After two swiftly forgotten G.I. Joe franchise attempts with Rise of Cobra and Retaliation, toy maker and film producer Hasbro tries again with the live action reboot/prequel of Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. It’s sort of the worst kind of live action reboot/prequel as pretty much anything iconic about the character and world are stripped out. It seems like the film is trying for a gritty real take on the G.I. Joe franchise but then there’s giant psychic cobras and magical jewels. Mostly, this is just a fight revenge drama with some G.I. Joe stuff on the fringes. Even more infuriating, it only teases the memorable Snake Eyes look at the end with some blatant sequel bait. Some of the fights are kind of cool and there’s an interesting performance moment here and there but that isn’t enough.
An underground fight club brawler only known as Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) is pining for revenge ever since as a child he witnessed his father’s murder. Snake Eyes is informed by the mysterious Kenta (Takehiro Hira) that he can deliver the man who killed Snake Eyes’ dad, but Snake Eyes will have to infiltrate a group of ninjas. Earning the trust of the clan bigwig, Tommy (Andrew Koji), Snake Eyes trains to be a secret warrior protector under the tutelage of Blind Master (Peter Mensah), Hard Master (Iko Uwais), Akiko (Haruka Abe) and the elderly and wise grandma Sen (Eri Ishida). Snake Eyes is drawn into the conflict of the freedom fighting squad G.I. Joe, with its agent Scarlett (Samara Weaving), and the terrorist organization Cobra and its agent Baroness (Ursula Corbero). The result may have dire consequences for the entire world, but Snake Eyes only wants revenge at the cost of his newfound friends.
Golding as Snake glowers his way through scenes while looking somewhat ticked off about all the hoops he goes through. In some of the action scenes he displays an impressive physicality; he’d make a passable action hero with a better script. This movie tones down the most recognizable aspects of Snake Eyes’ character. Despite the last two movies being somewhat crummy, they still had Snake Eyes as the silent badass in a cool helmet doing kung fu. Years before the live action movies, Snake Eyes’ had a memorable all silent comic issue because the character was mute which is a big thing that makes him memorable. But here Golding’s Snake is constantly talking and there isn’t even a moment when he is turned into a silent badass. Even the great helmet that Snake Eyes wears is literally only flipped on in the final scene.
The G.I. Joe stuff begins about halfway through the movie when Scarlett arrives, delivering plot exposition while smashing in evil guy’s faces. In this movie, Cobra just seems like a generic group of terrorist bad guys with a penchant for slapping their snake logo on stuff. Baroness is just a terrorist enabler with classy eyewear. They don’t even show the mirrored visage of Cobra Commander. It’s as if the movie is ashamed of it’s Saturday Morning Cartoon/toy commercial/Marvel comics origins. Or it’s saving those elements for sequels that will never happen. A bit of a shame because Weaving infuses Scarlett with ass-kicking flair.
Instead, most of the movie is devoted to Snake’s ninja training which is spectacularly uninspired. He goes through three trials and the only decent one is when Snake fights against Hard Master without spilling a bowl of water. Uwais is a fantastic physical performer who puts lots of flourishes into the fight, and the solution to the water bowl fight is inspired. The second trial involves an otherworld vision quest nonsense with a flying gem which kind of breaks the real world tone the film has been going for. The third trial is Snake vs. giant CGI cobras that may be able to read minds and it’s not very satisfying.
There is a lot of stuff involving Snake getting acquainted with Tommy as Snake is secretly working for Kenta. Koji as Tommy gets in some moments where he shows big, bombastic rage. Tommy at least gets to fight with two swords and somewhat awkwardly insist that his new name is “Storm Shadow”. But even he doesn’t get to wear the iconic Storm Shadow outfit and headgear. Kenta as the main baddie wants Snake to find a glowing magic stone that can apparently shoot fire or whatever in another climax where people chase after a glowing CGI thingie. The grandma and the assistant have some unexpected moments of kung fu superpowers like when the Grandma can suddenly jump 20 feet in the air. All the fantastical sci-fi superhero elements in the film seem really awkwardly wedged in considering how it is so tonally gritty.
Some of the action has some nifty bits like when Tommy and Snake are stuck in a truck being punctured by dozens of swords or some zippy combat on a freeway. But Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins seems like a missed opportunity by not embracing what makes the character so recognizable, so it comes off as generic. Or worse, setting up a cinematic universe that will never happen as the teases are far too little and late.
Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins
Director: Robert Schwentke
Starring: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Haruka Abe, Úrsula Corberó and Samara Weaving.