Review: ‘Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins,’ starring Henry Golding

July 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Golding and Takehiro Hira in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins”

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and briefly in Washington state and Los Angeles, the fantasy action flick “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” features a predominantly Asian cast (with some white people and African Americans) portraying a heroic ancient Japanese clan called Arashikage and the story’s villains.

Culture Clash: Members of Arashikage battle against villains from a group called Cobra, who want to take over the world.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “G.I. Joe” games and franchise, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching mindless action flicks that don’t offer anything new or exciting to the genre.

Peter Mensah, Iko Uwais, Haruka Abe, Henry Golding and Andrew Koji in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

The “G.I. Joe” movies never had a reputation for being well-made action classics. “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” won’t do anything to change that reputation. It’s a frequently dull parade of sloppily filmed action clichés and no-talent acting by some of the movie’s cast members.

No one is expecting this movie to be an Oscar-caliber film. But there should be a reasonable expectation that the action scenes will be memorable and exciting and the characters will be engaging. Instead, “Snake Eyes: G.I . Joe Origins” (directed by Robert Schwentke) follows the same, lazy formula of forgettable B-movies about people who use martial arts skills in battles of good versus evil. B-movies have just a small fraction of the reported $88 million production budget that “Snake Eyes” had, but in many ways, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” doesn’t look like money well-spent.

The movie opens with an origin story cliché of a male hero in an action movie: He becomes an orphan as a child. It’s 20 years ago, in a heavily wooded area of Washington state, where a young Snake Eyes (played by Max Archibald), who’s about 11 or 12 years old and apparently doesn’t have a regular name, and his unnamed father (played by Steven Allerick) are hiding in the woods. Snake Eyes’ father doesn’t want to alarm his son, so he makes it look like they’re on some kind of adventure. (Snake Eyes’ mother is not seen or mentioned in the story.)

Father and son go to a safe house, where Snake Eyes’ father tells Snake Eyes to lock himself into a room. “Do not move, no matter what happens.” But something does happen: A ruthless villain named Mr. Augustine (played by Samuel Finzi) shows up with two thugs. Mr. Augustin rolls a pair of dice, which each end face up with a “number one”, also known as a “snake eyes” total.

Mr. Augustine and his goons rough up the father, and Snake Eyes runs out of the room to come to his father’s defense. Snake Eyes’ father is shot and killed, and Snake Eyes runs away into the woods. Before Mr. Augustine and his henchmen leave, they burn down the house.

Twenty years later, Snake Eyes (played by Henry Golding) is (cliché alert) an emotionally damaged loner living on the edge of society. He’s a drifter somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. Snake Eyes has made it his mission in life to find his father’s murderer, and kill him for revenge. Snake Eyes apparently doesn’t do much else with his life but get into brawls with strangers.

In this particular moment when viewers first see the adult Snake Eyes, he is in a brutal fight with several men, and he’s able to take on all of them, even though he’s outnumbered. (Get used to this type of unrealistic spectacle, because this movie has a lot of them.) There’s someone who’s watching this fight who’s very impressed with Snake Eyes’ fighting skills. His name is Kenta Takanura (played by Takehiro Hira), who recruits Snake Eyes to work for him. “I could use a guy like you,” Kenta tells Snake Eyes.

The next thing you know, Snake Eyes is at the Port of Los Angeles four weeks later. He’s at a warehouse filled with an all-male crew of workers who are hiding guns in large gutted fish. Snake Eyes gets suspicious over this obvious illegal activity, so Kenta tests Snake Eyes to see what kind of loyalty he has. Kenta orders Snake Eyes to shoot and kill Kenta’s cousin Tommy (played by Takehiro Hira), who is also a worker at the warehouse, but Snakes Eyes refuses to do it.

Instead, Snake Eyes and Koji fight off several men in the warehouse, and the two escape by trying to drive off in a truck. However, the warehouse workers, who apparently are secret ninjas too, attack the truck by plunging several swords through the truck’s roof and windows while Snake Eyes and Tommy are inside. Apparently, none of these ninja villains thought to use the swords on the truck’s tires.

This is the type of ridiculous fight scene that litters “Snake Eyes” with mind-numbing repetition of the heroes getting out of seemingly “impossible” situations, even though they’re outnumbered and surrounded. Cops from the Los Angeles Police Department show up at the scene of the truck attack, but then the movie inexplicably cuts to Snake Eyes waking up on a luxury private plane with Tommy.

What happened after the cops showed up? Was anyone arrested? The movie doesn’t reveal any of that information, so viewers will have to assume that everything worked out for Tommy and Snake Eyes, because now they’re hanging out on a private plane as if they’re jetset adventurers. The plane is not a ramshackle aircraft: It’s first-class, with luxury amenities and staffed with attractive female flight attendants. Who’s paying for all it?

Snake Eyes is about to find out. The plane is headed to Japan, where Tommy reveals that he’s a member of a heroic ancient Japanese clan called Arashikage. Tommy is grateful that Snake Eyes saved his life, so he invites Snake Eyes to consider joining Arashikage. The leader of Arashikage is Himiko (played by Eri Ishida), a no-nonsense and traditional elderly woman who will decide if Snake Eyes can become a member of the clan.

And you know what that means: More busy-looking, logic-defying fights so that Snake Eyes can prove his worth. He has to complete three different “challenges of the warrior” before Himiko can approve Snake Eyes to Arashikage. Not surprisingly, the third and final challenge is supposed to be the hardest.

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” is one of the worst-lit and wobbliest action movies you might see in recent memory. For a movie that’s not set in outer space or a location underneath the ground, the lighting is way too dark in many scenes, even when the scenes are during the day. Maybe all this dark lighting and shaky camera work (from cinematographer Bojan Bazelli) are so viewers won’t notice how mediocre the fight choreography is.

One of the few scenes in the movie that’s well-lit is at a visually striking location where there are hundreds of lighted Japanese lamps on display. It’s one of the best set designs for this overall unimpressive movie. Good set designs are wasted though when the story isn’t written well. Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel wrote the screenplay for “Snake Eyes: G.I . Joe Origins.”

All of the movie’s characters, including Snake Eyes, are very generic. The actors are stuck with playing two-dimensional characters, with only Snake Eyes having anything that can be called a backstory. This is a pure action film: There are no distracting love stories or even a hint that these characters have personal lives. Kenta and Tommy are cousins who’ve become enemies, but their family dynamics and family history are mostly ignored in the movie.

Other characters who interact with Snake Eyes include three people who are tasked with supervising Snake Eyes in his challenges: Blind Master (played by Peter Mensah), Hard Master (played by Iko Uwais) and Akiki (played by Haruka Abe), who is Arashikage’s head of security. Akiki is skeptical of a lot of Snake Eyes’ abilities and belief, so Akiki and Snakes inevitably disagree with each other. It’s a bit of a stretch to describe their conflicts as “personality conflicts,” because you have to have a personality in the first place, and these characters have none.

Samara Weaving plays an Arashikage ally called Scarlett, but she’s not in the movie as much as a lot of viewers might think she is. There’s a female villain called Baroness (played by Úrsula Corberó), who displays the stiffest acting out of all the principal cast members. It’s hard to take a villain seriously when the person playing the villain has acting that’s so bad, it’s a distraction. Instead of the Baroness, she should’ve been called the Boringness.

And what about Snake Eyes’ quest to avenge the death of his father? The movie doesn’t forget about that. This revenge subplot is handled in a very predictable way, if you know before watching “Snake Eyes” that it’s been rated a family-friendly movie for people over the age of 12. The most obvous sign that the movie doesn’t too heavy with any violence is because there’s a lot of fighting with swords and other weapons, but there’s hardly any blood in sight.

A few of the fight scenes end too abruptly, which are signs of careless screenwriting and editing. For example, there’s a scene where Snake Eyes is trapped somewhere with attackers, and someone in Arashikage swoops in to come to his rescue. But viewers never get to see the rescue. Instead, the next scene just cuts to Snake Eyes and his rescuer back at Arashikage headquarters, as if nothing happened.

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to throw in a few surprise curveballs, by showing one or two characters who have “fluid alliances.” But it just comes across as phony and not the shocking twist that this movie needed to liven up this formulaic story. The characters are so underwritten that viewers won’t feel like they know any of them well enough to get a sense of what the characters want to do with their lives besides join in on a fight when needed.

And if viewers are expecting an awe-inspiring mega-weapon in the movie, forget it. There’s a glowing red gem (about the size of small vase) that has the power to make people burst into flames. For a movie that cost $88 million to make, it’s kind of pathetic that’s the best they could come up with for the story’s most-coveted deadly weapon.

The visual effects in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” aren’t going to be nominated for any awards. In a film called “Snake Eyes,” there are inevitable snakes in multiple action scenes. In this movie, they’re giant anacondas. But the suspense in these scenes almost becomes laughable, when Snake Eyes closes his eyes and uses a meditation technique where the meditation energy will supposedly make the attackers peaceful and willing to back away. If you want to believe that giant anacondas can tap into an inner Zen in the middle of an attack, go right ahead.

Viewers will feel like closing their eyes for a different reason: The movie is so tedious that it could put some people to sleep. You could fall asleep in the middle of the film and still know exactly what’s going happen by the end of the film. And it does. It’s all just a set-up for a sequel.

Paramount Pictures will release “Snake Eyes: G,.I. Joe Origins” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.