Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins hits theaters on July 23.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins marks Paramount’s third attempt to spin franchise gold out of Hasbro’s legendary action figure line, and in distancing itself from the overheated, effects-heavy bombast of the prior two attempts (2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation), it may be the strongest go yet. Armed with a gritty, street-level aesthetic in service of its world-building, Snake Eyes –– directed by Robert Schwentke and starring Henry Golding in the title role –– feels as indebted to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as it does the 1980s G.I. Joe Marvel Comics run written by Larry Hama.
Snake Eyes has been a key part of the “Real American Hero” team since its introduction in 1982. Though he remained an enigmatic figure in the iconic 1980s animated series, Snake Eyes was given an origin in issues #26 and #27 of the Marvel Comics series in 1984, which is what this project uses as a jump-off point, albeit loosely. Yes, Snake Eyes tips its cap to the source material (not so much the animated show, however), but it also freely forges its own path in a way that feels both familiar and fresh. The essential ingredient is an air of encroaching destiny as the various threads intersect with Snake Eyes (Golding), Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji), and the other members of the Arashikage clan. By film’s close, friendships have been forged, allegiances have been flipped, and the way forward is clear for further Joe escapades (or even further Origins movies) should the desire arise.
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In terms of the cast, Golding makes a solid entrance as an action leading man in what could have been a thankless part. This is a far cry from when Ray Park played Snake Eyes with his face entirely hidden behind a mask and visor, speaking no dialogue for the duration of his two-movie tenure. Hiding his face clearly wasn’t going to be an option once the Crazy Rich Asians heartthrob was cast, but he does a good job imbuing Snake Eyes with requisite pathos while adding enough of an edge so his true motivations are never entirely clear. It’s a swerve from prior depictions, but it feels like there’s room to grow yet in his journey before becoming the iconic Snake Eyes familiar to longtime fans.
Meanwhile, Koji (who previously impressed on the Cinemax series Warrior) is quite charismatic as the Man Who Will Be Storm Shadow. Like 2011’s X-Men: First Class and its depiction of the early bromance between Professor X and Magneto, Snake Eyes makes us care enough about the forged-in-fire friendship between Snake Eyes and Tommy that there’s a twinge of sadness when the needs of the extant mythology take over, like fate has its own plans no matter what we may wish. Speaking of extant mythology, both Samara Weaving (as Scarlett, representing the elite G.I. Joe task force) and Úrsula Corberó (who’s fronting Cobra as the Baroness) effortlessly embody their alter egos, and although their screen time is limited, their presence offers a tantalizing tease of the unfolding “fight for freedom” happening just outside the frames of this film.
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In the previous G.I. Joe movie, Retaliation (directed by Golding’s Crazy Rich Asians filmmaker Jon M. Chu), there’s a scene where the evil Cobra Commander literally bombs London out of existence and it barely elicits a reaction from the characters — or us. By contrast, the stakes are dialed down substantially here: It’s not about saving the world, but saving a family and a friendship (and I say all that as someone who loudly, proudly enjoyed every bonkers minute of G.I. Joe: Retaliation).
Unfortunately, there are some failings in Schwentke’s approach to the action; under-lit and over-reliant on shaky-cam. As a result, instead of luxuriating in spectacular martial arts sequences, the fight scenes have a tendency to be confusing or disorienting. There’s also a narrative leap in the third act into hard fantasy/mysticism that, while it doesn’t pull you out, does feel somewhat incongruous when compared with the relatively grounded first two-thirds. Nonetheless, because of strong character work throughout, these end up as minor qualms.
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