end-credits sequence, which suggests that Schwentke or somebody at the post-production facility was a big fan of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void.)

You can also feel the movie struggling to deliver fan service while also trying to tell its own story, and to the picture’s credit, it’s not too insistent about the former. One could easily watch this film without knowing that characters like the Hard Master and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah) and indeed the whole Arashikage Clan — including Tommy, who will, of course, become Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes’s erstwhile nemesis and blood brother — play significant roles in the G.I. Joe universe. Even the attempts to introduce Cobra (the international terror organization that is the Joes’ chief adversary) feel half-hearted. This is, believe it or not, mostly a good thing, as it should free up the filmmakers to do pretty much anything they want.

You’d think, however, that with this kind of freedom they would have come up with a more interesting backstory for Snake Eyes than “he worked for the Yakuza once.” Or, for that matter, dialogue that doesn’t feel like a cut-and-paste job from any number of other films. The characters in Snake Eyes always seem to be in climax-speak mode; even the most throwaway lines are steeped in portent. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the level of the action — the fighting, the swordplay, the choreography — ever approached the mythic or even just the mildly impressive. But amid all the I looked into your eyes, and I saw honors and the You have placed the clan at risk, you must atones and the You should have killed me when you had the chances, the film remains debilitatingly generic, stripped of creativity, intensity, or grace. I’m not sure even 11-year-old me would be down with this.

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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins Is Nice to Look at, Sometimes