Earlier this year, I gave a tepid recommendation to Mortal Kombat‘s latest theatrical reboot. What I didn’t know at the time was how quickly I’d feel nostalgic for its quality and pacing.
That’s how I felt after Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, which I went into with next to zero expectations. The trailers looked fun! Charm volcano Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as an action star sounded intriguing! And it couldn’t be worse than the previous G.I. Joe movie, right? Right?
Sadly, Snake Eyes takes the uneven formula, momentum, writing, and acting of Mortal Kombat 2021 and turns down the expectations dial in every department imaginable. By the end, Snake Eyes dampens its own so-bad-it’s-good potential, in case you hoped to at least laugh and cheer while watching your favorite childhood action figures.
“I looked into your eyes, and I saw honor”
To its credit, Snake Eyes‘ opening 30 minutes are so dizzyingly bad that the filmmakers appear to be in on the joke. My favorite examples include:
- every fight has no less than 10 henchmen screaming in unison while swarming our hero (serious “YARRRGH!!” territory with eyes directed at the camera)—then they circle him, attack one at a time, and get their asses handed to them;
- the initial exposition whips by so quickly and nonsensically that I thought I was watching a gamer lay on the A button to skip past the plot of a video game;
- every argument in the brooding brother-and-sister conflict includes million-dollar glares and bombastic declarations about trust and loyalty—usually repeated a few times in case we don’t catch the foreshadowing that someone is, like, totally about to be betrayed;
- and the British-born Golding pops in and out of his native accent roughly once every four minutes, despite playing a native-born American.
Snake Eyes opens with something resembling a backstory for Snake Eyes, a man who never knew his given name, and it’s a sharp pivot from whatever you remember from the G.I. Joe comics or cartoons. This time, Snake watches his father get murdered by a mysterious assassin, which we see play out in dark, serious staging. This sends the adult version of Snake on a path to… wander from town to town in search of fight clubs, where he beats the crap out of strangers, collects a paycheck, and hits the road. (Also, his nickname is “Snake Eyes” because the man who killed his dad rolled some dice before doing so. When the dice landed on a pair of ones, that was apparently reason enough to kill said dad.)
How did Snake get from preteen trauma to a Tyler Durden lifestyle? What happened to his original origin story about traumatically losing his voice? And wasn’t Storm Shadow the one with the “hunt for a family member’s killer” plot in the first place? Whoa, watch it, bub: questions like those will get you beat up in logic-free zones like Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
“Your fishboy life in LA is over”
Snake’s eventual collision with all things G.I. Joe-related—complete with a showdown between a willing Joe coalition and a shadow organization smothered in Cobra logos—is similarly slapdash.
I think I have this right: Snake gets a tip about his father’s killer, which leads him to working on a dock and packing illegal guns into fish carcasses so the carcasses can be shipped around the world on the Yakuza’s behalf. (This dock, by the way, has a gaggle of giggling teens who routinely hang out in a nearby alley and play pick-up soccer, seemingly so that Snake can show his lighter side for roughly 10 seconds. There has to be a better place to practice soccer, kids. Snake’s character development isn’t worth it.)
Within weeks of getting this job, Snake is asked to murder the dock’s lead contraband manager, Tommy Arashikage, over a business disagreement. Why is Snake suddenly given such a macabre responsibility when he’s clearly the dock’s nice-guy youth-group leader? We never find out, because Snake immediately spares Tommy’s life instead of following orders. Instead, he starts beating the crap out of every thug in eyeshot. (Cue the “dozens of men screaming and running to form a circle” motif.) After watching the big boss get away, then running away from what’s clearly an entrenched Yakuza stronghold, Tommy somehow safely whisks Snake away on a private jet to Tokyo… where we learn Tommy is actually the heir to a honor-bound family dynasty (which, I’ll add, doesn’t know about his fish-stuffed-with-guns enterprise).
… and this trip is what the bad guys wanted all along! From there, Snake Eyes transforms into a sluggish montage of Snake ninja-training under Tommy’s care to become a true member of his family (no, not that family, Vin Diesel). Deep into this montage, mysterious fireball conjuring enters the chat. And that is followed by two female, Uzi-toting assassins flatly reading index cards ordained by Hasbro brass to explain that this “train in philosophical, noncombat philosophies” sequence somehow connects to G.I. Joe and Cobra Command.
“I’m pretty good at finding people. Especially people who kill other people.”
Character motivations remain muddy even as they trickle into the film’s confusion tributary. We catch glimmers of likability in Golding and his friend-then-foe-then-friend-again co-star Haruka Abe (Late Shift), but no one gets any sensible motivation. Snake repeatedly goes to great lengths to stop a bitter double-cross plot only to have a trinket dangled in front of his face, which is when he makes a Goofy-like “gawrsh” noise and becomes shady again.
I could tolerate all that if the warped plot wasn’t scotch-taped together by stiff acting and stilted dialogue or if the action sequences between each overlong-yet-unsatisfying exposition dump approached anything that could be called “unique,” “exciting,” or “stomach-safe.”
If you’ve ever thought that the multiplex’s glut of comic- and toy-licensed action films needed more motion blur and erratic camera cuts, Snake Eyes has your back (but not your barf bag; you’ll need to bring your own). Hand-to-hand combat is generally impossible to track amidst all the grunts, even though the heavies are almost all dispatched one at a time. Car and gun combat scenes play out in kill-by-numbers fashion. An eventual mysterious foe commands walls of flame, which emerge from the ground like gas fireplaces at a pub’s outdoor seating area. Honestly, I loved the cheap trashiness of that effect, but Snake Eyes is more about bare-minimum effects and choreography than it is about hilarious cheese.
Having laughed through some of Snake Eyes, I hope fans eventually put together a 60- or even 80-minute edit once the movie is on Blu-ray. This week’s version suffers the most when its “cinematic universe” aspirations get in the way of what’s really going on: a child grabbed various action figures and slammed them together while shouting nonsense, and a group of excited adults scribbled down his every exclamation of “Yo Joe!” to commit it to this script.
But this G.I. Joe film has no idea what that branding arrangement should mean, and it never commits either to its Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon inspirations, its meaningless character alliances, or its “guns and cars go boom” bravado.
Listing image by Paramount