Snake Eyes review: Henry Golding's G.I. Joe reboot is another unnecessary origin story
Why focus on these characters before they actually get interesting?
What would G.I. Joe look like without white men, American flags, or even U.S. soldiers? Something like this, apparently.
After two 21st-century films based on the beloved '80s toy franchise that pits a crack team of soldiers and spies against the global terrorist menace of Cobra (2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation), the latest cinematic outing focuses on one Joe in particular: The silent assassin Snake Eyes, here played by Crazy Rich Asians heartthrob Henry Golding.
Well, okay, he's usually silent. Probably the single coolest member of the Joes, and certainly the most visually recognizable to those only tangentially familiar with the franchise, Snake Eyes is known for his head-to-toe black armor, his skill with a sword, and the fact that no one really knows anything about him. Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins aims to fill in some of those holes, with mixed results.
We meet Snake (who finally gets dialogue, a face, and a backstory, but still no name) working as a fishmonger with connections to the yakuza. When the gangsters order him to execute his best friend Tommy (Andrew Koji) for betraying the organization, Snake turns traitor too and gets Tommy to safety. For this heroic act, he is welcomed into the training grounds of Tommy's storied ninja family, Clan Arashikage. There he is both trained and challenged, especially by the Arashikages' security chief Akiko (Haruka Abe), who suspects this mysterious newcomer is hiding something. There's plenty of reason to worry: Cobra is active in the world. Led here by Baroness (Úrsula Corberó), they want something the Arashikages have: A mystical artifact that might as well be an Infinity Stone for all its unexplained power and plot function as an all-important MacGuffin.
Snake Eyes is another installment of that genre formation so common now: An origin story meant to simultaneously appeal to both fresh faces and longtime fans. But fans who have loved Snake Eyes for years precisely because of his silent-but-deadly demeanor may bristle at Golding's charming, talkative take on the character, while new viewers may wonder why they're supposed to care about characters like the Baroness or her opposite number Scarlett (Samara Weaving). These are important figures in G.I. Joe lore but they remain on the periphery of this film, as if they're just around to wave at the audience like "hi, don't you know who we are?" Scarlett and Snake Eyes have a storied relationship in most G.I. Joe stories, but barely interact here.
Speaking of which, it's a shame that Snake Eyes doesn't utilize Golding's romantic side more in general. It's understandable that he may want to avoid typecasting after his Crazy Rich Asians breakout, hence the turn towards this action franchise and Guy Ritchie's 2020 crime movie The Gentlemen, but Golding still has lots of on-screen charm and develops some fun chemistry with Abe's Akiko here. Romantic tension would be a fun way to spice up the proceedings, and the lack thereof may just as well reflect a recent trend in all-ages genre movies to eschew kissing completely so as not to reduce female characters to their relationships with men (before the film ends, there's even a brief "girl power" moment reminiscent of Avengers: Endgame), or the fact that as an origin story the character dynamics aren't even crystallized until the end of the film. Don't be fooled by trailers sporting that shot of Golding locking on Snake Eyes' iconic visor: It's one of the final moments before the credits roll. Why not start the story where things get interesting, instead of ending there?
All that said, there's one question that's probably on every viewer's mind walking into this movie, no matter their relationship to the G.I. Joe franchise or their general attitude about origin stories: How are the fights? They're kind of fun! Casting The Raid star Iko Uwais as Clan Arishakage's so-called Hard Master is a smart choice, and Uwais gets a few chances to show off his hand-to-hand fighting skills that launched The Raid films into the upper echelon of 2010s action cinema. As you might expect from a movie about a bunch of ninjas, there are swordfights galore, and many of these battles have interesting angles; a sequence where Scarlett cleans out a room of Cobra agents, for example, is shown entirely from the viewpoint of the smartphone camera she's using to chat with Clan Arishakage. Unfortunately, director Robert Schwentke (RED, R.I.P.D.) uses a lot of razzle-dazzle, and too often the quick cuts and close-ups obscure the action rather than highlight it.
Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Paramount is already developing a G.I. Joe movie meant to pick up where Snake Eyes leaves off. That forward-looking attitude will come as no surprise to viewers who watch this film spend its entire runtime just maneuvering its characters into their actually fun and recognizable roles. But instead of constantly kicking the "good story" can down the road forever, why not try harder to make these films more interesting in and of themselves? Grade: C