Film Review: Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins embraces an absurd action narrative with a grounded mentality

Given that Snake Eyes is releasing with the subtitle G.I. Joe Origins, it would appear that Paramount have faith that the G.I. Joe brand could possibly be retooled after the 2009 and 2013 efforts (The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation, respectively) failed to truly ignite as intended.

It’s a bold strategy, especially as Robert Schwentke‘s actioner won’t exactly convince people that a new G.I. Joe franchise is a viable commodity.  On its own accord though, Snake Eyes is a suitable, if shaky, product that embraces an absurd action narrative, whilst also taking its time to ground its characters in some form of reality.

It helps that charm-personified Henry Golding is leading the charge.  Though most audiences associate him with the nice guy routine he flexed so effortlessly in films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas, the idea of Golding taking more of a dominant stance in this genre isn’t nearly as much of a stretch as some may assume.  His villainous tendencies in A Simple Favour and his unhinged energy in The Gentleman make way for his titular character here, a cage fighter who’s hell-bent on finding the man that murdered his father some 20-years prior.

With a cool superhero name built in we know that action greatness awaits, but, to the film’s detriment, the Evans Spiliotopoulos/Joe Shrapnel/Anna Waterhouse-penned script takes the “origins” of the title to heart.  There’s nothing wrong with setting up a hero, and given that the G.I. Joe narrative pins Snake Eyes and the character of Storm Shadow against each other we accept the fact that standard prequel practices will be adhered to, but this is also an action movie at the end of the day, but it’s one that saves its heaviest hits until last.

There’s a strange irony at play in Snake Eyes.  As an action movie, it takes too long to get going, and given its marketing strategy as a genre piece, audiences could be wildly underwhelmed.  As something of a revenge tale – perhaps with a sports drama mentality thrown in for good measure – the film feels like a stronger product.  When Snake Eyes is taken into the Arashikage clan for saving member (and underworld friend) Tommy (Andrew Koji), the film takes pride in its honouring of the clan traditions.  As Tommy will eventually adopt the moniker Storm Shadow, we prepare for a fallout, but along the way Snake Eyes himself tests the boundaries of loyalty as he flits between dedicating himself to the Arashikage and seeking out his father’s murderer, two actions he realises can’t coexist harmoniously.

The testing of brotherhood between Snake Eyes and Tommy extends itself to Arashikage’s head of security, Akiko (Haruka Abe), who surprisingly dominates the film as something of a voice of reason between the two.  Akiko is a character created specifically for the film outside of the Joe lore, and her treatment and involvement in the more defining moments of Snake Eyes’s heroic mentality further lean into how much stronger the film is as a product away from the G.I. Joe expectations; Úrsula Corberó and Samara Weaving fill the placements of the more recognisable Joe characters, The Baroness and Scarlet, but they are remarkably under-utilised, feeling more like shoehorned appearances for the sake of linking it to the Joe universe rather than feeling like organic inclusions.

After a more grounded start, Snake Eyes eventually decides to embrace the fun of its inspired material, resulting in a climax that is truly wild and rather removed from the more emotionally-intended narrative that has preceded it thus far; the first inclination that the film is going to adopt a more bonkers mentality is when Snake Eyes himself has to face off against a pit of overly large anacondas as an exercise in displaying his ki.  It’s the type of nonsensical action you’d expect, but it feels even furtherly overt due to the film’s attempt at grounding its characters.

If Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson couldn’t secure a future for G.I. Joe with their headlining features, I’m not sure if Golding will earn further stories, but within the genre itself he makes for a capable figure.  If Snake Eyes didn’t try so hard to attach itself to an established brand, this could have been a film that thrived in its defiance of not settling for standard action.  Instead, it suffers from an identity crisis, resulting in an enjoyable-enough actioner that teeters between organic and unconcealed exertion.

THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is screening in Australian theatres (where accessible) from July 22nd, 2021.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.

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