Remember when Iron Man, the first film in what would be a brand-new universe, wowed audiences with its mix of action and character-driven drama, creating a movie that you could just watch over and over again? A film without whose success the pop-culture landscape today would look unbelievably different? Well, that’s what Paramount, MGM and Hasbro are hoping for with Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Is it that? No.
Is it a movie with ninjas, some cool fights and aesthetics, and B-movie charm? Yes.
For the sake of this review, I should clarify: I am not a G.I. Joe fan. That’s not to say I have any animosity toward the franchise, just no particular attachment to it growing up. I’ve never seen the cartoon nor have I read Larry Hama’s (apparently excellent) comics. I did see the Homestar Runner parody cartoon, which I guess dates me in a different way. I also recently watched the first movie (The Rise of Cobra) of the original duology, so I can at least confidently say that Snake Eyes is a superior film.
You must be wondering then, dear reader, why then I chose to spend my hard-earned money to go see this film. Well, therein lies the reason for the film actually being pretty decent. To wit: It stars Henry Golding and Andrew Koji, has cool production values, some nice Japan location shooting, and delivers on promised decent fights. The film succeeds mostly across those fronts, so I was pretty pleased.
Golding stars as Snake Eyes, a boy whose father is murdered because he, uh, rolls snake eyes on a pair of dice. Snake Eyes grows up training to avenge his father’s murder. His quest brings him into the employ of a Yakuza boss, and through a series of mishaps, he ends up alongside Tommy Arashikage (Koji), the heir to a prominent Japanese ninja clan.
Snake Eyes is then caught between the world of the ninja and that of the Yakuza and, later, between G.I. Joe and Cobra as he becomes a more heroic character befitting of his Joe fame. My understanding is that much of his origin was changed for this film. But the great thing about this plot is that if you have basically zero knowledge of Joe, like I did, you will still find a compelling enough story, thanks to its twin leads of Golding and Koji.
I should say straight-up that it is great to have a franchise film like this (however ill-fated its box office may be) headlined by two mixed-race badasses. Minorities often get the short stick when it comes to this kind of thing, so having Golding as a Snake Eyes is really great. The actor makes for a great natural hero, and I think many underrate his turn here. He’s able to create a conflicted character while imbuing him with a natural sense of good; when Snake Eyes does something wrong in pursuit of his revenge, we really feel like that’s not who the character should be, given Golding’s inherent goodness. Golding’s easy-going charm makes him a natural star, and he really should have his own spy franchise of some sort so we can just have fun with him doing cool things.
The real MVP though is Koji, who becomes the Storm Shadow character. Koji is best known from his TV series Warrior, where he plays the lead of Ah Sahm, an easygoing Bruce Lee type. Storm Shadow is a very different sort of character, and Koji achieves the difficult feat of making his eventual villainous turn sympathetic but unambiguous; he is a man of principle and very harsh on those who do not meet his standards.
This results in a great contrast between the two characters. Whereas Golding’s Snake Eyes starts as a not-so-great guy who learns to better himself and care for others, Koji’s Storm Shadow remains implacable, ultimately incapable of humbling himself or being capable of forgiveness. For a G.I. Joe film to delve into such themes seems absurd, and yet here it is. Everything around these two is a little flat, but they carry the movie on their shoulders.
Strange to say it, but this G.I. Joe movie features better character moments than action sequences. The choreography for Snake Eyes is fantastic but hampered by shaky-cam cinematography and poor editing. This shakiness is certainly an artistic choice but, boy, I would really like Western action editors to take a look at any number of DTV action movies or non-western action movies to learn that when you have someone like Koji (who does all his own fights), you must take advantage of them and actually show the audience his fights.
Indeed, Koji’s native series of Warrior frequently features clean and excellent fight scenes that actually let you see the fights play out. I very much hope Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a film that leads the way in this regard because if that shaky-cams out Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, I am probably going to lose my mind. That being said, the fights are not a lost cause, and they are not so hard to follow because the choreography is good. It’s just that they could look much, much better.
What does look good though is the film itself, a perfect aesthetic for the G.I. Joe world that feels like slightly heightened reality. None of it feels dissonant, and there are some wonderfully neon-lit night fights, castle-grounds fights and just a wonderful bevy of locations. The lovely Japanese location shots are a special balm as travel remains dicey.
Almost a throwback to the ’90s era of B-tier action movies, Snake Eyes delivers strong visuals along with likable and engageable characters in solid-enough fights. With Golding and Koji delivering solid dramatic and action beats (plus the diversity from their casting), Snake Eyes doesn’t quite deliver a desire to see 10 years of G.I. Joe films a la the MCU, but it does deliver a pretty fun movie. Ultimately, Snake Eyes is probably not going to be the next Iron Man, or maybe not even the next Ant-Man. It should, however, find an audience among those who enjoy popcorn ninja action.