REVIEW: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins – A Smart Way To Restart a Franchise

 

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is better than it has any right to be due to the strengths of the cast, and a strong script that makes this relatively mid-tier action movie into a fascinating franchise launcher and sort of the ideal summer movie.

The G.I. Joe franchise is an interesting one that Paramount Pictures has sort of failed to capitalize on. Both G.I. Joe live-action films opened to number 1 at the box office and both films grossed over $300 million worldwide. However, it appeared that Paramount wanted the films to perform on the level of Transformers, which led to massive gaps in time between films. Weirdly enough, Hasbro and Paramount looked at both Transformers and G.I. Joe and decided to reboot their film franchises by doing smaller scale origin stories focused on a singular fan-favorite character known for not talking: 2018’s Bumblebee and now 2021’s Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.

As the title suggests, the film is an origin story for Snake Eyes (Henry Golding). The film expands the little-known origin story of the character from the comics and toyline of his history with Storm Shadow (Andrew Koji), and explores their relationship from brothers in arms to eventual arch enemies. Here Snake Eyes is imagined as a drifter who is on a quest for revenge after his father was killed. When he saves Tommy Arashikage, the man who will become Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes is brought back to Clan Arashikage to train as a warrior. The test will send Snake Eyes on a spiritual and emotional journey to find out what kind of person he will become. Meanwhile, a threat looks to steal an ancient artifact that the Clan Arashikage is meant to guard.

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins‘ approach to its story takes a lot from various X-Men films and throws it in a blender. Snake Eyes’ introduction is similar to Wolverine in the first X-Men. The relationship between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow as friends-turned-enemies has a lot in common with X-Men: First Class, except with the roles reversed (protagonist Snake Eyes filling in Magneto’s quest for revenge while Storm Shadow is the honorable Xavier figure who wants a friendship). Taking the franchise to a Japan-centric storyline certainly has a ting of The Wolverine, and even the title may make audiences nervous given how similar it sounds to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The best thing about Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins story is the script and the character work done on Snake Eyes and his friendship with Storm Shadow. The script allows Snake Eyes to be kind of an awful person, who makes a lot of short-sighted selfish decisions that feel like the right call in his mind, but end up hurting people close to him. He will break trust, and he will learn the lesson the hard way that he is responsible for a lot of harm and it is really nobody’s fault but his own. It makes the story somewhat of a tragedy. This sets up Snake Eyes for the rest of the film to carry a sense of guilt and regret, and audiences will know he needs to carry the burden of creating such conflict. This also serves to make the eventual turn of Storm Shadow more tragic, creating a sympathetic origin story for the villain. Throughout the film, he makes decisions based on honor and will pay for those decisions in the end. That creates a strong central conflict for not just this film, but for future films that leave an audience wanting to explore. That has always been the secret to franchise world-building: not the overall metaplot, but making audiences want to see the characters return and interact. It’s strong groundwork for future films.

One of the coolest aspects of the movies is the more magical and fantastical elements brought in. The G.I. Joe franchise typically is a hard sci-fi franchise with technology and military tools at the center, but the other fun part is how it incorporates various different corners into it. There are professional wrestlers that are members of G.I. Joe and this ninja clan is closely aligned with them. It is a world where anything can happen and anyone can join, so the presence of more magical artifacts that have connections to ancient gods and giant animals makes the universe of the film seem grander. The idea that you can have this smaller-scale ninja action film that is very grounded and then introduce these crazier elements, later on, makes it feel more unique and a universe you want to follow in future films.

Snake Eyes is a much more character-centric story, but there are still hints at the larger universe. Cobra and G.I. Joe are present in the story but they operate more on the edges of the story, laying the groundwork for the franchise to eventually expand out of it. Unlike other would-be franchise starters like The Mummy or Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the wider universe doesn’t stop the film and is more operating outside the edges of the story. A hint that the universe and story are wider, but they don’t overwhelm the plot. Cobra has more an active part in the story as they are tied in with the villain, but G.I. Joe as an organization itself is more being used for sequel and spin-off set up. Samara Weaving stars as G.I. Joe member Scarlett, who in the comics is a romantic interest for the character Snake Eyes, and while many would have assumed given her presence in the film that element would be worked in, she is more of a guest cameo to set up sequels. Úrsula Corberó stars in her first Hollywood film as the Baroness. She, like many in the cast, is a breakout star with a natural screen presence and charisma. If they make more films will be great to see this Baroness pop up in many more times.

The entire cast of the film is a bunch of born stars in the making. Ever since Henry Golding broke out in 2018 with the one-two punch of Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor he has shown his charisma, and here he slips so easily into action hero status that is makes one wonder “why has no one called him to play Batman or James Bond yet?”. Andrew Koji might just steal the whole movie though, giving Storm Shadow a sense of honor but also a cool laid back attitude that when he gets the intensity in his eyes there is a sense of danger. I hope every studio is blowing up Koji’s phone wanting to be in the Andrew Koji business next week. Haruka Abe plays a new character Akiko (who feels like at one point was meant to be the character Jinx), really running the gamut of emotions through the film going from distrusting to sympathetic within a scene. She sells it in such a way that the character feels very grounded even if it isn’t there in the script. Iko Uwais (The Raid) and Peter Mensah (300) are on hand as G.I. Joe mainstays Hard Master and Blind Master respectively.

What is fascinating, though, is the film’s weakest point: the action. This is odd given it is primarily an action film, and a ninja samurai film, based on a toy franchise, so you expect that to be the best part. However, the issue is the film suffers from a lot of quick cuts and not letting the action play out in wide shots. Robert Schwentke is a hit-and-miss action director, with 2010 Red being a pretty fun stylized action film while his 2013 R.I.P.D. was a massive mess. However there does appear to be a reason behind it because they want to keep the actors face in the frame, and really the only issue where it becomes distracting is the opening cage fight action scene. The remaining scenes are competent just not groundbreaking or even awe-inspiring, which is a bit of a letdown given the character and the material. But it’s also weirdly refreshing that the character scenes are the best part of this film – not something I don’t think anybody would expect.

While not an issue with the film itself, the film’s trailer does that frustrating thing that Sony films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Venom did where they show the final scene in the film. It does do the classic origin story film element where the movie ends with the character becoming their iconic persona like how Casino Royale ends with Bond saying the iconic “Bond. James Bond” line with the classic music. Yet here it doesn’t entirely feel right because Snake Eyes still isn’t fully Snake Eyes by the conclusion, where it appears they want to stretch out into other films. However, there is a perfect story/character moment to end it on that could have felt like a more complete origin to the character but the film opts to leave the door open.

 

There is something about Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins that feels very classic summer movie. It feels like an action film that could have easily been made in the 90s and works as both a stand-alone piece and also a fun bold new reimagining of the IP it is adapting. While it might not be a great movie, it is a great version of a movie based on a toy line. That may not seem like high praise, but as a franchise starter this is one of the better ones. It tells a fun story with compelling characters you want to follow into future films and explore this grander world more. Hopefully, the smaller budget allows for the film to turn a profit and they can continue with this tone they’ve set up for future G.I. Joe films.

If DC and Warner Bros. can make a Joker solo film that was basically just Taxi Driver meets King of Comedy with Batman material thrown in, Paramount could make a Cobra Commander origin story by smashing Fight Club and Goodfellas together with Cobra.

Yo Jo!

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is playing in theaters and will be streaming on Paramount+ 45 days after its theatrical release date.