From action figures to cartoons, the world of G.I. Joe has been one powered by simple characters, elaborate hardware, and imagination. A pair of big-budget, live-action blockbusters followed their lead with both G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) delivering over the top action and exaggerated personalities. Unlike Hasbro’s other toy to movie transition, though, the films weren’t the monster hits that would have guaranteed an ongoing franchise. Never one to give up on an IP, Paramount is back eight years later with Snake Eyes — an origin story about two of the G.I. Joe world’s more mysterious characters. Unfortunately, it’s the one not named in the title who’s by far the most interesting, engaging, and exciting.
A young boy witnesses his father’s murder at the hand of a man whose loaded dice determined his fate, and twenty years later he’s grown up to fight in illegal brawls under the name Snake Eyes (Henry Golding). A minor boss with the Yakuza named Kenta (Takehiro Hira) recognizes his talent and hires him on, and while Snake is hesitant at first the promise that Kenta will find the man who killed his father seals the deal. He befriends a mouthy enforcer, and when Tommy (Andrew Koji) is outed as a traitor and marked for death it’s Snake who fights by his side and helps him escape. Turns out Tommy is next in line to rule the centuries-old Arashikage clan and had gone undercover to investigate the Yakuza’s gun-running scheme, and now he’s welcomed Snake into his well-guarded home. They’d be best friends forever if only Snake wasn’t there under duplicitous purposes.
We can never have enough ninja movies, so the idea of giving G.I. Joe’s infamous enemies, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, their own film seemed promising, but the end result is a disappointing one. Snake Eyes is surprisingly dull — for an action movie, for a ninja movie, and for a G.I. Joe movie. The script takes an overly familiar path with its narrative and without any fresh angles, and while it’s punctuated by action beats they’re constantly underwhelming for a variety of reasons.
To be clear, the previous G.I. Joe films wouldn’t win any writing awards themselves, but they also embrace the inherent silliness of sci-fi hardware, gung-ho 80s heroes, and exaggerated villains like Cobra Commander. Snake Eyes dips its toes into the absurd with a magical jewel, train-sized anacondas, and Cobra favorite The Baroness (Úrsula Corberó, doing her best Cory Chase impression), but far too much of the script (by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse) focuses on the overly sedate and basic. While billed as the origin of Snake Eyes, the film serves better as a look into what turns Tommy into Storm Shadow. Snake’s journey sees him as something of a jerk with an unsatisfying heroic arc, but Tommy’s flip towards darkness actually earns viewer understanding and sympathy. It’s an oddly crafted dynamic.
The cast is equally deceptive in its promise starting with Golding’s turn in the title role. He’s a charismatic actor, both personable and engaging, but while he has physical presence — and yes, would make one hell of a James Bond, circa Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan — he’s an unavoidable second fiddle in an action beside Koji. The Warrior (2019-) lead is a legitimate action star capable of mesmerizing moves and impressive acrobatics, and Golding just can’t compete.
Of course, that brings us to the biggest issue with Snake Eyes — the action is immediately forgettable. Despite Koji’s capabilities, the behind-the-scenes presence of the great Kenji Tanigaki (fight choreographer on numerous Donnie Yen films and the Rurouni Kenshin franchise), and action giant Iko Uwais in a supporting role, anything teasing impressive or cool fights is neutered in post-production. Director Robert Schwentke and editor Stuart Levy butcher the sequences with an abundance of misguided cuts, edits, and coverage choices leaving fight scenes a mess of uninteresting blurs. Larger action sequences fair no better as CG and green screen work fails to compel or convince.
While the film doesn’t really work there are elements of note worth mentioning. Chief among them is Koji who proves his Warrior success is no fluke. He’s more than just his action chops, and he gives Tommy both sincerity and weight. Haruka Abe does good work despite her poorly written character as the Arashikage clan’s head of security — we’re told she’s a force to be reckoned with yet she’s sucker punched twice (by Snake) and falls immediately in love (with Snake). Samara Weaving stars as Scarlett and is as welcome as Uwais, but she’s let down by her character just as he is by the editing.
To paraphrase a line from Snake Eyes itself, all studios make mistakes, it’s what they do next that matters. In this case that hopefully means one of two things (or both if Paramount is feeling especially ambitious) — return G.I. Joe to the realm of big, silly, action-heavy entertainment, or hire people who know what the hell they’re doing when it comes to making, editing, and showcasing killer action sequences.