Sometimes, you simply need to let your inner child come out and play.
Directed by Robert Schwentke (Red), Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins operates as a hard reboot of Hasbro’s cinematic franchise by essentially erasing all that came before. By highlighting the beginnings of one of the series’ most interesting heroes, the film effectively creates its own fresh start. While this doesn’t always work (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Snake Eyes is a refreshingly energetic piece and a step forward for the world of G.I. Joe toys… er… movies. Although the previous two entries were underwhelming, Schwentke clearly cares about the source material. Thankfully, that also translates into an entertaining outing that balances its action set pieces with a legitimately interesting backstory for the character.
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins begins in the character’s youth. After witnessing the death of his father, a furious Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) sets out on his own to find the man who killed his father. However, his life changes when he meets Tommy (Andrew Koji), the heir apparent to the Arashikage clan. After saving Tommy’s life, Snake Eyes is invited into their home where he is trained in the ways of the ninja warrior. However, as secrets are revealed, Snake Eyes finds his allegiances tested as his past catches up to him and threatens his way of life.
Given the franchise’s history, it should be unsurprising that the film feels like the type of adventure a child might create while playing with their action figures. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In this case, there’s a youthful enthusiasm through much of the film that gives it life. Bouncing with vitality, the set pieces are often imaginative and a treat for the eyes. Balancing some of the more fantastical elements of Eastern sword-fighting epics with the more grounded tech-based approach of American action is a unique blend of styles that serves the film well. Most importantly though, Snake Eyes offers something that the other films in the G.I. Joe Universe have lacked… a compelling story that cares about its characters.
Written by Evan Spiliotopolis, Snake Eyes takes a deep dive into the history of GI Joe’s most mysterious hero. As the silent member of the team, almost nothing is known about Snake Eyes himself other than his unique relationship with villainous Stormshadow. As a result, Spiliotopolis has essentially a blank canvas from which to work and he creates a story of revenge and honour that contains enough surprises to stand on its own. (In fact, there are times where one wishes it wasn’t a part of the Joe franchise so that there would be less pressure to force the Hasbro references into the story.)
Having said this, the film certainly does have its flaws. Although the set-up is compelling, the finale does feel a little more ‘forced’ than the rest of the film. What’s more, it noticeably borrows from a number of other franchises in order to create its own world. With moments that harken back to The Empire Strikes Back and the Indiana Jones films, the film unapologetically builds on that which has come before in pop culture. (It even contains its own version of an Infinity Stone.) Even so, the fun nature of the story gives this film a theme-park ride quality that keeps it entertaining throughout.
Much of the film’s success lies at the feet of its leads. Star Henry Golding seems invested in bringing his character to life, especially in moments where he wrestles with his anger regarding the death of his father. However, the best performance comes from Koji as the young and impetuous Tommy. As the heir-in-waiting Tommy, Koji balances a desire to honour his family with an edge of darkness that shades his actions. While Golding may be the biggest star, it’s Koji’s commitment to the character that provides the best work within the film.
Embedded within the story is an exploration of the relationship between honour and heroism. Broken by the death of his father in his childhood, Snake Eyes is a man who is blinded by his own rage. For his entire life, all that has mattered to him is vengeance. However, when he is accepted into the Arashikage home, his world is turned upside down. Although Snake Eyes may be fueled by his pain, the Arashikage home teaches him another way. Instead of revenge, Tommy and his family speak of humility and dealing with our pain. They fight with honour and fight for others. In fact, in this world, honour is the mark of true character and equated with purity of heart. With each passing day within the walls of the Arashikage home, Snake Eyes becomes increasingly challenged to choose between continuing on his path of rage and choosing a new way moving forward.
As the film concludes, it should come as no surprise that Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is meant to (re)launch its own cinematic universe. For this reason, some will remain understandably skeptical of its intentions. Having said that though, the film also invites you to let out your inner child. Featuring lively fight scenes and an engaging story, Golding, Koji and the rest are clearly having a blast bringing this toy line to life and the results show onscreen. As such, if future entries can continue to create stories like this that remain worth telling, I will be more than happy to roll the dice on the next installment.
Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins is available in theatres on Friday, July 23rd, 2021.