Snake Eyes G.I. Joe

The G.I. Joe Cinematic Universe is off to a rough new start with Snake Eyes

Blockbuster clichés abound in this convoluted and familiar origin story starring Henry Golding.

In the endless search for more intellectual property to spin new franchises from, studios have butted heads against one particular obstacle: as the dominating cultural force for a solid century, movies have had a lot more impact on other media than vice-versa. It’s particularly true of video game adaptations, many of which are based on properties that were already rooted to some degree in references and a narrative language pilfered from movies. It’s also definitely true of the handful of movies based on toys that have been made in recent years. What are GI Joes if not a tool to help kids play out scenarios and situations they’ve seen on-screen? Suffice to say that the fact that the G.I. Joe movies thus far were juvenile mashups of action movie tropes is not that surprising; it is, in fact, the way it should be. 

Robert Schwentke’s Snake Eyes is an attempt to make the G.I. Joe movies into their own standalone universe that’s very carefully designed to replicate other successful blockbusters (and some less successful — the first 15 minutes of Snake Eyes are practically narratively identical to the first 15 minutes of Mortal Kombat) in the hopes of capturing that very same magic. A confused bouillabaisse of disparate genre movie elements (most borrowed from Asian cinema) ensues — very much in line with the idea of a line of toys that aren’t based on a particular action movie, but on the idea of action movies.

To call Snake Eyes an action movie based around the concept of action movies does a fairly good job of dismissing its convoluted plot, but nevertheless. The titular Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) works as a fishmonger and moonlights as a cage fighter at night, troubled ever since his childhood by the violent death of his father at the hands of a mystery assaillant. Through his dealings with the Los Angeles chapter of the Yakuza, Snake Eyes falls in with a Japanese clan of warriors known as the Arashikage, who he believes will help him find his father’s killer. An endless series of double crosses, fake identities and kerfuffles about a magic stone ensue as the film flips through martial arts tropes, ninja tropes, Kinji Fukusaku-style yakuza carnage, a motorcycle race, shootouts and even murky hand-to-hand combat that recalls the more action-packed side of the Korean New Wave.

Snake Eyes, directed by Robert Schwentke, starring Henry Golding

Snake Eyes is an action movie, and in that sense it delivers. It’s packed with carnage of all stripes, most of which is delivered with a certain panache by Schwentke and director of photography Bojan Bazelli. In fact, before the story really got rolling, I briefly entertained the thought that Snake Eyes might actually be pretty good. The opening action scene certainly sets the table well enough — before proceeding to squander nearly all of the good will it generates through some of the dullest, most familiar storytelling in recent memory. In a world where mumbo-jumbo, Macguffins and secret shadowy organizations are essential to pretty much any blockbuster, Snake Eyes stands out as particularly marble-mouthed and uninvolving. 

One imagines that the filmmakers are setting up the pieces for an eventual franchise, but the “lore” of G.I. Joe, so to speak, isn’t exactly as rich and interesting as that of your average superhero. Part of why the codification of superhero movies has been so successful and rampant is the fact that superhero movies barely existed as a genre before Marvel whittled it into the same movie over and over again. Snakes Eyes doesn’t have that luxury, stuck as it is in a vastly uninteresting world of shadowy international organizations and the like. The film has a thoroughly unearned confidence in the fact that audiences care about these machinations — or, more accurately, that they have the patience to see this movie painstakingly go through the motions to show how a faceless silent ninja character came to be the way he is. 

Snake Eyes therefore suffers from all of the problems of the typical origin story with one novel twist: it’s working towards establishing the origin of a character who, even by my relatively loose understanding of the world of G.I. Joe, was kind of beloved for being mysterious. It sets out to answer questions no one ever asked in the first place, and sitting there waiting for those answers gets tedious pretty fast. Simultaneously lazy and extremely overexerted, Snake Eyes is unlikely to jumpstart a brand new world of G.I. Joe movies. ■

Snake Eyes opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, July 23. Watch the trailer here:

Snake Eyes, directed by Robert Schwentke, starring Henry Golding

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