It’s been a long road to go from the first iteration of “America’s Moveable Fighting Man” G.I. Joe to the latest live-action cinematic rendition of the characters from that universe. In that time, the Hasbro toyline has gone from a single solo toy, Joe Colton, to an entire line of global elite service members and an enemy known as Cobra. Children (and their parents) have joined in the seemingly eternal battle of good versus evil through toys and animated adventures as the two factions turn the world into one large conflict. Now, nearly a decade after the last live-action G.I. Joe tale, G.I Joe: Retaliation (2013), released, audiences are treated to a new story. This time there’s a different origin, as the focus turns to the enigmatic silent ninja codenamed Snake Eyes. Directed by Robert Schwentke (RED) and featuring Henry Golding (Last Christmas) as Snake Eyes and Andrew Koji (Warrior) as his freniemy Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes turns back the clock to learn how the elite and noble Joe began. Strangely, despite some strong action sequences, clever weaving of the G.I. Joe universe, and a compelling crime thriller narrative, the incongruities within reduce Snake Eyes to little more than a missed opportunity.
Before he was a Joe, Snake Eyes (Golding) was lost, resorting to underground fight clubs to pay his way. That is until he catches the eye of Kenta (Takehiro Hira), a yakuza leader who sees potential within the fighter to be something more. But being a member of yakuza sometimes means proving loyalty with blood, a test that comes in the form of assassinating Tommy (Koji), an undercover spy within Kenta’s ranks. Unwilling to pull the trigger, Snake Eyes fights with Tommy to their freedom, with Snake Eyes soon learning that, as with Kenta, things aren’t what they seem with Tommy. His secret? He’s the next in line to run the benevolent Arashikage clan and, as is his right, offers Snake Eyes the opportunity to join them, something which does not come easily for outsiders. Despite finding himself a home for the first time in ages, the skeletons in Snake Eyes’s closet refuse to stay hidden, all the while Tommy contends with the rising threat of Kenta and the looming danger of Cobra.
Since I didn’t have the opportunity to see Snake Eyes in theaters, I’m going to lead with the bonus materials before digging into the film itself. Why? Because I’d normally go spoiler-free but the issues within may require to touch on specifics and would rather those interested only in the special features be able to get in-get out before going too far.
Overall, the bonus features are impressive considering the critical reception of the film. Ordinarily, we’d be lucky to have a few features included on a project like this one, but it’s evident from the pre-release materials that there was quite a bit of documentation going on with the anticipation of offering Joes a look under the hood. In this case, that means over 27 minutes of new materials including five deleted scenes, three behind the scenes, and a three minute animatic dubbed a “short film” focused on Snake Eyes’s sword, Morning Light. Credit where credit is due, the three featurettes are specific to exploring this iteration of the Snake Eyes origin, meaning that you’ll learn everything from how they set up stunts, details on set and production design, as well as the cast and crew’s thoughts on the characters within. As far as this film is concerned, there are no other live-action films, so that material isn’t even referenced. Admittedly, the special features offer a greater in-depth look than one might expect, but I couldn’t help feeling like it was also shilling more than usual given the odd specificity to which Hyundai was referenced more than once regarding the stunts. The five deleted scenes are exceptionally brief and you can see where/why things were removed. The one thing that is worth noting is, while the description of “short film” is accurate for “Morning Light,” it’s more an extended background on the weapon versus a new adventure or some kind of extension to the film proper. This will delight Snake Eyes fans who enjoyed this interpretation, as the weapon is integral to the warrior’s kit and honor code.
So onto the film itself.
When you look at the pieces within the narrative for Snake Eyes there’s a compelling story here. Snake Eyes, real name unknown, grew up angry and alone after witnessing his father’s murder at the hands of an unknown assailant. In order to survive, he learned to fight, which is how he ends up working for Kenta and, as a result, meeting Tommy. All of this feels like theater, Shakespearian in fact, with the motivations for each of the primary characters coming from pure places of abandonment mixed with pride guiding each toward a terrible downfall. In the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Unholy), Joe Shrapnel (Seberg), and Anna Waterhouse (Seberg), several changes are made to Snake Eyes’s backstory in order to make this film work. This may, at first, upset longtime fans who are used to the silent Caucasian hero, but the changes make a great deal of sense not only to bring this iteration to life, but also to remove the “white savior” that’s lingered around Snake Eyes as he went outsider to hero, uprooting the worthy by accidently seeding distrust in the process. This still happens in Snake Eyes, but the manner in which it happens dirties up the character at the same time. Frankly, it’s one of the best things about the film. It kills its darlings, removing any sense of beholding to old lore in order to create its own. In this case, rather than following the plot of Tommy killing The Hard Master (played by the underutilized Iko Uwais of the phenomenal Raid films and The Night Comes For Us), the downfall is a mixture of his lack of anger control and betrayal by Snake Eyes. That’s right, the narrative follows a brother vs brother storyline which just so happens to include Cobra and the Joes, though they are wisely kept mostly to the periphery. When the film focuses on the characters, it is the strongest of the three films, especially because the actors are treating their roles with a little less of a wink and with more authentic intensity. There’s a problem, though. A film like this is about ninjas and that means stunt work. So why does a film featuring Koji and Uwais with stunt coordinator Kenji Tanigaki (Big Brother; Flash Point; Blade II) at the helm seem so absolutely lifeless?
Watching the featurette “Enter Snake Eyes” it’s clear that Schwentke, Tanigaki, and the rest of the stunt team had grand designs for how the action sequences would look in the final cut. You can hear it in the way they speak well before we are treated to snippets of shooting on set. The thing is that there are few moments in Snake Eyes that are up to the level of RED, a comic adaptation with plenty of action. In the extended sequence in which Snake Eyes and Tommy fight Kenta’s thugs early in the film, the camera cuts quickly between close-up and distance during 1-1 fights, trying to make each punch or kick contain weight except that the camera is almost always shaking and the cuts are so rapid that any movement lacks impact. In that same fight, a scene which should be badass as Snake Eyes and Tommy are two-handing Kenta’s men, it is reduced quite a bit as, in one moment, Snake comes running over to help Tommy and the camera places the action at a distance, lingering instead on Tommy. Unlike Koji, Golding isn’t as well known for his combat experience, so some of the editing could be explained as trying to make space for his stunt double or to cover where Golding is less believable, but, later in the film, there’s a deliberate cut away from watching Uwais lay waste to a group of Kenta’s men that solidifies just how frustrating this film is. You bring in Uwais and don’t let him get his own moment of badassery? Makes zero sense. (That last one is more personal frustration, but its emblematic of several larger problems related to how the stunts are handled.)
One could be catty about the performances within Snake Eyes, holding the strangely stilted American accent from Samara Weaving (Ready or Not) as G.I. Joe Scarlett or Golding’s inconsistent accent as the titular Snake Eyes as the reason for the film’s issues. One could even harp on the forced romantic beats between Snake and Haruka Abe’s (Cruella) Security Chief Akiko or the way the film tries to make Snake the legendary fighter he’s known to be yet clearly lacks the required training to fit that bill. The thing is that it’s not one thing, but several things laid out on top of each other that ultimately generate a feeling of malaise rather than excitement or joy. I have no issue with the film’s self-seriousness. That it attempts to aim for loftiness is worth applauding, it’s that nothing gels as one would want, therefore there’s no real sense of magic in the illusion of the film. One would almost rather watch either of the previous two G.I. Joe films because they know what they are and at least the action is staged well. Here, the singular moments are stronger than the whole and the stunts rarely entrance the audience to the point of enchantment. Herein lies the rub: the themes within of brotherhood, family, honor, and trust are deeply engaging and the cast pulls those off beautifully, but all most else rings hollow, one can’t even enjoy Snake Eyes as a piece of popcorn entertainment no matter how much one wants to.
Snake Eyes Special Features:
- Morning Light: A Weapon with Stories to Tell (3:11)
- Five (5) Deleted Scenes (2:10)
- Enter Snake Eyes (9:32)
- A Deadly Ensemble (6:23)
- Arashikage (7:00)
Available on VOD and digital August 17th, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD October 19th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Snake Eyes website.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.