When Henry David Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” he probably wasn’t talking about the long-running Hasbro military action figure franchise “G.I. Joe,” but here we are anyway. Director Robert Schwentke (“The Captain”) has taken that advice with a brand-new live-action feature film that strips away most of the toy line’s sprawling cast and focuses instead of on two of its most popular characters: The speechless assassin Snake Eyes, and his misunderstood blood brother–nemesis Storm Shadow.
Since the early days of the cartoon series (and fleshed out particularly well in Larry Hama’s run in the Marvel “G.I. Joe” comic books), Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have been trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of jealousy, betrayal, murder, mistaken identity, and revenge. Their backstory is the closest that “G.I. Joe” has probably ever come to Shakespeare — which is to say not especially close, but pretty darned good for a franchise that was specifically created to sell toys to children.
So it’s frustrating to watch Schwentke’s film “Snake Eyes” transform that saga into a dispassionate and mediocre action movie. The drama is muddled, the action is murky, and the storyline can’t help but get goofier and goofier until, by the end, every attempt this movie makes to ground the “G.I. Joe” series gets blown up. It’s hardly the worst film the “G.I. Joe” series has delivered, but it’s certainly the least interesting.
Henry Golding stars as Snake Eyes, who got his name when he saw his father murdered by an assassin who offered him one roll of the dice to live. Naturally, dad rolls a pair of ones because his son’s gotta get that tough-guy nickname somehow, and that’s the best excuse any of the writers could come up with.
Snake Eyes grows up with vengeance in his heart and agrees to enlist in the yakuza in exchange for the name of his father’s killer. But the first time he’s actually asked to murder a guy himself, Snake Eyes can’t go through with it, and he winds up on the run with his would-be victim, Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji, Cinemax’s “Warrior”). Fortunately, Tommy is the heir to a great clan of secret super-ninjas who have been protecting the world for generations, occasionally with a little help from G.I. Joe, and Tommy has taken a shine to this young warrior who saved his life.
The majority of “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” follows the title character as he struggles to earn the respect of the Arashikage clan. He’s a skilled fighter, but can he purge the darkness in his heart? Can he pass their super-secret tests? Can he convince Tommy’s head of security Akiko (Haruka Abe, “Cruella”) that there’s nothing whatsoever suspicious about a new recruit with a mysterious past who’s being rushed up the ladder of their clandestine operation more quickly than anyone in history without so much as a proper background check?
Schwentke’s film doesn’t so much race along as jump ahead and wait nonchalantly for the audience to catch up with it. Snake Eyes isn’t driving the story, and he isn’t in charge of his destiny, and watching him get dragged around by his lapels from one exposition scene to another gets old quickly. Thank goodness Golding is charming as hell, and thank goodness Koji smolders alongside him, because their blood-brothers chemistry is all “Snake Eyes” has to offer for at least half the running time.
The many action sequences in “Snake Eyes” shake things up quite a bit, but in the worst possible way. The close-up handheld camerawork robs even the most exciting choreography of its punch, to the extent that only a few of the set pieces are clearly presented, let alone thrilling. The cinematography by Bojan Bazelli (“Underwater”) finds wonderful excuses for eye-popping colors, and the film luxuriates in the details from production designer Alec Hammond (“Allegiant”) and art director Michael Diner (“Bad Times at the El Royale”). But frankly it seems as though more creative energy was spent on the film’s exciting and energetic fonts than on most of the centerpiece fight scenes.
The cast is sure as hell trying, but it’s hard to tell which supporting actor “Snake Eyes” lets down the most. Audiences expecting martial arts superstar Iko Uwais to pull out all the stops as Snake Eyes’ mentor, Hard Master, will be disappointed to discover that he’s been asked to pull out almost no stops whatsoever. Samara Weaving (“Ready or Not”) gets precious little screen time as G.I. Joe agent Scarlett and has so little impact on the story that one wonders if most of her scenes were tacked onto this movie after principal photography as an afterthought.
“Snake Eyes” makes the tragic personal history of the title character and his nemesis seem long-winded and simplistic, two adjectives that never go well together. By fusing their iconic backstory with tedious spy, action and undercover clichés, Schwentke’s film manages to minimize their emotional connection to each other, which makes it practically impossible to emotionally connect with either of them. And if, by some miracle, one does buy into the human reality of their friendship, that’s bound to be undermined by the film’s goofy second half, which introduces broad sci-fi/fantasy elements that feel like they’re on loan from a totally different movie.
As far the film’s efforts to set up a new “G.I. Joe” franchise, the cast is full of winners, and we’d like to see more of them, but this film’s attempts to set up familiar beats are often laughable. One of the most absurd attempts comes when Akiko, in the film’s sole effort to explain why Tommy Arashikage will one day call himself “Storm Shadow,” tells him portentously that “You get that look you get sometimes, like a shadow before a storm.” It’s a clumsy line that drops with a crash and a thud, and what’s worse, it’s fundamentally unnecessary: Tommy Arashikage is called “Storm Shadow” because “Arashi” is Japanese for “Storm” and “Kage” is Japanese for “Shadow.”
That line takes something straightforward and effective and goes the long way around, missing the point entirely and making the whole endeavor unwieldy and awkward. That’s pretty much this new “Snake Eyes” in a nutshell: It’s a whole lot of ado about not a lot, and there absolutely had to have been a better way to articulate that.
“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” opens in US theaters July 23.