How pissed are you that in Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins not only do we see the ninja commando’s face, but here him speak…a lot? If that’s a thing for you, hello, my fellow GI Joe nerd. I feel you. It takes some getting used to, but with the casting of Malaysian cutie Henry Golding he was never going to stay hidden under a mask. A prequel of sorts to the previous GI Joe films, The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation, it’s hard to see how this version of Snake Eyes could ever become the silent warrior we know, and that becomes a recurring issue even as the ninja action is sharp as a katana blade.
Sending the popular character into Japan and the world of yakuza and secret ninja clans, Snake Eyes might feel very familiar to fans of Marvel’s fan-favorite Canadian, Wolverine. There’s a reason for that. Writer Larry Hama, himself a military man with an extensive knowledge of Japanese culture, wrote the bulk of stories for both characters in the 1980s. Snake Eyes pulls heavily from this influence, relishing in its tale of honor, loyalty, and flashy displays of martial arts.
Much like the Snake Eyes in the comics and beloved cartoon, we never know his actual birth name. But we do see the pivotal moment of his childhood, when his father is assassinated by bad guys for mysterious reasons. Snake Eyes managed to escape, and vanished off the grid for years, only to turn up two decades later kicking ass in an underground fight pit. It’s there that he’s approached by Kenta (Takehiro Hira), who offers him a job in exchange for helping to find the man who murdered Snake Eyes’ father. Turns out, that job is gutting fish and using them to smuggle guns. Clever.
Snake Eyes might be a lethal fighter, but he’s no murderer, and when asked to murder Tommy (Andrew Koji), one of the few who has actually been nice, he declines. Nobody says “no” to Kenta, and a slick chase/fight sequence on the docks emerges, with a cool highlight being a getaway truck literally pin-cushioned with enemy katana swords. For his help, Tommy brings Snake Eyes home to Tokyo to become part of the Arashikage clan, a powerful order devoted to justice and fighting evil. To prove his worth, Snake Eyes will have to pass three deadly challenges to prove his strenth, honor, and loyalty, but most importantly they offer us the chance to see The Raid badass Iko Uwais in combat as mentor Hard Master. Every time he’s in action it’s an absolute thrill that Golding, try as he might, can never match.
If Snake Eyes had settled on these three tests as meat for the story, it would’ve been a problem. Only one is particularly exciting, and the film slows to a crawl whenever these labors are put front and center. More intriguing is the conflict within Snake Eyes himself, as we learn his motivations for being within the Arashikage are a ruse. Still aligned with Kenta, who wants possession of a powerful jewel the clan is guarding, Snake Eyes is torn between his loyalto to the newfound family that took him in and his need for vengeance. That the Arashikage’s head of security Akiko (Haruka Abe) senses his duplicity is another concern.
So for much of Snake Eyes we’re not fully aware of where his allegiances truly are. While this is interesting on paper, it becomes a problem when taken in full context. Tommy, who will eventually become Snake Eyes’ greatest rival, Storm Shadow, is a far more compelling figure as he works to bring the Arashikage into the modern era. His duty to the clan and to doing the honorable thing paints him as the hero to root for, while Snake Eyes lies and betrays at comical levels. Every time Snake Eyes gets caught skulking around the grounds it’s laughable they don’t just execute his ass on the spot.
Those who follow GI Joe know that, after a certain amount of time, it grew to include some bizarre elements of sci-fi and fantasy that didn’t fully mesh with the militaristic brand. I mean, Cobra Commander was literally turned into a snake at one point and dont’ even get me started on Serpentor. Snake Eyes, oddly, incorporates some of this weirdness into a plot that should’ve been much tighter. At one point the hero is forced to challenge a trio of giant telepathic snakes, big enough to make Voldemort jealous. The sought-after Jewel of the Sun isn’t just some rock, but an item capable of incredible magic powers. Say what?
This being GI Joe, a wider franchise has to be teased and Snake Eyes does so effectively with the arrival of Scarlett, played by the always-awesome Samara Weaving. While I dug having her brought in now, because the character will be very important to Snake Eyes in the future, Weaving could’ve had a lot more to do. She’s too good in the action realm to use so sparingly. Ursula Corbero plays Baroness, a devious agent for COBRA, the worldwide terrorist organization we know will be a constant thorn in GI Joe’s side.
Golding is fine in capturing the ambiguity that Snake Eyes usually hides under a mask, and he performs well against more seasoned martial artists. However, it’s Koji as Tommy/Storm Shadow who commands your attention most, revealing complexities to the brash, brooding, impatient heir that you can almost buy into a final act swerve that goes against everything he had been up until that moment. This might be a Snake Eyes movie but it’s Storm Shadow you want to follow when it’s all over.
Directed by Robert Schwentke, best known for the forgettable geriatric actioner Red, and from Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura , Snake Eyes is a throwback to the time when cartoons existed mainly to sell toys, only in this case it’s a movie trying to sell a franchise. As brazen as that might be, it’s also an entertaining (and mostly bloodless) way to introduce Snake Eyes and GI Joe to a new audience. It may not be everything Snake Eyes’ diehard fans are looking for, but they know this is only the beginning and “knowing is half the battle.”
Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins opens in theaters on July 23rd.