Growing up I wasn’t always the biggest G.I. Joe fan. While the Transformers certainly grabbed my attention, by the time I was old enough to really care about toy-based media it was the mid-90s and the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers had me hooked. But while they weren’t my favorites, the G.I. Joe characters were always on my radar and were a staple of the 80s so it was inevitable that they would eventually head to live action like most of our childhood classics. In 2009 Paramount released the first live action “G.I. Joe” movie, “The Rise of Cobra”, followed by “Retaliation” in 2013, neither film garnering much critical praised although they were considered at least minor successes at the box office but nowhere near the likes of “Transformers”, another Hasbro property made live action in the 2000s. So, Paramount and Hasbro changed things up and rebooted the franchise in 2021 with their “G.I. Joe Origins” series starting with one of the most successful characters in the franchise, Snake Eyes. His self-titled solo movie sees Henry Golding take on the moniker in the years prior to the character’s vow of silence and provides an origin story for him and his rival Storm Shadow. All things considered there’s a bit that I liked about “Snake Eyes” with fun action and a seriously complex hero, but like the yin yang that inspired Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow themselves everything good about this solo outing is balanced by a lack of polish and poor attempts to stick to genre conventions.
First of all, “Snake Eyes” is directed by Robert Schwentke who has made some good films for his native Germany, but here in American he has been a part of some real clunkers like “R.I.P.D.”, the latter two “Divergent” films and “The Times Travelers Wife”. None of these were real critical successes and “Snake Eyes” continues the director’s trend of turning in poorly crafted Hollywood fair. That’s not to say “Snake Eyes” doesn’t have redeemable elements, it’s just terribly flawed in overall execution. While there’s plenty of action to behold much of it is shot in extreme shaky cam that gets annoying really quick, even disorienting at times, or is presented through quick cuts littered with CGI/live-action hybrid effects and a poor sense of placement. When the action does slow down and pace itself enough to follow, it’s a lot of fun but those moments are few and far between. The writing also feels quite generic and that’s in part thanks to screenwriter Evangelos Spiliotopoulos whose most notable contributions to the screen have been “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”, the Dwayne Johnson “Hercules”, the “Charlie’s Angels” reboot and a few Disney animated and live action pictures. While he wrote it with two other people it was based on his story and in its most basic form what we have is a superhero origin story that hinges on a magical MacGuffin and feels more interested in existing that fully embracing its reason to exist.
But like I said there are some redeeming elements to “Snake Eyes” particularly in the main duo. Henry Goulding plays the titular soon-to-be Joe prior to his recruitment and his vow of silence so, yes, the character popular for never saying a word talks throughout this entire movie. That said Goulding is certainly charming and continues to prove his value as a leading man. I think he’s a good fit for the role, even if he has a hard time keeping his accent straight often shifting from a believable American accent to allowing some of his English background to seep through at times. All-in-all though I think he was a solid choice, and his character arc drives the film especially as it relates to his classic rival Storm Shadow, known for most of the movie as Tommy Arashikage and played by Andrew Koji. What I loved about this film is that Snake Eyes starts the movie as a drifter seeking revenge for the death of his father and an opportunity for that revenge brings him and Tommy together eventually leading to their brotherhood and united connection to the Arashikage clan. While Storm Shadow is traditionally shown as the villain in most mediums, here he’s actually the more likable of the duo as we see Snake Eyes as a deceptive, duplicitous, self-focused individual bent on one thing and eventually learning the error of his ways while Storm Shadow starts as a noble leader and is driven down a path similar to the one Snake Eyes has to learn to veer away from. This creates a fun and complex relationship between soon-to-be rivals and gives us an unlikable protagonist for all the right reasons. He’s flawed, imperfect and has a lot to learn and even when he does, we know there’s a long way for him to go. This is what drew me in to the film and I wish the story captured more of that nuance. There are other characters of note like Samara Weaving as Scarlett, Úrsula Corberó as Baroness, and a larger supporting cast but they all honestly take a back seat to Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and serve more as a way to connect this film to the larger “G.I. Joe” series or serve as tools to drive their leading men forward in their journey. They’re fun additions but frankly underused and underdeveloped.
One thing I need to point out is that this is, of course, based on a toy line and a lot of times these kinds of movies can feel like feature length advertisements. Surprisingly I never felt that from “Snake Eyes”. It feels more like a tribute to the fans of the toys than a desperate attempt to sell more, which the first two movies really felt like the whole idea was “go out and buy our stuff so you can replicate this film”. “Snake Eyes” takes itself much more seriously and plays out more like the comic books while never forgetting that the core audience this film is aiming for are men in their 30s and 40s who grew up playing with toys that had stories and catch phrases attached to them. We want to see those stories come to life even if there’s some creative license to add context to them. With that in mind, if “Snake Eyes” succeeds financially I think the “Origins” approach is a fine way for Paramount and Hasbro to approach this maybe creating an MCU like collection of solo features all adding up to a showdown with the big bad. While it’s on a much smaller scale and lacks the epicness of its predecessors, I think that works in “Snake Eye’s” advantage making it a more intimate character-driven “Joe” film and thus feeling more in line with what made buying each individual figure feel so special, which was being able to learn about them and try and understand what makes these pieces of plastic so unique from the other characters.
“Snake Eyes” had potential and there’s a lot here to respect in terms of how it tries to own that this is, in fact, a story of the origin of Snake Eyes and the noble warrior he would become as a Joe. From that angle I enjoyed it and the relationship between Snake and Storm Shadow is what makes this movie worth watching for me. Otherwise, the rest of the film, from its overarching story to its clear attempts at franchise building to its poor handling of otherwise engaging and fun action sequences, leaves a lot to be desired. There are glimmers of competence littered throughout this movie and when they shine through they remind us that the G.I. Joe mythos does have a lot going for it and can work in a live-action setting, but as it is I don’t think “Snake Eyes” is the kind of movie that’s going to leave anyone clambering for what comes next even though it should leave a certain breed of cinema fan satisfied by the one-off experience it offers.