Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021)
Movie Review by Fred Meyer
The G.I. Joe brand has had an “interesting” relationship with the cinema. 1986’s G.I. Joe: The Movie was plagued with production delays and never actually made it to the theater. 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was intended to inject new life into the brand and kickstart a bold new cinematic franchise– except that it underperformed at the box office. In 2013, G.I. Joe: Retaliation served as an attempted course correction for the franchise but it too failed to light the box office on fire. At that point, it seemed as though the partnership between Hasbro and Paramount pictures was cooling a bit. A perceived “Hasbro Cinematic Universe” was announced but ultimately failed to produce a single picture. Flash forward to 2021 and we have Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins – a film that attempts to reboot the cinematic franchise by focusing on the ARAH brand’s signature character. Does it succeed? Well, read on and find out one Joe fan’s opinion.
To break this review down and prevent an out-of-practice reviewer from going on a diatribe the length of a Tolstoy epic, I’m going to borrow a page out of the book of legendary director Sergio Leone. This review will be broken down into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’m also going to avoid any detailed plot descriptions in order to keep this relatively spoiler-free. So, without any further adieu…
I have to say that one of the biggest sources of perceived controversy with this film is its greatest strength: casting. As an actor, Henry Golding just oozes charisma. Seriously– the guy has such a natural screen presence that unless both he and his agent have the worst instincts ever he’s going to go places in Hollywood. Golding’s good looks and easy charm will appeal to the ladies while his rugged physicality shows that he can convincingly hold his own in fight scenes. Is he the person I would have cast to play Snake Eyes? Probably not but I also wouldn’t have Snake Eyes speaking in a film either. However, for an origins film, Golding takes the role and runs with it in a way that shows he’s going to be a player for years to come.
However, he’s not the best actor in this film.
To my eyes, Andrew Koji pretty much steals the show. HIs portrayal of Tommy Arashikage is layered with nuance in a way that makes him the breakout character of this film. No matter what was going on screen I found myself far more interested in his journey than I did Snake Eyes. Koji displays a range that covers both rage and stoic control in a way that few action stars today are capable of. He’s the straight man to Golding’s more affable Snake Eyes and it works perfectly. The other standout of the film is Haruka Abe as Akiko, a brand new character in the mythos. She’s essentially the balance between the two male leads– driving both the narrative and emotional development of the film forward at many key points. Her portrayal is a bit understated at times but man alive did she make a believer out of this film goer. I look forward to seeing more of her as well.
I’m just going to say it now– whoever directed the cinematography in the fight scenes needs to go back to film school. Now. It’s obvious that the fight cinematographer is a fan of the cinema verite style of film-making. Rather than keep the camera steady during an intense martial arts sequence, the camera work instead is incredibly shaky and relies on rapid jump cuts. For example, in one sequence when a character is knocked to the ground the camera perspective follows right alongside so that the audience is left looking up at the attacker.
What’s the point of having elaborately staged fight sequences if it’s hard to tell what is going on during them– especially in the first two acts? During the long COVID lockdown of theaters last year my fiance and I watched a lot of classic films. During one particular week, we went into “Bruce Lee mode” in which I showed her several favorites of mine. There’s no doubt about it– Lee’s martial arts prowess was a focal point of the films and the camera work reflected it. Shots were blocked and filmed with a steady hand and minimal camera movement in order to keep the viewer’s attention solely focused on the nimble the star of the film. (Enter the Dragon is a freaking masterclass on how to shoot a martial arts film.) The end result is that the audience is left completely in awe of the sheer skill of the martial artists.
I hate the “shaky cam” style of shooting action and wish it would just go away entirely. It’s a cheap gimmick that gets in the way of the action and it does no favors to Snake Eyes here.
This is a tricky one but I have to say that the award for “ugly” goes to the script. Here’s the kicker– there are moments in this film that were terrific. As an audience member, several sequences completely pulled me into the story and made me care about the characters. Those scenes, however, are balanced out by the sheer number of narrative decisions that made zero sense and completely detached me from the film’s story. The result is a less than satisfactory cinematic experience.
The script for this film felt as though it was written by a writer’s room that was at war with itself. At times, it was a yakuza Hong Kong crime story. In other moments it was the tale of a fish-out-of-water finding his place in the world. Lastly, there are sequences in which the film tries to be a fantasy comic book film. The result is a non-homogenous stew of ideas that never truly blends into a cohesive whole and this carries over the film’s focus and characterizations. Snake Eyes may be the title character but Tommy (Storm Shadow) is given a far more sympathetic portrayal. In fact, one can argue that he is the hero of the film. It’s not until the end of the third act that the writers suddenly remembered “Oh, he needs to become an outcast.” The result is a hastily bolted-on sequence that feels completely divorced from the character that was presented for two hours prior. Snake Eyes is allowed to make a “mistake” that costs dozens of Arashikage clan members their lives but Storm Shadow screws up once and he’s a bad, bad boy. It’s the kind of hackneyed “the plot requires that this happens” development that reeks of amateur hour writing. Lastly, there’s the inclusion of both the Baroness and Scarlett. They’re in the film to remind us all that it’s a “G.I. Joe movie” and yet in the grand scheme of things they don’t really do anything to drive the plot forward that couldn’t have been accomplished by the other characters in the film. It’s as if they were just dropped in for the sake of strengthening the tie to G.I. Joe. I’m 100% convinced that the screenplay for this film started out as a standard martials arts flick and was adapted INTO a G.I. Joe movie.
There’s also the weird balancing act between realism and outright fantasy– which fails about as spectacularly as juggler with poor depth perception. At times, the film goes for a very gritty realistic tone and yet there’s a “magic glow-y rock”, vision quests, and giant freaking snakes who can judge when someone’s “intentions are pure.” (No, I’m not making up the last part.) Honestly, the writers would have been better off just picking one lane and staying there instead of veering all over the narrative road with the precise driving skills of Mr. Magoo. The character and the franchise have had some amazing story arcs written in the past– they deserved better in this latest cinematic attempt.
The Final Verdict:
I’ll be blunt. There’s a reason that it’s taken me over a week to complete this review. I went into the film with moderate expectations and left disappointed. The casting was great but everything else about this film was “average” to “poor” at best. As I left the theater I wasn’t excited about what I’d seen– nor was I upset by how “the film destroyed my childhood.” Instead, I was left with a profound sense of “meh” and disappointment. Looking back on the experience during the past week I can’t recall a truly memorable or exhilarating sequence in the entire film. Sure, there’s a lot of action but thanks to the camera work none of it stands out. Yes, there were some attempts at characterization but due to the clumsy nature of the script none of it really made any impact. Instead, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (or whatever they’re calling it) is just an average film that is ultimately just not memorable. That’s the real tragedy of this film– it’s not Snake Eyes’ backstory but rather the fact that such rich source material isn’t utilized for great effect. Instead, we’re left with a film that will fight with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra for the title of “second best live action G.I. Joe movie” and THAT’S saying something. (G.I. Joe Retaliation – extended cut is STILL the king, IMHO.)
Of course, that’s just one Joe fan’s opinion…
The Bottom Line: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is a film that fails to leave any real impact on the viewer. Sure, it’s summer popcorn fare but without the G.I. Joe tie, it’s an average film at best.