Ever since this geek discovered the “Classified” Deluxe Snake Eyes action figure from Hasbro just under one year-and-a-half ago, I have been Deep Six into the nostalgic G.I. Joe abyss ever since. Buying that one fig on EvilBay opened up an entire pre-order mess battling Target employees and B.O.T.S for Cobra Island goodies. This has also led to one too many A Real American Hero cartoon marathons on Tubi, Ripcording into Larry Hama’s timeless Marvel Comics, almost daily.
Hama approved of Paramount’s second venture (and third film), Snake Eyes, into the cinematic Cobra/Joe world, and I can see why. The G.I. Joe Origins (the extended, original title) needed to be told. Movie adaptation canon, even one so exceptional as the MCU, hardly ever follows tradition, and this Joe’s story is an old, cloudy one. Vietnam was.. quite some time ago. In 2021 we have all these cool and nifty new gadgets to play with. G.I. Joe’s second generation (1982-) started off as a bucket of plastic military characters with cool gadgets, and Snake Eyes Director Robert Schwentke (The Captain, RED) would be stupid not to want to play with even cooler ones…
Thankfully, this new, early beginning for the fan favorite ninja has far deeper layers to the roll of the dice than we think. This question must have been posed to Larry — and Hasbro — from the film’s writers Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse: Why is he called Snake Eyes? Beyond just the two black dots on the ivory staring back at us on the concrete, what is the meaning behind the name? It’s an intriguing question of lore to one of popular geek culture’s brand ambassadors; a question that has only been cracked at in the comics and never fully explored in ARAH. And while the visual reply might not have been executed to perfection, this crew definitely took its best katana hack at it.
Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) is almost too chill as Snake, reflecting some of the more grizzled, nuanced performances of Karl Urban or Hugh Jackman in similar heroic fashion. They’re all kind of dicks, but you can’t help but root for them. Before Snake Eyes can become the silent, timber wolf-petting ninja commando, he’s a conflicted victim to a haunted childhood when tragedy turned his world upside down. The Snake Eyes movie does an admirable, almost too hasty job building up dude’s combat background and unbridled motivation. And for those wondering, this Snake Eyes is an American. He might not be the blonde hair, blue-eyed bad-ass we saw hittin’ the Vietcong in the comics with Lonzo and Tommy, and Paramount definitely didn’t hire Henry to shoot it silent.. but he certainly does his best. He’s a very calm, collected, almost silent.. American.
But you’ll be glad Golding has lines. Other than the show-stealing Cobra intelligence officer, Baroness, played to perfection by Úrsula Corberó and The Raid flicks’ Iko Uwais (who received quite the response from my fellow media-going audience), Snake Eyes — the character — has some of the coolest things to say, while Andrew Koji definitely plays the hardened, just as morally/ethically/mentally conflicted Storm Shadow. The movie definitely depends highly on their chemistry, especially if you’re a major league G.I. Joe fan, and thankfully their sheaths mesh as well as Schwentke and Co.’s Japanese street crime/ninja/military genre film. That accomplishment is definitely one of the biggest shockers of all, how effortlessly the film transitions from a Yakuza Fast & Furious thriller into a G.I. Joe fantasy that breaks the rules a little bit (and mercifully gets away with it due to how wild the animated canon part of the brand is).
There’s just enough fan service here for the biggest of Joe lovers. But, it’s brilliantly subtle and well-placed. Yakuza thugs and ninja hordes don’t storm into the Arishikage fortress with giant Cobra symbols on their dress, but you will catch one on the side of their boot, under the crates of Destro’s apparent arms that were sold to the highest bidder, and out of the mouth of a few former Troopers-For-Hires here and there. Again, Corberó is the showiest character of the bunch, but her Baroness thankfully never reaches high-cheese camp levels, and Samara Weaving‘s Scarlett gives you just enough to want more. Snake Eyes surely has “Yo Joe!” in mind, and just enough; you’re going to see just a touch of outlandish stuff here that should never wind up in a Japanese street crime story, but it does because it’s allowed to.
At least this “mindless action blockbuster” has a lot more brains than expected, even when it doesn’t have eyes. Peter Mensah is pure fun as Blind Master, and his entry into Snake’s three tests of an Arishikage initiation challenge offers arguably the most meaning. In this scene Snake melts into his venomous past through haunted trial and error, having to clear his conscience to free up his soul. There’s a lot of cool allegories and deep ninja-balance that takes place once Snake has to rely on more than just his own fighting skills (and as Jinx had quoted once to the blind master, “the keenest eye looks inward”).
Schwentke and his DP Bojan Bazelli present a thrilling explosion of claustrophobic shots throughout Snake Eyes‘ settling cinema. This style choice certainly sizes up an otherwise modern day yakuza actioner with plenty of juice. The stakes feel higher up close, the action feels more thunderous, and the risk feels more daring. While Kenji Tanigaki probably shouldn’t be applauded for being Scorpion’s stunt double in the world’s worst video game movie Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (heh), his stunt coordination on Snake Eyes deserves a world of applause. Henry Golding was definitely not anyone’s first choice as the titular character; so I can’t help but feel that the actor’s work with — and his desire to work with — Kenji shows up aces. Having watched over 20 Yakuza flicks under quarantine in the past year, the amount of Japanese crime cinema influence found in Snake Eyes was instantly savory. There’s a plentiful range of traditional fight sequences and modern stunt work that’s just flat-out dope.
Look, if you head into Snake Eyes already hating it, not accepting that this is a new canon, a modern day reimagining, with a U.S.S. Flagg’s full of potential — despite approval from the beloved IP’s legendary comic creator — then, well, take your money and shame elsewhere. There was a chance to shut Golding’s Snake-Eyes up for good towards the end of the film, a way to disfigure that pretty face, to end the cries of whining manbabies forever, and… it didn’t happen. I was a touch saddened by that, a little bit worried– until I realized that this whole new take must reinvent itself to make it accessible to new audiences. Snake Eyes is only just the beginning a brand new Joe saga, with hope that fellow diehard fans can and will open up their eyes for some real effing sweet shit to come. 4/5 Whiskeys.