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At least Snake Eyes gets that ninjas are the coolest part of G.I. Joe

He’s bringing a sword to a gunfight, and that’s badass

Henry Golding in ninja gear as Snake Eyes Image: Paramount Pictures

G.I. Joe’s long-running fan-favorite ninja Snake Eyes is not a joke character, but he is very funny. This sentiment is arguably applicable to every G.I. Joe in existence — it’s hard to take a bunch of characters seriously when they started out as action figures mostly premised as “American soldiers, but named like sports cars.” But Snake Eyes is the most transparently cynical action figure of the bunch, aimed straight at the id of ’80s boys who begged their parents to buy them the toys. Because what’s cooler than the best of all the best troops? Ninjas. And what if there was a ninja who was also an American soldier? A guy who could use a gun and a sword? What’s better than this? Snake Eyes, then, is the perfect focus for a G.I. Joe reboot, because his defining trait is already being The Coolest.

Directed by Robert Schwentke with a screenplay by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse, the movie Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is largely a success in that it does a decent job of making viewers forget that cynicism for two hours, while also embracing the absurdity of a narrative universe spun out of action figures. This film isn’t going to sell anyone on a new G.I. Joe movie franchise, but it’s maybe the best possible version of a movie designed to test those waters.

In the film, Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) plays the title character, a child with no name who witnesses his father’s murder, then grows up to become a cage fighter by night and fishery worker by day. Currently living in Los Angeles, Snake Eyes is a drifter, only really motivated by the thought of finding his father’s killer. This desire ropes him into a secret struggle when a crime boss known as Kenta (Takehiro Hira) offers him work among the Yakuza, in exchange for the identity of his father’s killer. When that work involves killing Tommy Arashikage, another, friendlier underworld heavy, Snake Eyes refuses, and saves Tommy from the gang that wants him dead.

Kenta and Tommy Arashikage face off on a neon-drenched, rainy rooftop in Snake Eyes Photo: Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures

This turns out to be incredibly fortuitous, as Tommy is secretly the heir of the Arashikage clan, a secret society of ninjas devoted to the protection of Japan. (They’re kind of like The League of Shadows from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, but good guys.) Owing Snake Eyes his life, Tommy offers him the rare gift of an opportunity to join the Arashikage clan, and with nowhere else to go, Snake Eyes accompanies his new benefactor to his ancestral home in Japan.

There is dramatic irony here. One of the few enduring bits of G.I. Joe lore is Tommy’s identity as Storm Shadow, and his eventual rivalry with Snake Eyes. This means Snake Eyes is full of Prequel Work: Its script is preoccupied with answering questions viewers may or may not care about. Get ready to learn:

  • How Snake Eyes got his name.
  • And his sword.
  • And his motorcycle.
  • And his suit.
  • Why he has no other name, and really does just go by “Snake Eyes” all the time.
  • And, of course, why Snake and Tommy fell out. Like in Zola!

Fortunately, Snake Eyes has enough to offer even for viewers who don’t care about any of this. It’s structured a bit like a sports drama, where Snake Eyes must rise to the challenge of passing three trials before he can join the Arashikage clan, and overcome the skepticism of security chief Akiko (Haruka Abe) and clan trainers Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and Blind Master (Peter Mensah). This keeps the story moving after an overly lengthy setup, and allows the film to get to the action audiences are looking for.

On that front, the results are mixed. In spite of a reliance on practical stunt work, and fights choreographed by the legendary Kenji Tanigaki, it’s hard to fully appreciate the good work that clearly went into Snake Eyes. Its battles are conceptually interesting — one rainy, neon-drenched fight across the alleys and rooftops of a city slum is a highlight — but an excessive reliance on shaky camerawork and jarring cuts makes the action unreadable. Rhythmically, Snake Eyes never really finds its footing, as fights end abruptly, and character stakes rarely align with the scale of a confrontation.

Akiko stands ready to take on foes in a red-lit alley in Snake Eyes Photo: Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures

It helps that Henry Golding comes across as such a capable action star. Golding, like Snake Eyes, doesn’t make a terribly good impression in the first act, but as things get more ridiculous, he becomes the grounding presence a G.I. Joe movie needs. While the film seems like it’s going to be extremely self-contained, about an hour in, the filmmakers become extremely interested in re-introducing audiences to the wider world of G.I. Joe. The pivot is abrupt, but it’s also the point where the movie leaves its relatively grounded revenge tale in favor of full-on goofy Saturday-morning-cartoon antics, and it’s honestly an enjoyable shift.

This is perhaps the biggest relief in Snake Eyes: In spite of the initially grounded opening acts, Schwentke and the writers categorically aren’t out to deliver a more serious take on G.I. Joe, a franchise mostly memorable for selling the military-industrial complex to children. (And, in comics, where it was an unprecedented success, for giving writer-artist Larry Hama a platform for finally showing off the full range of his powerhouse talent.) The movie offloads bigger questions about what the franchise looks like in the 2020s, and leaves potential future creators to figure that out for their own installments. Instead, the filmmakers choose to traffic in vibes and the aesthetic cool of a story about modern-day ninjas in Japan.

That superficiality will likely mean that Snake Eyes will solely preach to the converted. It’s an appeal to the lizard brain: Swords? Cool. Ninjas? Hell yes. If, however, your fandom has evolved to a point where you want to interrogate said coolness, and suspect that the tropes on display here may do a disservice to the culture they ostensibly pay tribute to, then perhaps you have outgrown all this, and don’t need anyone to buy you more toys.

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins opens in theaters on Friday, July 23.