‘Snakes Eyes’ Delivers Derivative Action (Movie Review)

Eight years after the last G.I. Joe adventure hit the big screen Paramount and MGM suit up for a reboot with Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. A few months ago, an impressive trailer highlighted cool ninja moves, outlandish stand-offs on motorcycles, and a black helmet that’s wicked cool but surely not great to actually see out of. As the titular character, Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) seemed more than capable of pulling off silent assassin simmering with bouts of humor. Add in Ready or Not‘s Samara Weaving, who ditches her wedding dress for gear that’s more practical, and I was totally onboard. Pandemic notwithstanding, this was primed to be silly fun for summer 2021. Did Hasbro’s other big toy franchise finally get its due? Read on, Joes!

Opening 20 years ago in a remote cabin, we meet a handsome dad and his adorable young son. The boy wonders why his father calls this place in the woods a “safe house” since no safe is on the premises. Soon bumps in the night awaken the father. He tells the boy to hide. Cut to the cabin in flames and the father dead. He had the bad luck of rolling snake eyes in front of some nefarious men, which sealed his fate. That’s right, this opener is a pre-origin to Snakes Eyes’ main origin tale.

We flash forward to the boy now grown up, looking like Golding, and going by the moniker Snakes Eyes. He lives off the grid. He’s got MMA fighting skills to make quick cash, just like Cole Young did in Mortal Kombat. Clearly, this is how anyone makes a living off the grid because: movies. An offer to join the Yakuza is made. Snake Eyes takes it with the promise that their leader Kento (Takehiro Hira) will find out who killed his dad all those years ago. After a job goes wrong, he ends up saving a friend (Andrew Koji) who insists he accompanies him to his family’s clan. Snake Eyes flies to Japan, where he will undergo three trials to become a member of an honorable ninja clan.

A hero who wants revenge but wonders how far he’ll compromise his morals to discover the truth is pretty standard for an action movie trope. The script by Evan Spilotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse doesn’t overcomplicate the situation. Snakes Eyes will be trained, but he’ll eventually need to take a stand and discover where his loyalties truly lie. That’s pretty much the plot. It’s entirely serviceable, and a good enough premise for director Robert Schwentke (Red) to use and dispose of in place of amazing fight scenes, an intriguing villain’s lair, and the aforementioned motorcycle set pieces.

So when I say I wished I loved this movie more, it’s by no means a “not enough story” complaint. It’s more a case where the aspects of the film we’re supposed to be engaged by are too often also just serviceable too (or worse). The fight scenes, for example, have one too many handheld shaking for my tastes. To Golding and the rest of the cast’s credit, everyone looks like they’re all in on delivering intricate hand-to-hand martial arts, but there’s no rhythm to their moves.

In particular, Haruka Abe, who plays the clan’s top security chief (and possibly a love interest for Golding), has pointed attacks that should be a marvel in motion, but the editing gets in the way (The Raid‘s Iko Uwais is the only performer who has a fair number of wide shots which isn’t surprising). It also should be noted that veteran genre actor Pete Mensah (Jason X!) does solid work as a blind warrior who wields deadly ropes with knives attached. So that’s something.

Also, unlike April’s Mortal Kombat, this film does a good job of balancing what is, for the bulk of its run time, a hero-in-training tale, with all the G.I. Joe stuff fans will be expecting. Beyond Weaving as a decent but underused Scarlett, Úrsula Corberó, as the black-suited Baroness, chews the scenery non-stop, and her iconic glasses are totally on fleek. Overall, the Joes and Cobra are re-introduced satisfyingly in the film’s second half.

As for Golding, I’ve been a fan of his for a few years. He has a kind of charisma that grabs you when he’s onscreen. Frustratingly, like Eastwood’s Man With No Name trilogy, Snake Eyes is a less chatty guy than Golding typically plays, which does him no favors. Eastwood may be a master at piercing stares, but Golding is no Eastwood. He may have a Clooney-like charm, but the whole tone here takes itself pretty seriously, which is a shame when you have a lead like Golding. He still pulls off the role for the most part, but the script doesn’t give him a lot to work with internally.

While offering subpar action and little innovation, I still had a good enough time with Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins; it just still feels lacking. With all of that in mind, while I’m, by no means, a G.I. Joe expert,  I would be curious to see what’s next if this film is a hit.

(Note: Stick around during the credits for a quick bonus scene.)


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