Film

Review: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins Is Best as a Martial Arts Actioner that Resists Franchise Tropes

Turns out, remembering next to nothing about the previous G.I. Joe movies (The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation) before walking into Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, something of a spin-off/prequel thing, is no big deal. It also seems like the people who made Snake Eyes also didn’t watch these older films, and on top of everything else, the film is a reboot of a franchise based on the Hasbro toys and cartoons. Instead of stepping into its story through the eyes and weapons of the military fighting unit known as the Joes, this take focuses on the character of Snake Eyes (played by Ray Park in two previous films). This time around, he’s played by Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians, Last Christmas), who as a young boy watched his father (Steven Allerick) get murdered in front of him by an assassin he has sworn vengeance upon.

Snake Eyes

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Growing up an orphan, Snake Eyes began working as part of a Japanese weapons-smuggling operation run by Kenta (Takehiro Hira). In exchange for his loyalty, Kenta has promised to find the man who killed his father, giving him time to enact his revenge. But when Snake Eyes chooses to protect Tommy (Andrew Koji), a supposed traitor to Kenta’s organization, the two go on the run and back to Tommy’s family’s estate. It turns out Tommy is part of a wealthy and powerful clan run by the family matriarch Sen (Eri IShida). Tommy wishes Snake Eyes to become part of the clan, which means he has to pass three inane tests set up through the clan’s head of security Akiki (Haruka Abe), Blind Master (Peter Mensah), and Hard Master (the great Iko Uwais, from The Raid movies).

But it turns out, Snake Eyes is still secretly working for Kenta, promising to deliver an ancient relic from Tommy’s clan to him in exchange for the man he’s been seeking since childhood. Along the way, we get nibbles from the G.I. Joe universe, including appearances from good-guy Scarlett (now played by Samara Weaving) and Cobra stooge Baroness (Úrsula Corberó), but for the most part, the film doesn’t attempt to connect itself with that world just yet. Director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, RED, two of the Divergent movies, The Captain) seems far more interested in turning Snake Eyes into a worthy martial arts movie, loaded with swordplay, ninjas, and a great deal of hand-to-hand combat, and when he sticks to that, the movie isn’t half bad. But once Kenta gets the artifact and harnesses its destructive power, the film becomes far less interesting.

In terms of the acting, Golding is certainly a step or two above Park, and the rest of the cast keeps the film on target as far as the dramatics go. Again, it’s only when the G.I. Joe world attempts to infiltrate that things go sideways and become far less intriguing. This is one of the rare instances when I found Weaving looking a bit lost and uninterested as a performer. And I don’t need to remember that Corberó’s Baroness actually appeared in Rise of Cobra to recall that Sienna Miller played the character far better. We get a sense of the reach and scope of Cobra in Snake Eyes, but that makes sense as far as the character goes.

As much as I liked the fight sequences here, they are shot and edited rather sloppily, chopped together as if capturing a single move is more important that a well-choreographed exchange. It’s like director Schwentke was afraid to hold a take for more than two seconds. Snake Eyes is far better than I’m guessing most of you are expecting, but the real question might end up being: who exactly was waiting for this story, and why should they care? As mentioned, I think fans of straight-up martial arts movies have the most to enjoy here, and G.I. Joe fans will likely be left wanting more. All of that being said, this film was kept away from a great many critics, which is both a shame and completely unnecessary since it certainly has more than a few moments of genuine value.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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