SNAKE EYES is a very enjoyable soft reboot of the G.I. Joe franchise that puts its focus on the story of, well, the characters of Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. Rather than going for the worldwide mission plot of the first two films, which aren’t bad themselves, it concentrates on the characters and builds a separate world where the Yakuza are fighting the Ninja Arashikage Clan as a backdrop to Snake Eyes’ search for a killer who ruined his life and his search for a home. The cast consists of Henry Golding as Snake Eyes, Andrew Koji as Tommy, Úrsula Corberó as the Baroness, Samara Weaving as Scarlett, Haruka Abe as Akiko, Takehiro Hira as Kenta, Peter Mensah as Blind Master, and Iko Uwais as Hard Master.
There are many reasons to recommend the film. The first is that this is a story mainly set in Japan that also has a core cast, including the titular hero, who are almost all Asian actors. All of the actors take their roles and the film seriously, and it shows in their work. In particular, Golding, Koji, Abe, and Steve Allerick (Father) are all doing really good emotional work. Peter Mensah has a great presence. Iko Uwais just rules in general and is a welcome addition to this series. Sometimes while watching action movies, I get the feeling that the acting is the last consideration on the list. Not so in SNAKE EYES. You like the characters, despite what they may or may not be doing, because the actors give you a reason to like them – with their personal charisma or charm, and because you understand why they do it. Even if their actions and thoughts run counter to what is considered good or honorable, you still feel sympathy for them because the actors clearly delineate their motivations through their character work. You dislike or are suspicious of the characters when they lie or cheat for the same reason, but the complexity of the characters’ motivations and the actor’s work makes it less black and white. It’s slightly confusing emotionally, but in a good way.
The ideas of good vs bad and how you like or dislike a character are really stretched in SNAKE EYES. It’s not so simple. The cast isn’t just standing around looking cool or cracking one-liners. They are giving their all and the film is improved for having human beings rather than action figures as characters. Just like how a horror film is better if they have dedicated actors playing the roles, the film is better for it. I also have to shout out the casting director Margery Simkin (Erin Brockovich, Avatar) because this cast is very strong.
The film is directed by Robert Schwentke, who directed a little film you might remember called Red, and he knows how to stage a stirring and funny action film with a great cast. I didn’t go in knowing that, but now I realize why SNAKE EYES is as good as it is. The cinematography is by Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and does have a really terrific and stylish look. Kenji Tanigaki is the fight choreographer, who is most popularly known for his work on the Rurouni Kenshin series (which you can check out the fight choreo here). His specialty is samurai films and sword work. The fights are well done and exciting. They aren’t as frenetic, energy-wise, as some of my favorites, but this choreography style pointed out to me that different types of fight choreography have different energies. There’s also some fun car stunt work. There’s also humor built into the fights and stunts which is very much welcome.
I was actually surprised how far the story and characters went with betrayals specifically. I remember thinking, no wait, I was not expecting that. The screenwriters, Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Unholy, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), Anna Waterhouse (Rebecca, Seberg), and Joe Shrapnel (Rebecca, Seberg) all deserve credit for doing so well with the structure of characterization, motivations, and plot while working within the tropes of the G.I. Joe series which tends to be quite jingoistic. The script even occasionally subverts the standard Western idea of what Asian culture is. The good thing is there’s almost no Army sloganeering and much less of the “here’s your special suit that makes you capable of doing superhuman feats so you can defeat the villains” plot points or the standard villains of the previous films.
Baroness, in particular, is portrayed in a very playful and idiosyncratic way that is delightful, so praise is due for the screenwriter and the actress, Úrsula Corberó, who made the character light and mocking rather than the standard “badass” portrayal. There’s no mustache twisting from the bad guys in SNAKE EYES and you might be surprised who some of the bad guys are as you watch it. Like people in real life, people change allegiances and change their minds, but these are earned actions and decisions. The use of the series of tests to join the clan trope is something I really liked seeing because the tests are based more on psychological motivations than brute force. It was refreshing.
Overall, SNAKE EYES is an exuberant, emotionally resonant, and best of all, more of an action drama hybrid than the previous G.I. Joe films which were more like bubblegum fantasies. While all three films of the franchise are entertaining, I have to give the award to SNAKE EYES as the best of the three because it really focused on the characters and made the story and the film more humanistic and surprising. To me, it’s much more appealing when you have an action film, based on a line of toys, that can keep you emotionally invested while you’re watching people kick lots of ass. A film that has characters that you can care about generally makes a film a much better experience in my opinion.
SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS is now available only in theatres, Dolby Cinema, and IMAX.
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