Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Robert Schwentke
How many people have seriously sat down and watched that GI Joe movie in the last few years? Heck, I’m pretty sure Obama was barely into his second term the last time this franchise was the least bit relevant! GI Joe is just not a franchise I ever had any affection for even if the more ludicrous aspects of it seem right up my alley, and roping a guy like Henry Golding into the franchise when even The Rock couldn’t salvage it seemed like a lot of wasted time and effort. Still, it was a movie that Paramount had enough faith in to move out of its original October timeslot to wait until crowds can enjoy it on the big screen which is either true confidence in a unique vision or panicked desperation to try and turn a profit on a hundred million dollar ninja movie. Does this manage to elevate the franchise and generate enough good will to get a few more sequels out, or (much like the movie’s namesake) this was a really bad bet to go all in on? Let’s find out!!
A lone drifter known only by his fighting name Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) is searching for his father’s killer but hasn’t had much luck of it and spends most of his time punching things and being alone. He’s eventually recruited by the Yakuza with promises of finding the man he’s been hunting, but it doesn’t take long for that to go sideways as the boss Kenta (Takehiro Hira) wants him to prove his loyalty by killing a traitor. Now Snake Eyes is a lot of things, most notably a guy with a silly name, but he is not a killer so he and the supposed traitor fight their way out and escape; only for Snake Eyes to learn that he hit the motherlode as the traitor Tommy (Andrew Koji) is actually the heir to the most powerful ninja family in Japan and is offering Snake Eyes a place among them. This decision doesn’t sit well with everyone in Tommy’s clan, especially their head of security Akiko (Haruka Abe), but with the bad blood between Tommy and Kenta as well as the ever rising tide of terrorism and weapons in Japan (no doubt provided by an organization that likes to brand everything with snakes), Snake Eyes may just be the man they need to save the clan from the ever encroaching threats that wish to bring them to their knees. Is Snake Eyes really willing to dedicate himself to such a cause; especially with his father’s murderer still out there? What does Tommy see in this guy that has convinced him to make such a bold move, and is this a decision he will end up regretting once all the dice have been rolled? Is it just me or is this WAY more interesting than it has any right to be?
Well dang! I certainly wasn’t expecting this movie to be as good as it was! I was expecting another half-baked Marvel knockoff trying desperately to catch up in a race that they finished a decade ago, but instead we got something genuinely engaging with real characters, interesting plot turns, and an arc for our protagonist that is believable, relatable, and even a bit heart wrenching at points; all of which are the last things I expected from a GI Joe movie, but it seems the secret formula to making one of these work seems is just to make anything BUT a GI Joe movie. Yeah, you’ve got some character names that you recognize and the entire third act is about making sure it fits nice and cozy within the larger brand, but for the most part this is something that eschews the typical big budget globe-trotting spectacle to focus in on a very personal narrative with inspirations much more in line with Samurai and Kung-Fu movies which I guess makes sense considering who the movie is focusing on, but still! Who knew the GI Joe franchise could pull of something like this? Okay, probably all the fans who are actually invested in this franchise and know all the good comic book lines and what not (I’m more or less the same way with Sonic the Hedgehog, so no judgements here!) but I bet even they weren’t getting their hopes up about another one of these movies!
For the first few minutes I was ready to write this thing off as it was starting almost exactly like that new Mortal Kombat movie down to the ridiculous MMA fight to introduce us to the main character. Snake Eyes as a character was certainly being played well by Henry Golding, but it all felt so token as we drift from one scene to the next with nary an argument or even proper justification to explain why this guy is going along with any of it. Then the movie hits you with a twist at about the thirty minute mark or so and then it all clicks into place; not just fleshing out Snake Eyes’ character with believable motivation and a genuine crisis of conscious, but adding layers to every scene that followed. A lot of this is due to Henry Golding who puts quite a lot into a role that could have been a lot more broadly played but his intensity and vulnerability shine through and just give the whole tragedy of it all the extra layer of heart that it needed. His accent DOES drop in an out quite a bit in here, but honestly that rarely bothers me and is especially excusable here with how strong of a performance it is. Now I’ve already said that this is more or less the opposite of a GI Joe movie, but at least in one regard it is similar as the whole aesthetic definitely has a TOY BOX COME TO LIFE feel to it that works as a fun juxtaposition to the more human and tragic character drama on display. It doesn’t ALWAYS click together as Andrew Koji is perhaps a bit too hammy for the depth of pain he’s asked to portray, but the lighthearted look and feel is a nice balance and gives us just as many opportunities for over the top ninja action as it does for meditations on revenge, honor, and finding a purpose worth striving for. Up until the third act there’ still questions and doubts as to what characters truly feel and what they plan to do which frankly makes this a much better spy film than Black Widow which certainly tried for complex characters but got bogged down in everything else it was trying to do. This keeps things nice and simple with the whole world more or less turning on the actions of one man in a position to truly make his own destiny! It’s so good on its own somewhat goofy but mostly sincere terms that it’s a shame it couldn’t have just STAYED that way.
Where the movie starts to falter a bit is in the second half which still thankfully continues the engaging storylines (especially the one between Snake Eyes and Tommy), but this is when the GI Joe stuff starts to creep in from the margins to mostly middling effect. Honestly it’s only two characters and a couple of Cobra logos which is appreciated as it doesn’t take over the ENTIRE movie, but it’s still an awkwardly crowbarred in subplot that the great movie we were already watching has to try and justify; as is the traditional Snake Eyes costume which just doesn’t mesh with the character we’ve gotten to know throughout the entire movie. The final action scene also goes a bit too far into the ludicrous for me which admittedly is a strange thing for me of all people to say, but where the rest of the movie had genuine weight behind its action with clearly drawn characters driving the ebb and flow of combat, this is more of a shooting gallery where everyone just starts stabbing everything in sight. On the one hand a straightforward and uncompromised retelling of these kind of Asian action/dramas would have probably been a better movie as it could have kept its focus all the way through instead of trying to spin too many places at once. On the other hand, I don’t think Universal was going to give this kind of budget to that kind of movie so the fact that we got something even RESEMBLING that in the middle of a GI Joe movie is itself something worth applauding; and hey, maybe the fans will get a kick out of all of this stuff even if it does make the whole thing feel a little cluttered.
I could have lived with the franchise stuff and given this some of the best marks I’ve given to any film a while, but sadly the whole movie is undercut by one fatal flaw; the filming of the action scenes. I cannot fathom why the film makers thought this was a good idea, but almost every action scene has shaky cam, quick cuts, and too many close ups which sucked almost every drop of enjoyment out of them. The choreography looked fine to me and the few shots that last longer than a second seem FRAMED well enough, but the camera just will not settle down and let the VERY TALENTED ACTORS AND STUNT PEOPLE do what they do best. You can tell beyond all the shaking and cutting that there is some genuine inspiration here with the solid character work informing the way the action scenes play out and it’s clear admiration for the cheesy kung-fu movies of the past. I couldn’t help but smile every time there was a group of bad guys wielding one handed weapons and just BOOKING it as fast as they could to our heroes while screaming at the top of their lungs which is exactly the kind of over the top nonsense that those old school Shaw Brothers movies were made of! The creative set pieces like the one on a speeding truck, the sheer fun of having a big fight scene in a fish factory, all of it is great stuff that just can’t escape the fact that it is a PAIN IN THE BUTT to watch because of the way they decided to shoot it.
I got so much more enjoyment out of this movie than I could have hoped for, and yet I still can’t help but feel woefully disappointed by it. If they could just have fixed the shaky cam, it’d get close to a full star in the final tally, but sadly we stuck with the movie we got and I doubt Paramount is gonna Snyder Cut this thing when it hits their streaming service. I’m sure GI Joe fans will get a kick out of someone taking their goofy franchise seriously enough to make a decent drama out of it, but for the rest of us it comes down to how much you enjoy old school samurai and kung-fu movies. If you’re looking for a fresh new one and have already scoured Netflix’s catalog, then this is definitely a movie worth going to the theaters to experience even if a good chunk of it is very hard to see. It’s got much more going for it than it has any right to and it’s just a shame that they couldn’t aim a little bit higher; or perhaps have thought to buy a tripod.