Review by C.J. Bunce
Both The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Mummy were good reboots of franchises, one of a 1960s television series, the other intended to bring forward the Universal Studios Monsters for another generation, but the lack of attention by audiences brought the franchises to a standstill. Snake Eyes–G.I. Joe Origins, which premiered in theaters in July after a 16 month pandemic delay, is another good re-start of a franchise, and hopefully nothing stands in the way of Hasbro moving ahead with the planned G.I. Joe–Ever Vigilant, originally slated for a 2020 release.
Especially if you’re a fan of the comics and animated series versions of G.I. Joe, you won’t want to miss the home release of Snake Eyes–G.I. Joe Origins. It’s a solid film, faithfully explaining–as the titles states–the origin of G.I. Joe ace operative Snake Eyes. If you know the helmeted, silent ninja from the comics or animated show, you also know he is inextricably linked to that COBRA ninja in white garb, Storm Shadow; audiences will get the story of why each of these sworn brothers finds his way to opposing sides in the ongoing battle of good guys vs. bad guys. You won’t see any “kung fu grip,” although the Japanese martial arts choreographed fight scenes are well done, if toned down from more serious martial arts films. You also won’t yet learn why Snake Eyes goes silent–much is left for one or more sequels. But everyone does have “life-like hair.” And it may just leave you shouting, “Yo, Joe!” (That’s a good thing).
Snake Eyes–G.I. Joe: Origins stars Henry Golding (The Gentlemen) as Snake Eyes, a man whose backstory shows his father was killed when he was young. He takes the moniker Snake Eyes from the dice roll his father made which determined his sentence to death at the hands of a leader in the yakuza. “Snake” is eager to get his revenge and throws himself, mainly his body, into physical work, including street fighting. While doing that he gets sucked into working for another crime family; this is a character defined by his poor decisions. Gaining the trust of a peer (as well as the audience) he saves the life of the next in line to the Japanese clan called the Arashikage, a man named Tommy, played by Andrew Koji (Fast & Furious 6). Tommy’s style reflects that of shadows before the storm, which is where he derives the pseudonym Storm Shadow. Tommy bestows a life debt on Snake for saving his life, and brings him into the inner circle of the Arashikage.
The Japanese culture is given a light touch in the film, an almost sanitized or polished version of the heroic tales produced in Asia, much like Marvel’s handling of Wolverine in The Wolverine. Remembering this is an action story derived from a toy line–and not a serious drama about traditional Asian lore–the handling really works at this level. Tommy seeks permission of the head of the family, his grandmother Sen (played by Lupin III and Wuthering Heights‘ Eri Ishida), to let Snake be his majordomo and protector. But first he must pass three tests of wits and bravery, any of which could result in his death. Snake is first trained by two clan elders: international martial arts champion Iko Uwais (who we loved in Wu Assassins and The Night Comes for Us and had a bit part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Hard Master, and the statuesque Peter Mensah (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Sleepy Hollow, Avatar, 300, Star Trek Enterprise, True Blood, A Nero Wolfe Mystery) plays Blind Master. As with a Star Wars or Star Trek film the writers provide several supporting characters to get to know in a short timeframe, yet each gets his time in the spotlight.
Snake is consistently thwarted by the head of security for the family who believes Snake is a fraud, Cruella and 47 Ronin’s Haruka Abe as Akiko. Akiko is a great badass leader who gets several opportunities to demonstrate her martial arts skills, even to the exclusion of the leading G.I. Joe women who enter the picture later. Those women are also solid characters of the bad-ass variety: Samara Weaving (Ready Or Not, The Babysitter, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as G.I. Joe operative Scarlett, and Úrsula Corberó (Money Heist, The Broken Crown) as that infamous villainess and sometimes frenemy, Baroness.
The movie is directed by Robert Schwentke, who also helmed similar fun action romps RED and R.I.P.D. He was a great choice to take on Snake Eyes, and the overall look and scope of the film should get him called back for future films in the series. Despite several writers contributing to the script, which usually spells doom for a movie, Snake Eyes is tightly written, a good development of characters, plus some twists and surprises even for those familiar with the characters. Where it suffers is where many action films in the 21st century–from Wonder Woman to the Fast & Furious films–have problems: in the big action sequences and explosive finale shots, where the stunt planners tend to go over the top. But again, that’s what movies like this are for.
Original comic book writer of G.I. Joe, Larry Hama is interviewed for the commentary on the digital home release, which includes an animated short about Snake Eyes’ signature sword “Morning Light,” five deleted scenes that don’t add much to the film, and three behind the scenes looks at the making of the movie. It’s been eight years since G.I. Joe: Retaliation, with a small cast consisting primarily of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Bruce Willis, Adrianne Palicki, D.J. Cotrona, and Byung-hun Lee, and 13 years since G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, with a large all-star cast. It’s a good time for more movies in the franchise. Plus, General Joe Colton is mentioned in Snake Eyes, and does anyone look more like an original 1960s-1970s Joe than Karl Urban? Is anyone listening?
As with Marvel’s Black Widow, it’s easy for Snake Eyes–G.I. Joe Origins to get lost among the competition with moviegoers and audiences waiting for video releases. But it’s good fun the entire family can enjoy, and one of the year’s better films. Catch it now on Vudu, on Blu-ray and digital at Amazon here, also available in a Steelbook version here, or find it on other streaming platforms.