Starring: Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), Andrew Koji (Warrior), Úrsula Corberó (Money Heist), Samara Weaving (Ready of Not), Iko Uwais (The Raid), Haruka Abe (Cruella), Takehiro Hira (Ace Attorney), Peter Mensah (300)
Director: Robert Schwentke (Red)
Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (Race)
Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute
Release Date: 23rd July (US), 18th August (UK)
The question really has to be asked: is G.I. Joe even relevant anymore? Sure, it’s an important part of toy history and its 80s incarnation still has its retro appeal, but it hasn’t managed to stay in the modern zeitgeist like Transformers or Masters of the Universe have. There hasn’t been an animated series in a decade to keep it fresh in the heads of today’s kids, and whilst the prior attempts at live action adaptation The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation are guilty pleasures for some (i.e. me), neither proved as popular as even the worst-performing Bayformer film. Still, Paramount and Hasbro still see something of worth in the property and have opted to give the franchise a new lease in much the same way they did with Bumblebee: making a prequel focusing on the origin of a popular character to act as a springboard into a full reboot. Unfortunately, whilst Bumblebee was the upbeat breath of fresh air Transformers needed, Snake Eyes rarely feels like anything more than brand management.
As I’m sure many a diehard fan will let you know, G.I. Joe has an overwhelmingly in-depth mythology mainly thanks to the efforts of comics legend Larry Hama. Whilst a lot of that original backstory has been jettisoned here, it does have a tonal reverence for his work and treats the material with far more weight than the previous film incarnations. For a good chunk of its runtime, Snake Eyes is a grounded and strait-laced action thriller, mixing in elements of classic ninja and yakuza movies that make it stand out a little from the usual blockbuster fare. If it weren’t for the inclusion of its recognisable characters, it’s easy to forget that it’s a G.I. Joe movie at all until the expected Joes vs. Cobra elements start seeping into the plot. It’s also at this point the more fantastical elements get rolled in to, and soon this mostly boilerplate actioner is busting out giant anacondas and magical fire gems like they’re no big deal. This all leads to a drawn-out but otherwise satisfying finale that brings the OTT spectacle you’d hope for and hypes up the full G.I. Joe epic they clearly want to make. The problem is that not only does the script do a poor job of integrating those franchise building blocks into its core narrative, but the first two acts simply aren’t engaging enough on their own. The pacing is numbingly slow at points, with huge portions of the film bereft of extended action, to the point that any children in the audience will likely get restless as they await the next ninja bout. This film may have more respect for its source material on an intellectual level, but the 2009/2013 movies at least understood that G.I. Joe should be fun; I mean, it’s literally based on action figures. Snake Eyes, meanwhile, is like reading a dry fan wiki whilst watching a supercut of 80s ninja movies and edited-for-TV Takeshi Miike flicks.
The cast of G.I. Joe is pretty vast and full of quirky characters, but Snake Eyes has proved the most popular ever since the 80s relaunch; amazing for a character who was a throwaway they literally left as an unpainted black mould to save on manufacturing costs. On first thought, it’s only natural they chose the dark-garbed ninja to be the focus of a spin-off, but at the same time he doesn’t lend himself much to leading man status. In most incarnations, he rarely takes off his mask or even talks, so what is there to work with? Well, this is where Snake Eyes plays loose with the established mythology and gives the character the typical tragic backstory and quest for revenge, turning a character whose appeal lied in his mysteriousness into just another generic anti-hero. Henry Golding has proven himself an incredibly charismatic presence from his roles in Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favour, but he seems woefully out of depth as an action star here. Snakes Eyes is a role that simply doesn’t play to Golding’s strengths, requiring him to be constantly brooding and contemplative, and he ends up coming off like a preppy kid trying to be a bad boy rather than the downbeat street rat he’s written as. It’s clear that the man is trying, and with further refinement he has the potential to be a blockbuster leading man, but he’s simply not there yet. Henry Golding reminds me a lot of a young George Clooney and the comparison couldn’t be more apt here, as Snake Eyes is to Golding as what Batman was to Clooney; not inherently bad casting, but clearly out of their depth and lacking the material they needed to make it work.
Thankfully, Andrew Koji picks up a lot the slack as Tommy Arashikage, the man soon to be known as Storm Shadow. He immediately brings a lot of screen presence, has strong chemistry with Golding, and believably evolves over the course of the story from the trusted ally to the bitter rival of Snake Eyes fans know him to be. Also acting as a foil to both Golding and Koji is Haruka Abe as Akiko, the Arashikage clan’s head of security, but she’s fairly one-note and really only there to keep Golding on his toes until the third act. Iko Uwais and Peter Mensah are on hand as the clan’s teachers Hard Master and Blind Master respectively, and whilst both are welcome presences (and of course Uwais is easily the action standout) they are relegated to the background for much of the plot. The film’s primary antagonist is Takehiro Hira as Kenta, Tommy’s cousin and rival, but he’s no more than a stock yakuza bad guy with very little depth beyond what we are told about his past with the Arashikage clan. Whilst all this ninja intrigue is going on, the only representatives of the Joes vs. Cobra conflict are Samara Weaving as Scarlett and Úrsula Corberó as Baroness. Whilst Weaving makes the most of her limited screen time and once again cements herself as a superstar in the making, Corberó fails to make such an impact. Baroness is meant to be one of the most iconic villains in the G.I. Joe franchise, a Bond femme fatale turned up to 11 whose ruthlessness is only outmatched by Cobra Commander, but here she comes off more like a naughty librarian in a catsuit. At least she has her Eastern European accent this time around?
As said prior, Snake Eyes is pretty bereft of action compared to most blockbusters of its type, and unfortunately it fails to leave much impact even when it does arrive. Much in the same vein as this year’s Mortal Kombat, it’s unfortunately yet another example of solid choreography being ruined by sloppy editing that cuts on every impact; if this is the trend for Eastern-inspired action movies in 2021, I hope next month’s Shang-Chi doesn’t fall victim to it. Luckily, the third act is mostly an exception to this, especially an incredible Matrix Reloaded-inspired highway chase that finally brings in the ridiculous spectacle you’d expect from a G.I. Joe movie. Snake Eyes is also a surprisingly pretty movie to look at, especially in how it contrasts the neon-drenched streets of Tokyo at night with the calming serenity of the Arashikage compound, but some of the other visual presentation comes off cheap (e.g. the fiery orange subtitles that look like a WordArt template). Finally, Martin Todsharow’s score is an understated but unique fusion of electronica and traditional Japanese music, creating a soundscape that compliments the film’s old-meets-new aesthetic astutely.
Snakes Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins isn’t a terrible film, but it is a thoroughly unremarkable one that will likely fade from public memory before the year is out. The cast and crew are clearly trying to make the best of it, and it has fleeting moments that show the potential for a great G.I. Joe movie within, but it simply cannot get over the fact that its mere premise is a foolish gamble. When you get down to it, G.I. Joe just isn’t a property that has the fandom to support a spin-off/prequel in the same way as Marvel or DC or even Transformers; it certainly has a deep-enough mythology to, but until general audiences are as familiar with Duke and Cobra Commander as they are with Iron Man and Thanos, it ain’t happening. If they plan on following up on this with a proper Joes vs. Cobra story, they’ve built just enough of a promising foundation to have me mildly curious. However, given its box office performance so far has been dire even by post-COVID standards, it’s looking doubtful that audiences will be cheering “Yo, Joe!” again any time soon.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10