Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins
2021, PG-13, 121 min. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Starring Henry Golding, Iko Uwais, Haruka Abe, Úrsula Corberó, Samara Weaving, Peter Mensah, Andrew Koji.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., July 30, 2021
If you want to convince the world that we really, truly need a third crack at an extended G.I. Joe universe, Andrew Koji and Henry Golding are a good place to start. The two actors have proven their worth as leading men on screens big and small, and Koji’s work on Warrior, an HBO Max series depicting gang violence and nationalism in 1870s San Francisco, represents arguably the best action cinematography to ever appear on television. So even those uninterested in Hasbro’s franchise might be excused for wanting to check this one out.
Since the murder of his father, Snake Eyes (Golding) has channeled his anger into fighting. His willingness to take a beating eventually puts him on the radar of a local arms dealer; there he crosses paths with Tommy (Koji), the heir to a secret clan of ninja. Tommy promises him a place in the family if he can successfully survive the family rituals, but another player – one who wants to see Tommy and his empire burned to the ground – has a compelling counteroffer. Soon, Snake realizes he needs to play both sides to the middle if he is to have any chance at revenge or honor.
In the extended period between press screenings and theatrical distribution, many critics complained that the cinematography of Snake Eyes represented the worst of blockbuster action filmmaking. Director Robert Schwentke is certainly an easy target (his work on films like Red and R.I.P.D. certainly falls short of the venerated Asian filmmakers whose work inspired Snake Eyes) but the fight sequences here are better than the buzz would have you believe. Sure, too many of the fights are filmed (and edited) to the point of distraction, but the fight choreography itself cannot be denied. Every time the camera pulls out to a midrange shot of Snake and Tommy fighting, we see the care that went into the staging.
More damning are the franchise tie-ins. When the film focuses on the relationship between the two men, and the premise of an ancient and honorable organization struggling to adapt to modern evils, Snake Eyes builds an original world worth exploring. But this is intended to be the Iron Man of the G.I. Joe franchise, and too often, the pieces of the film that work are paused so that other characters can appear and wax poetic about the dangers of Cobra. These touches are especially egregious in the film’s final minutes, when the characterizations of both Snake and Tommy are undercut by the need to position them for the inevitable sequel.
Ultimately, Snake Eyes represents both the best and the worst of franchise filmmaking. It is great to see talented performers receive their moment in the spotlight, and several fight sequences tap into the full potential of talented stunt coordinators and unlimited budgets. But a bloated cast of characters and overt attempts at franchise-building keep the film from ever reaching its potential. Compared to other Hollywood blockbusters, Snake Eyes is better than fine – but there are hundreds of Asian and Southeast Asian action movies that run circles around the final product here. At least Golding and Koji got theirs.