You know who the coolest GI Joe action figure always was? Snake Eyes. You know who was pretty cool in those otherwise terrible GI Joe movies from a decade ago? Snake Eyes. So it makes a lot of sense to reboot the franchise and include at the center the oh-so-hot-right-now Henry Golding as your black-clad ninja, right?
Yes, but then you need to deliver a better movie rather than one centered around the least interesting character in the entire film. You know who’s a badass in this movie? Storm Shadow. Scarlett. The Baroness. Multiple other members of the Arashikage clan. You know who wasn’t? Snake Eyes.
This movie could’ve been really cool. But ultimately it serves as a better origin story for Storm Shadow than it does for Snake Eyes, who is just sort of there. The film doesn’t give us a lot of reason to root for him and like the slowest fighter ever, it telegraphs its every move, making it a cliched “curse your inevitable but sudden betrayal!’ vibe. No lie: my 13 yr old son whispered to me 10 minutes into the movie “He’s going to be the bad guy, right?” When your target adolescent audience is that far ahead of the movie and its main characters, you’ve officially dumbed it down too far.
The story is pretty simple: Snake Eyes was orphaned at a young age and has spent his entire life fighting on the streets and seeking revenge against the man who killed his father. When a powerful member of the Japanese mafia hires him with promises to deliver his father’s murderer, Snake is ordered to befriend a young man named Tommy, heir to the leadership of the Arashikage, a legendary clan of ninja. They take in Snake Eyes and train him, ultimately leading to him having to make a choice to betray them to seek the path of vengeance or to choose the path of honor and his new clan and family. And also COBRA and GI Joe sort of show up and have interest in how all of this plays out, too.
All of this might be cool if done just a little more deftly. And here the problem lies with both the script and direction. Director Robert Schwentke, responsible for the R.I.P.D. film and a couple of the Divergent series sequels, faces the same problems he did in those films: the directing is competent but lackluster. Utterly devoid of voice or any personal statement or connection, it’s hard to emotionally connect with the film, even with such a slam dunk toyetic premise as “Action figure ninjas!” This may also be due to screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, and the no doubt 8-12 other members of the script by committee who demanded certain elements be included in the movie to satisfy the desires of Hasbro or other studio executives. Shrapnel and Waterhouse have collaborated on other good projects in the past, including the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens story Race and the recent Seberg, and it’s hopeful that they’re being tapped to write an Untitled GI Joe sequel as it’s likely the good things in this movie (and there are many good things). But the dullness seems very familiar for Spiliotopoulos’s work, which mostly includes uninspired Disney straight to video sequels and the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast (talk about uninspiring).
All of this sounds very negative towards this film, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on it. At the end of the day, it’s a serviceable action movie and has a few actually really cool moments. This isn’t surprising, since the supporting cast is full of martial arts veterans. I just wish they got to do more. And I wish I didn’t have to wait until 90 minutes into the film to really get to something that felt cool.
And to be very clear, this is the best GI Joe movie that has been made. That is an extremely low bar since the first two are ridiculous disasters. But here’s the weird thing: those movies at least left a huge impression on me. It was a bad impression, no doubt, but an impression nonetheless. I couldn’t tell you the villain’s name from this movie. But I do remember the bat$#!^ insane performances by Joey Gordon Leavitt and Christopher Eccleston as Cobra Commander and Destro. And I remember the second movie, where they had the audacity to literally kill off 90% of the characters from the first movie in the first 10 minutes so we could start fresh with The Rock and Channing Tatum. Bad movies. But I’m still thinking about them. In two weeks I will likely have forgotten Snake Eyes even came out.
Which is a shame. Snake Eyes as a character deserves better than this. Henry Golding deserves a better role written for him. Andrew Koji, who gives the breakout performance here as Tommy/Storm Shadow, deserves better. I only hope they do all of them justice in whatever sequel will come. Let’s hope it feels at least a little more personal and interesting than this did.
At least the toys are still cool.
2.5 out of 5 stars
You can watch the trailer for Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins here.