Disclaimer: I would like to apologize in advance to everyone out there who is a huge G.I. Joe fan, because you’re about to read a review from someone who isn’t a hardcore fan. I have heard mixed things about the film from a hardcore fan perspective, and I know some of the fans aren’t happy the mythology was changed. I would like you to know that if that’s the case, I’ve been there.
I’m a hardcore Marvel and DC Comics fan. So I’ve been there through the X-Men: Origins and the Batman v Superman‘s of it all; movies that just tend to step all over everything you love about the mythology and characters. And they actually got me to the point where I would just get so infuriated watching them. So if that’s the case for you, you have my sympathies, and this may not be a review you’ll want to read.
Because I actually liked this one.
Snake Eyes is not a great movie. But I have to admit I thought it was actually much better than either the turgid G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (though that’s not hard to accomplish) and the halfway decent G.I. Joe Retaliation. In fact, when the movie focuses on the relationship between Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) and Storm Shadow (Andrew Koji) and the mythology of the Arashikage Clan it’s actually pretty good.
The characters are pretty fleshed out, and their motivations are clear, and the actual mythology they invented is relatively interesting (sorry again if I’m offending any traditionalists). That’s way better than whatever the hell Cobra Commander and Destro were in the first film. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are real people in this. And so is Akiko (Haruka Abe), who is a welcome addition to the cast. And I appreciate that a G.I. Joe movie would try to do this, when it doesn’t really have to. Is some of it cliche? Sure. But c’mon guys, it’s G.I. Joe.
In a year full of dumb spectacle movies, Snake Eyes is far above cheap schlock like Mortal Kombat or F9 because it feels like it’s actually trying. And why wouldn’t it? It’s got a lot more to prove after its predecessors. And leading the charge on that effort is Henry Golding, who is really giving the role his all. Golding is a very charming actor, but admittedly, I’ve always found him limited in his abilities, and his turn as the eponymous character is no exception. It’s a valiant effort and it’s serviceable enough to get you through the film.
However, for me, in the same way the first two Thor movies belong to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Snake Eyes belongs to Andrew Koji’s Storm Shadow. In fact, the interesting reversal of the roles — Storm Shadow being the more honorable of the two characters, is refreshing for anyone used to the character basically being just an average villain. It spices up the story and makes the character so much richer than we’ve seen before. He’s infinitely more sympathetic than the titular character, and Koji’s passionate calm, yet emotional, performance really captures that of a man burdened with the responsibility of carrying out a hundred year old legacy, and doing everything in his power to live up to it.
Snake Eyes, on the other hand, is a jackass blinded by his quest for vengeance. It makes it harder to like him, though Golding is just good enough that you still manage to root for him. It’s this complicated relationship between both characters, their obligations to themselves and one another, that really sells the movie. Though, again, adding to the mix is the lovely Abe, who gives just as badass and sympathetic a performance as Akiko, the head of security for the Arashikage Clan. Her scenes with Golding, particularly a sparring scene between the two of them, are where Golding’s experience with breezy rom coms gets a chance to bloom. Also Iko Uwais (Hard Master), Peter Mensah (Blind Master), and Eri Ishida give notable performances in their relatively limited roles. You like them enough to flat out keep rooting for the Arashikage Clan throughout the movie.
Less successful, however, is everything pertaining to the G.I. Joe and Cobra conflict. I realize that is the core of the G.I. Joe franchise, and the movie is doing everything in its power to shoehorn it in so the franchise can be set up. But it not only comes off as clunky, but it also took me out of my investment the deeper we went into the Storm Shadow/Snake Eyes relationship. And no offense to Samara Weaving, who I loved in Ready or Not, and Úrsula Corberó, who I loved in Money Heist, but they really do seem like they’re phoning it in as Scarlett and Baroness, while still being a bit too cartoony for my taste (I know this is based on cartoons, but you don’t have to play the characters like them).
I’m glad it was few and far between, and the movie really focuses on Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, but every time either of them was in the picture, it was really like watching a completely separate movie.
From an action scene standpoint, a lot of the fights work, but what completely kills them at times is the unfortunate use of shaky cam. I realize the goal of this movie was to get as far away from the campiness of the previous two movies, and make things gritty and real. But when I can’t see what’s going on in the fight, you deprive skilled fighters like Koji and Uwais the opportunity to show their stuff, because all I’m seeing is blurred figures smashing against blurred figures. For God’s sake, this isn’t Jason Bourne, guys. Just give us clean ninja scenes!
Retaliation had a really great one with Snake Eyes and Jinx on a mountain top. That’s what we want to see in a Snake Eyes movie. The operative word there is “see” by the way. When the camera isn’t doing the shaky cam thing, though, it’s not half bad. The fight choreography is at least way better and faster than anything the Mortal Kombat movie ever attempted to do. And the action doesn’t dip into total physics defying stupidity and bad ideas the way F9 did. It was the perfect amount of “turn-your-brain-off” action, but with at least some compelling characters and moves. The action has purpose, and that’s at least the bare minimum we need in the story of a brainless summer spectacle.
Much like Mortal Kombat though, the one thing I have to give huge props to the production for was the POC aspect. This is an inherently Asian story, with Asian actors. Does it get a little tropey at times? Sure. But at the end of the day, making Snake Eyes Asian and giving him thoughts and feelings, or fleshing out Storm Shadow so he’s legitimately sympathetic and real is a huge step in the right direction for Asian representation in action blockbusters.
It’s more than I can say for Lewis Tan’s character in Mortal Kombat (what was that dude’s name again?) who was the cinematic equivalent of bland, pointless cardboard (sorry I’m still complaining about that movie three months later!). And with Shang Chi coming out soon too, I think the tide will be turning in such a way that we begin to see more Asian-led action genre films. Very exciting times!
Overall, Snake Eyes isn’t perfect, but it’s fun enough, and made me actually want to see a sequel once the credits started rolling (there is a mid-credits scene by the way). It’s a step in the right direction for the franchise (at least for non-fans just looking for an entertaining action movie), especially given the abysmal attempts at launching the film series back in 2009.
Henry Golding is serviceable as Snake Eyes, but Andrew Koji steals the show. However, it’s their complicated and interesting relationship together that kept me wanting to see more.
Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): B
Overall Score (on a representation level): B