Early on in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, the film’s hero, Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) is forced to fight 15-20 adversaries at once — and, against all odds, he triumphs. Having that many people fight one man is the film’s way of telling us this dude is a force to be reckoned with. But a few scenes later, he fights another huge group of people. Then another. And another. Once is character-building and exciting, by the fourth or fifth battle, it loses almost all of its power — of course Snake Eyes will make it out of another lopsided fight. That mix of partially cool and partially repetitive is a great example of what you can expect from the latest reboot of Hasbro’s popular G.I. Joe franchise.
Directed by Robert Schwentke (Red) from a script by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse, and Joe Shrapnel, the film aims to provide a unique backdoor introduction into a much larger world, one where the “Real American Heroes,” G.I. Joe, fight their enemies at Cobra. Along the way though, Snake Eyes feels aggressively disinterested in sustained excitement or narrative innovation. Instead, it relies too heavily on familiar, meaningless action that undercuts its character development and world-building.
After a brief, crucial flashback to start the film, Snake Eyes picks up in modern-day Los Angeles where the title character is being recruited into the Yakuza. Soon he’ll be asked to murder one of its members without sufficient reason. But he can’t, he’s too moral and honorable, so he and the man he was meant to kill make a daring escape and quickly form a friendship. That other person is Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji), who just so happens to be the heir to one of Japan’s most powerful, sacred clans. Snake Eyes has no family, so Tommy invites him to go to Japan and become part of his group. And so begins Snake Eyes’ journey from wandering warrior to eventual G.I. Joe ninja assassin.
That relationship between Snake Eyes and Tommy is the best thing about the film. The two headstrong and capable characters have a lot in common, which manifests as tension between them. Each wants and tries to trust the other one, but we aren’t sure if they have the capacity to do so. It’s a complex dynamic that’s fuelled further by Akiko (Haruka Abe), head of security for the Arashikage, who doesn’t trust Snake as much as Tommy does. In those relationships, and the revelations that follow, Snake Eyes shows huge promise.
When the film is giving character backstories, growing relationships, setting up conflicts, or eliciting emotion, it works. Eventually though, the characters make choices (too spoilery to mention) that complicate the plot, but also emotionally erode much of the character building that’s already occurred. It’s a jarring shift that creates an unsettling imbalance in the film’s themes of family and trust. On one hand, it seems like the film is telling us to believe in these characters. But the actions on the screen don’t always back that up.
The main way Snake Eyes attempts to develop themes is with action set pieces, which is expected (this is a G.I. Joe movie after all). Though many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and staged, very few moments in them feel specifically tailored to this particular world or franchise. With a few exceptions, the scenes mostly consist of people with swords chasing each other and jumping around. That can be fun, but it can also be exhausting, which is in large part due to Schwentke’s almost uninspired direction.
There’s very, very little in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins that we haven’t seen before in some way; from the muted colours at the Arashikage base to the neon lights of downtown Tokyo, and the action scenes filled with anonymous bad guys in motorcycle helmets, it all feels very safe and familiar. Even a few of the big moments meant to stand out from the rest don’t really do so (three words: Well of Souls).
Finally, by the time a few G.I. Joe characters start to pop up, they fail to impact the shaky dynamic that’s been brewing between Tommy and Snake. The new characters explain some plot points, blow some stuff up, and tease future movies rather than influence anything specific or meaningful in this one. As nice as it is to see the world of G.I. Joe seep into this supposedly character-driven story, the two pieces don’t fit and feel like each would be better without the other.
Golding and Koji both do everything they can to raise the bar on the script and action scenes putting as much nuance and intensity in their performances as possible. Abe too lends a welcome bit of humanity to the film with her mysterious history and healthy scepticism. But ultimately they’re just stuck in a deep pit they can’t get out of. Snake Eyes: G.I Joe Origins isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a good movie either.
It’s kind of sitting in the middle as a suitable way to pass a few hours of your time but something you’ll instantly forget about the second the credits roll. While it would be cool to see these characters back again, if that happens, one would hope it would come with more passion and energy.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is now showing in Australian cinemas.