‘Snake Eyes’ Review: An Origin Story That Was Better Left Untold
Would you name yourself after the thing that killed your father? Snake Eyes did. The famous G.I. Joe’s new film opens with a flashback to his childhood, where a group of men capture his dad. They force him to wager his life on a game of craps. He rolls two ones; they promptly kill him. Two decades later, his son now supports himself via the lucrative world of underground pit fighting, where he’s known only as Snake Eyes. That’s weird, right? It’s like Peter Parker deciding to become a superhero named Burglar-Man.
That sets the tone for the film to follow, a stultifying and strange prequel/reboot that raises just as many questions about its title character as it answers. In most iterations of G.I. Joe across comics, cartoons, movies, and action figures, Snake Eyes is a mute ninja commando rarely seen without his trademark helmet, which hides scars from the same incident that cost him his voice. In this film, he’s played by Henry Golding, and thus way too handsome to wear a helmet, except during the occasional motorcycle ride.
Snake Eyes’ fighting skills catch the eye of a crime boss (Takehiro Hira) who offers him a deal: Come work for the Yakuza, and they’ll find the man that killed Snake’s father. A month later, Snake Eyes is on the docks in Los Angeles, smuggling guns inside enormous fish, a task he seems slightly overqualified for. Before he’s even settled into his new life as an underground pit-fighting dock worker, Snake breaks from his employer when he refuses to murder a man named Tommy (Andrew Koji) in cold blood. Tommy turns out to be the heir to the vaunted Arashikage ninja clan, and he offers Snakes Eyes the chance to train with him as thanks for saving his life.
That sets up the rest of Snake Eyes, where Golding slowly learns the ways of the warrior. His mentors — including Peter Mensah’s Blind Master — teach him that while flashy fighting moves are fine, “truthfulness and selflessness” are the true values a ninja must master. (I guess when Snake Eyes stabs a guy with his sword he’s “selflessly” sharing his blade?) The training sequences stretch on forever, but the intermittent fight scenes aren’t much better. They’re shot by director Robert Schwentke in handheld close-ups so shaky they started to make me queasy. The setpieces that aren’t literally nauseating are still impossible to follow. And that’s despite the fact that Snake Eyes’ cast includes brilliant martial artists like Iko Uwais of The Raid movies.
Tommy will become Snake Eyes’ perpetual rival Storm Shadow, so named because a character claims he sometimes looks like "the shadow before a storm,” which is a) not a thing and b) almost as strange as choosing the thing that murdered your only living relative as your name. Later, a few other G.I. Joe and Cobra characters show up, including Scarlett (Samara Weaving) and Baroness (Ursula Corbero), but they are total afterthoughts that play almost no role in the story. Were they thrown in late in development to appease an executive demanding more Joes in a movie called G.I. Joe Origins? Without them, this is just a movie about a guy moping around a fancy ninja training school. Golding has an interesting onscreen presence, but the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse leaves him stranded with nothing to play except a variety of dramatic fighting poses and a vague need for vengeance.
If you’re still paying attention by the third act — which is by no means a certainty — you”ll be treated to about as nonsensical an action climax as Hollywood has produced in recent memory. Characters swap allegiances between good and evil constantly, sometimes at random. The villains believe a key hero has defected to their cause, then sends hundreds of dudes with swords after them anyway, I guess because Snake Eyes needed one more big action setpiece and that was the best excuse the filmmakers could come up with for one.
People typically rank Transformers as the worst franchise based on a toy line. What Snake Eyes presupposes is, maybe it isn’t? G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a hideous soup of bad computer effects and blockbuster cliches. G.I. Joe: Retaliation was less cartoonish but not much better, and Snake Eyes might actually be the least effective of the bunch. It takes the most popular G.I. Joe character and totally demystifies him until all that’s left is a blandly hunky dude with a sword. In the earlier G.I. Joe movies, Snake Eyes never spoke. Now that I’ve heard what he has to say, I think I prefer the alternative.