In a previous blog entry, I asked a lot of questions with regard to Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins. One of the big ones was the question of how the GI Joe franchise can still be relevant in the 21st century. How to make the conflict of an international paramilitary task force versus a global terrorist network into escapist four-color kid-friendly fun, after… well, everything over the past two decades.
Now that the movie’s been released, the jury’s still out. Yes, this was clearly made as a backdoor pilot for some kind of GI Joe superfranchise. Yes, it’s perfectly obvious that “the Joes” and Cobra (here represented by Scarlett and the Baroness, respectively played by Samara Weaving and Ursula Corbero) have been fighting in the background for some time.
However, the greater geopolitical conflict was wisely pushed to a distant backseat for this particular movie. As the title says, this is all about the origin of Snake Eyes, with the Joes and Cobra only just present enough to show how the smaller story fits into the bigger picture. That’s as it should be. I applaud Hasbro/Paramount for playing the long game with this one, without trying to rush their way to the next cinematic superfranchise as too many other failures have done.
However, satisfying as it was to see Weaving kick ass in her introductory fight scene, it’s still too early to say if this longer game will stick the landing, or even if these two actors will excel in these particular roles. Then again, one benefit of being patient and playing the long game is that Hasbro/Paramount will have more time and breathing room to make any necessary adjustments, at least for now.
And adjustments are gonna be necessary, because this whole superfranchise is off to a rocky start.
To be clear, I’m not expecting anything groundbreaking from a movie about freaking GI Joe, but I’d at least expect something on par with lower-tier Marvel. What does that mean? Well, to start with, it means a film that commits to the premise and the franchise, without ever talking down to the fans. And all due credit, the movie succeeds with that much at least.
Right off the bat, we get a prologue in which our young protagonist watches his unnamed father (played by Steven Allerick) murdered by some kind of criminal kingpin (Mr. Augustine, played by Samuel Finzi). We don’t know at first who this guy is or why he wants the father dead, but he apparently makes all his decisions with a roll of the dice. And the dice roll comes up “snake eyes”, thus the father is killed and his house burned down.
Yes, this is the explanation for our title character’s name. And it really is his name — for reasons I won’t get into here, Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) has no other name. Ridiculous? You bet your ass. But the callsign from the source material was ridiculous to begin with, and I applaud the filmmakers for working with it as best they could with no apologies made.
As another example, most of the film seems to live in a kind of heightened reality on par with Batman Begins. But as soon as the Joes and Cobra enter the mix, the movie kicks it up a level and introduces a superpowered MacGuffin. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but as soon as this becomes a proper GI Joe picture, fantasy and sci-fi are suddenly on the table. It’s handled surprisingly well.
Unfortunately, there are limits to how stupid we can go. To wit: Through a heap of bullshit too copious and contrived to fully recap here, Snake Eyes finds himself in the middle of a conflict between two estranged cousins with connections to the Arashikage clan. Basically, the Arashikage are an all-purpose clan of elite ninjas, a peacekeeping force of spies, assassins, informants, whatever.
In one corner is Kenta (Takehiro Hira), a Yakuza boss who wants revenge for his banishment from the clan. In the other corner is Tommy (Andrew Koji), heir apparent to the clan’s leadership. Snake Eyes is caught between the two because Kenta was somehow able to track down the man who killed Snake Eyes’ father, promising Snake Eyes revenge in return for his cooperation. On the other hand, Tommy and the Arashikage proper have taken Snake Eyes into their home and trained him in their ways, giving him a home and a family like he never had.
Question: If the Arashikage really are this international spy ring of super-ninjas and they’re as powerful as they say they are, why can’t Snake Eyes simply ask for their help in tracking down his father’s killer, thus removing any leverage Kenta has over him? With that one blatantly obvious unexplored question, the entire plot falls to pieces.
That said, this premise opens itself to a number of thematic ruminations about revenge, forgiveness, and personal sacrifice for a greater purpose. All of these are a great fit for the character of Snake Eyes and for the GI Joe franchise as a whole. Well done.
But is the movie any fun, at least? Sadly, no. Not really.
First of all, there’s some pathetically bad CGI here. In particular, we’ve got some creature effects that would’ve been laughed out of theaters a decade ago. Hell, I might even say these creature effects would be on par with anything from the late ’00s.
Far more importantly, the fight scenes suck. No, they’re not entirely worthless — any film with Iko Fucking Uwais has to have fight scenes with at least some small merit. Trouble is, this is yet another unfortunate case in which the shots are too tight, the cuts are too quick, and the camera is too goddamn shaky! Every single fight scene looks underwhelming because it’s too difficult to see anything and none of the hits have any weight. FAIL.
Then we have the cast. Snake Eyes has a boilerplate development arc that more or less coasts on rails, and it sucks that he doesn’t have much agency through huge stretches of the plot. Still, Henry Golding is much better suited to play a stoic action lead than a bland romcom male lead. Andrew Koji fares even better as Tommy, the surrogate blood brother who eventually becomes Storm Shadow, the bitter rival serving as Snake Eyes’ counterpart with Cobra. Kudos for making that development arc work so well.
But then we have Haruka Abe as Akiko, head of security for the Arashikage. It’s like the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether or not they wanted her to be a reluctant love interest, or maybe they wanted a strong female lead with no idea of how to actually write one. Either way, this character is all over the map, and Abe is stuck trying to salvage an inconsistent mess.
Last but not least, we’ve got the likes of Iko Uwais, Peter Menash, and Eri Ishida filling out the supporting cast. All of whom bring enough gravitas to make anyone forget that we’re watching a glorified toy commercial. There’s also Takehiro Hira as our primary villain, striking just the right balance of cartoonish and threatening.
Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins is a frustrating near miss. It’s a film that knows what it wants to be and who it wants to impress, and I appreciate how the film pursued those goals without reservation or shame. The world-building is nicely balanced, but the plot is fundamentally broken. The cast is solid from top to bottom, though the characters (most especially Akiko) are perilously thin.
Alas, such glaringly bad CGI is unforgivable in a high-budget summer tentpole like this one. More importantly, the action is such a huge selling point, the fight scenes take up such a massive chunk of the runtime, and they’re all so terribly sloppy that it has to be a dealbreaker.
I’m honestly sorry that I can’t recommend this, because I’m seeing a lot of franchise potential here. Luckily, as GI Joe: Ever Vigilant is purportedly in development with screenwriters Andre Nemec, Aaron Berg, and Josh Applebaum (all of whom are vastly more qualified than the writing crew on Snake Eyes), Paramount/Hasbro have made it perfectly clear that they’re committed to developing GI Joe into a legitimate franchise. As to whether they’re willing or able to correct the mistakes of this inaugural outing — or whether the next film will be in a different continuity altogether — time will tell.