The latest in a long string of products spawned by a jingoistic line of 1960s dolls, Robert Schwentke’s Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins aims nearly as much at Westerners infatuated with romantic notions of Japan (both ancient and modern) as at viewers — how many really exist? — fond of the long-corny G.I. Joe brand. In sending a hero beloved by ‘80s fanboys into the world of Yakuza and samurai lore, it calls to mind the comics that inspired James Mangold’s The Wolverine; though this film is a good deal sillier than that one, its nods toward pulpy grit and its enjoyable fight sequences will be welcomed by viewers who couldn’t tell a Storm Shadow from a Copperhead or Zartan (and who would need Wikipedia even to come up with those characters’ names).
Playing the young man whose real name was forgotten decades ago, Henry Golding lopes into the action with easy charisma Schwentke will never fully exploit. He’s ideal as a morally ambiguous mystery man with a brutal backstory. As a boy, he was on what his father claimed was a vacation when bad guys tracked dad down at their cabin. The boy watched as a villain forced his father to roll a pair of dice to determine his fate. When he rolled two ones — snake eyes — Dad was executed.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins
Good enough to make you wish it were better.
Twenty years later, Snake Eyes is a drifter, brutalizing opponents in underground fight tournaments while yearning for vengeance. He’s approached by Kenta (Takehiro Hira, star of Netflix’s recent Giri/Haji), who needs tough young dudes, and who promises he can find Snake’s father’s killer. Within weeks, Snake is helping the Yakuza smuggle guns in the bellies of gutted fish.
But Snake balks when he’s ordered to kill a man Kenta says has wronged him, and instead helps him escape in the first of several hyperbolic fight sequences. Snake chose the right guy to help: Tommy (Andrew Koji) turns out to be the heir-apparent to the Arashikage clan, a rich family that appears to have been some kind of shadow defender of Japanese ideals since at least the Edo era. Snake is whisked on a private jet to their vast white-walled castle, where a private army guards, among other things, an heirloom called the Jewel of the Sun. Tommy declares that Snake will train to be his right-hand warrior, helping the clan adapt to the modern world.
Schwentke and his three screenwriters seem ready to immerse us in Arashikage mythology, with Snake slowly learning ninja stealth and samurai honor while enjoying Tommy’s collection of sleek electric motorcycles. But while all the signifiers of ancient Japanese cool are here (entry-level Nipponophiles will especially love Louise Mingenbach’s varied kimono designs), this midsection doesn’t make the most of Snake’s training for the “Three Challenges of the Warrior.”
Instead it takes what could be a more rewarding detour: We learn that Snake is still secretly working for Kenta, planning to steal the Jewel of the Sun in exchange for the man he aches to kill. His allegiances will be uncertain for the rest of the film, as his natural affinity for the Arashikages’ talk of honor competes with his need to avenge his father.
Though the motivations are all in place, the screenplay fails to turn Snake (even temporarily) into a compelling antihero. Instead of marveling at his willingness to betray his new friends, we watch with surprise how easily he sneaks past their defenses. Even the clan’s head of security, Akiko (Haruka Abe), who remains wary of the newcomer, fails to see what he’s up to, even when he’s ninja-footing around right under her nose.
The producers have a franchise to reboot here, so of course there are references to the wider G.I. Joe universe. We meet a Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) who works for the evil Cobra organization — it turns out Kenta’s in cahoots with them — as well as the Joe operative on her tail, Agent Scarlett (Samara Weaving, woefully underused after a promising intro scene).
But the story also incorporates elements a non-fan won’t be expecting: Does the counter-terrorism world of Joes-Vs-Cobra also include elements of fantasy? Not only is that Jewel of the Sun actually a magical weapon, but Snake’s journey also requires him to fight anacondas the size of dragons, who are somehow able to sense whether their prey is pure of heart.
It’s all a lot to stuff into a movie that should’ve been leaner and meaner, not to mention more palpably violent. (Despite the hundreds of swords slashing through the air in this PG-13 adventure, the only blood we see is extracted peacefully, for a DNA test.) Then again, wishing for stronger dramatic development and punchier action may be naive when you’re watching a movie from the producer of the Transformers series, another throwback to the age when TV cartoons were essentially just cheap infomercials for new toys.
As shamelessly corporate popcorn movies go, Snake Eyes is better than most. That’s not high praise, but considering the film’s dopey pedigree, it’s not nothing.