As an die-hard reader and fan of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic series through most of 1980’s, it still blows my mind that the “Real American Hero” hasn’t had its own successful movie franchise. It’s not for lack of trying. The first attempt came with 2009’s tolerable but not great “The Rise of Cobra”. They tried again in 2013 with the hammy and utterly forgettable “Retaliation”. Considering the wealth of great material in Larry Hama’s terrific comic book run, it was a shame that they couldn’t get a film series off the ground.
It’s been eight years and they’ve decided to give it another go, this time by focusing on the franchise’s popular and most recognized characters. “Snake-Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a full-on Snake-Eyes origin story that clearly intends to kickoff a new and rebooted franchise. But as I watched, I couldn’t get past how dated it felt. It looks like a modern movie; the action scenes and the production design all look current day. But I kept wondering if G.I. Joe’s heyday had come and gone? Are there still enough people attached to the brand to be excited for a new franchise? Have they missed their window?
Longtime fans of the character will instantly notice that this a modernized Snake-Eyes’ origin. It takes some bare basics from his backstory and puts together its own version. It makes sense to write out certain details such as his military service in Vietnam. I’m just not convinced that what we get as a replacement is that much better. Even more, for a movie hoping to launch a G.I. Joe cinematic universe, it’s shocking how inconsequential G.I. Joe ends up being to the story.
“Snake-Eyes” comes from German director Robert Schwentke working from a script by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. The hunky Henry Golding plays the titular lead character who we first meet well before he becomes a butt-kicking ninja commando for the Joes. Here he’s an angry vengeful drifter fighting in warehouses for small change and searching the globe for the thug who killed his father when he was just a child (see the short prologue for all the details).
Snake ends up going to work for Kenta (Takehiro Kira), a gangster with Yakuza ties who claims to have resources to track down Snake’s father’s killer. When Snake’s best friend Tommy (Andrew Koji) is caught betraying the Yakuza, Kenta orders Snake to execute him – a show of loyalty if you will. Instead Snake turns on Kenta and helps Tommy escape. As a show of gratitude, Tommy takes Snake to his family’s Clan Arashikage in Tokyo where the two men’s friendship make up the backbone of the movie.
Golding (who blew up in “Crazy Rich Asians”) puts a good face on the Snake-Eyes character and for the first 30 minutes of so he gives us a reason to care about Snake’s journey. But then the movie gets bogged down by several missteps in the writing room. First there is Snake’s drawn-out initiation into Tommy’s clan that gets sillier with each “test” he takes. Then there’s the decision to make the long-standing feud between the Arashikage and Kenta’s gang the film’s central focus. It makes for a good standalone story but it’s a weird choice for a movie meant to jump-start a completely unrelated franchise.
And that leads to the biggest issue, one that will probably sour and bewilder a big chunk of the fanbase. It’s mind-blowing how insignificant G.I. Joe and Cobra are to the story. Both come across as afterthoughts, wedged in out of obligation and lacking any depth or detail. Their paper-thin connections to the narrative come completely out-of-the blue and are far too contrived to be meaningful. We do get two fan-favorites Scarlett (Samara Weaving) and Baroness (Úrsula Corberó). Both actresses fit their parts and do the best they can. But neither can make their characters seem relevant or necessary.
“Snake-Eyes” isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ movie. It has all the polish of a big studio action picture and a cast who does a good job bringing these characters to life (keep your eye on Koji who has great intensity and a remarkable presence). With the exception of a couple of fight scenes marred by headache-inducing shaky cam and chopped to pieces in the editing room, the choreography and set pieces are impressive. But it’s brought down by the story’s slow patches, the weird mystical goofiness, and the odd choice to leave G.I. Joe on the backburner. Snake-Eyes doesn’t even put on his signature mask and visor until the final scene. How does that happen? “Snake-Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” opens today in theaters.