Paramount’s film Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is surprisingly well done, excellent in terms of visual refinement, character uniqueness, and building a storyline that isn’t a standard “Save the Cat” origin story, that it’s almost depressing to see it flop as an action film. There’s plenty of realistic fisticuffs, and iconic action poses, including at least one neon-colored sword fight on a rooftop, as well as plenty of big-budget ninja extravaganza. The profuse fights and intermittent chases are shot via seemingly arbitrary “shaky cam” and edited with a Liam Neeson takes 20 cuts approach, despite immensely great staging (courtesy of Kenji Tanigaki) and unimpeachable stunt work. There hasn’t been a wider gap between the craftsmanship on exhibit and how that spectacle plays onscreen since Quantum of Solace.
Despite the poor action editing, the movie does not automatically fall below recommendation levels, which is a credit to how terrific the rest of it is. Pour one for Stephen Sommers’ The Rise of Cobra (which nearly perfected the MCU model two years before Thor and Captain America) and Jon M. Chu’s oddly prescient Retaliation (which became the most politically accurate blockbuster of the post-9/11 era). Even if it primarily leaves the G.I. Joe “stuff” on the periphery, this Henry Golding-starring “origin narrative” is a reinvention of the G.I. Joe mythos. The majority of the 121-minute action is devoted to gripping ninja drama. In the final reels, the “cinematic universe” nonsense rears its ugly head, but Rise of Cobra came close to collapsing in its last 20 minutes as well.
The Skydance/Hasbro/MGM film cost $88 million, compared to $135-$175 million for its predecessors, yet it looks stunning and dramatic in a way we didn’t expect before Netflix Originals. This film, set primarily in Japan, gets off to a shaky start with our young hero witnessing his father’s death, a moment that provides a ridiculous justification for his name. Things start to look up once he is recruited for weapons smuggling and crosses paths with Thomas “Tommy” Arashikage (Andrew Koji), who he saves at the cost of his own life. The new acquaintance is a high-ranking member of an ancient Japanese clan, not a Yakuza mobster. Out of appreciation and kindness, Thomas provides “Snake” the opportunity to earn his way into the cult and find meaning in an otherwise meaningless life.
The screenplay, written mainly by Evan Spiliotopoulos (whose The Unholy is one of the year’s greatest horror films), wisely focuses on Snake and Tommy’s bromance as well as the process by which the future Joe might become a member of the family. Koji is excellent in this film, virtually stealing the show and establishing himself as a compelling action character alongside the more well-known leading man.
When Thomas took a back seat to a not quietly romance between Snake and Akiko, it’s a problem (Haruka Abe). Abe is content with what she’s been given, but her character and rising emphasis still feel like a mid-course “no homo” “course correction,” even though neither of Snake’s primary interactions is romantic. Peter Mensah and Iko Uwais both provide a sense of action to the proceedings.
The film contains a few actual twists, or at the very least plot beats and character revelations that are unusual for IP exploitation films. At least one early second-act reveal recasts all that has gone before and will come after without undermining the previous 40 minutes. I’m not sure how true this is to the Larry Hama comics, but it fits for the film. Snake Eyes is entertaining enough as a standalone ninja action thriller, but it suffers from the inevitable incursion of G.I. Joe elements. As Baroness, Ursula Corberó is fantastic, and like Scarlett, Samara Weaving is a competent action figure. Unfortunately, neither hero nor villain appears to be of excellent service to the pro. You’ll wonder, like Cruella, how much better Snake Eyes could have been if it hadn’t had to rely on well-known IP.
To be fair, Ninja Assassin, The Hunted, or any of the American Ninja sequels weren’t exactly box office smashes when they were released. Ninja/samurai films almost always require some IP, whether it’s James Bond (You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun), the X-Men (The Wolverine), The Dark Knight (Batman Begins), or Tom Cruise in his prime (The Last Samurai). Beyond Mad Libs plotting and G.I. Joe insertions, the friendship between Golding and Koji makes the formulaic tale beats work. While Golding is fine, it’s another example of a charismatic leading man/romantic lead having his onscreen charisma and star wattage toned down in the service of a generic franchise action-hero leading part. Is this considered inclusivity progress?
For a film with so much action and so many different battle scene pieces, it’s a shame director Robert Schwentke and editor Stuart Levy shot them like a lousy knock-off and then sliced them to ribbons in the editing room. I won’t pretend to understand why this happened. Still, the onscreen spectacle leaves a lot for a film that aspires to be as badass as The Raid and John Wick (without the R-rated graphic violence, of course) to be desired in terms of comprehensibility. Viewers will be left wondering, “What happened?” and wishing that specific crowd-pleasing set-ups didn’t pay off entirely offscreen. It’s the polar opposite of Ninja Assassin, which had no story and relied only on jaw-dropping (and gore-soaked) action sequences.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is a better “feature film” than I anticipated, with richer character work and stronger relationships than most unrequested IP reboots, but falling flat as an action flick. Whether or not that’s a dealbreaker is up to each of you, as I (for one) still love Quantum of Solace despite the Bourne Ultimatum editing choices. The G.I. Joe stuff feels as if it has been crammed in, but the stuff that surprises (like the genuinely horrific “third trial”) makes it worth watching. Although I still believe The Rise of Cobra is the best G.I. Joe film, Snake Eyes is a fun Saturday matinée.