SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS: Or, Hasbro Does Yakuza

A slick package that offers little to invest in

Nostalgia can be a cruel god.

As I write this, I’m sitting no more than 20 feet away from a box in my garage that contains probably a dozen different Snake Eyes action figures that this grown ass man just can’t seem to part ways with. G.I. Joe was important to the development of my young imagination, and there’s no getting around it. I’ll always have a love and appreciation for this action figure line that spawned a cartoon series and eventually a Hollywood film franchise. And specifically, like many kids my age, Snake Eyes was THE G.I. Joe. It’s basic to love Snake Eyes above all other Joes. It’s like Wolverine being your favorite X-Man. Of course he is. And the data crunchers know Snake Eyes is everyone’s favorite Joe… so they set an algorithm loose and the result is the first solo/spin-off G.I. Joe live action film: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.

If I’m sounding cynical, it’s because I sadly didn’t end up caring for this film all that much. But that’s where the cruelty of nostalgia comes into play. Because yes, my childhood worship of this character, and of ninja movies in general, had me interested in this movie. There was simply no way I wasn’t going to see a Snake Eyes-centric G.I. Joe film. They had me in the theater no matter what just by greenlighting this concept. And yet… I’m also a married man in my 40s with bills to pay, a kid to raise, and Snake Eyes really isn’t made for me. This is a four quadrant ninja film made by Hasbro to sell toys and push an IP into yet another generation. And that’s fine, but it’s sure tough to sit and watch something that is simultaneously a nerd dream of decades realized before your eyes, and something that this just isn’t for you anymore.

By way of what works, Snake Eyes is a pretty looking film. Bright neons and gorgeous intricate sets and globe trotting locales make the film very pleasing to the eye. And the “famous because he’s so handsome” Henry Golding is pretty easy on the eyes as well. I’m not sure he totally nails it as the action movie leading man, but the guy is pretty. And just the iconography of yakuza films, and ninja films, will forever be pleasing to me. I love it when there’s a lot of slinking around on rooftops, castle intrigue, smoke bombs, and copious sword fighting. I just feel right at home with all these trappings. Especially strong and worthy of note is Andrew Koji (lead actor in the exceptional action series Warrior) as Storm Shadow. A far more compellingly written character than Snake Eyes himself, just about all the good narrative components come from Storm Shadow’s storyline, bolstered by Koji’s strong performance and powerful presence.

Unfortunately, from here on out, there’s not a lot of love in my heart for this film. Director Robert Schwenke (RED, R.I.P.D.) is clearly a director who can crank out big budget spectacle, but feels workmanlike in his approach. There’s little here that feels inspired or bold. It sure is competent though. Writers Evan Spiliotopoulis, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse craft a by the numbers screenplay that logically gets our characters from point A to point B, but absolutely never compels or garners emotional investment. The Batman Begins-ification of Snake Eyes’ origin story frequently remains very grounded and realistic, which isn’t exactly how I like my G.I. Joe movies (I was among the minority in enjoying the very big swing Stephen Sommers took with Rise Of The Cobra in 2009). But what that does is to make the occasionally VERY silly and almost supernatural or sci-fi components stand out like a sore thumb. There are some large CGI creatures that show up and feel extremely out of place in an otherwise grounded film, and also a supernaturally powered MacGuffin shows up in the final third of the movie that allows for some big visual effects but brings more than a couple of eye rolls with it as well.

We follow Henry Golding’s character, who is literally named Snake Eyes, as he street fights for money. A drifter, he was born to walk alone. Going down the only road he’s ever known: vengeance. We open with a young Snake Eyes’ father being murdered by some bad guys who roll weighted dice in a false bid to give him a chance to live. The dice come up snake eyes, young Snake Eyes escapes after attempting to save his father by… literally just standing in the tree line right next to the safe house without any attempt made by the bad guys to locate or capture him, and now Snake’s whole life is about finding and killing that mystery man. Except he’s also supposed to be a good guy and hero, so he says he’s not a killer, but his heart is gripped by vengeance. This is how an evil yakuza guy, the outcast cousin of Andrew Koji’s Tomisabaru Arashikage (aka Tommy), is able to recruit Snake to join him: a promise to find his father’s killer.

The bulk of the film then follows Snake Eyes as he befriends and becomes brothers with Tommy, trains to become an Arashikage ninja, and also does a little double agenting on the side as he struggles with his desire for vengeance. The result of all this is a major problem for the movie: Tommy, who must ultimately become Storm Shadow, a villain, is the far more compelling and interesting character here. Meanwhile, Snake Eyes is kind of a duplicitous dick whose quest isn’t all that interesting. And eventually characters like Samara Weaving’s Scarlett and Ursula Corbero’s Baroness show up to bring in the wider world of G.I. Joe to the mix, but it’s quite clunky and late in the game. Arashikage clan combat trainers Hard Master (the incomparable Iko Uwais of The Raid fame), and Blind Master (Peter Mensah of 300 and Jason X fame) are also sadly quite wasted, with more than a few opportunities for grand action sequences featuring their characters being squandered.

Ultimately Snake Eyes ends up falling victim to many of the tropes that plague origin stories. Fans know where all of these characters are “supposed” to end up, so the screenwriting feels more like moving pieces around on a game board in order to get them where they’re supposed to be in the end. That kind of thing never feels all that compelling to me. And all the ills of the serialized cinematic universe building of today’s modern blockbusters feel pretty egregious here. Much like this year’s Mortal Kombat, which did not even feature a tournament, G.I. Joe Origins really never quite gets around to ever turning Henry Golding’s character into what any fan who knows who Snake Eyes is would really recognize as Snake Eyes. Instead it’s just a family friendly yakuza movie.

Much has already been said online about the action being disappointing, despite such action royalty as Iko Uwais, Andrew Koji, and Fight Coordinator Kenji Tanigaki (of Rurouni Kenshin fame) being on the team. I’m not sure I entirely agree, as I found many of the set pieces to at least feature cool iconography and slick looking ideas torn from better films, not least of which is a motorcycle chase and sword fight cribbed from The Villainess. I find the online discussion about whether action scenes are overly chopped up in the editing or not to be so subjective as to render the conversation largely moot. So while I thought some of the action actually looked pretty cool, my greater issue is that I had trouble caring about much of it because I just wasn’t convinced that the characters were all that worth investing in emotionally.

I suspect general audiences will enjoy the yakuza lite formula that Snake Eyes is serving up. And with the Batman Begins-eque pop culture ninja vibe, I could even see many fans finding this to be the best G.I. Joe film yet. I hope the film finds an audience because in my mind, more mainstreaming of big screen ninjas is a righteous and noble cause. I just wish team Hasbro had been able to knock this one out of the park, and instead they painted by numbers to a middling end.

And I’m Out.

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is now playing in theaters nationwide.

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