Robert Schwentke’s Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is easily the best G.I. Joe movie, which is, indeed, the faintest of praise (it’s like saying Hostess makes the best cupcakes from a long list of artificial flavors). Because effort has been made to sidestep camp and tell a tough story of an anti-hero’s tortured journey, it’s interesting for the way it emphasizes drama over action.
In this prequel to the earlier movies, Henry Golding stars as Snake Eyes, an orphaned boy who witnessed the murder of his father and spent the next twenty years of his life as a brawler and pursuing the man who stole his childhood from him. A chance meeting with a criminal with a similar background leads the two of them out of the L.A. crime world and into Japan, where Snake Eyes receives training and inches towards becoming the iconic character of the franchise.
There is ambition here in the telling a story this sprawling and serious-minded. Mostly, however, this demonstrates the limitations of the director and leading actor.
Schwentke is the director of RED, R.I.P.D., Flightplan and two of the Divergent sequels- he’s a capable director but action is not his thing. The fight choreography here is good but the editing and cinematography undermine all the good work, as the sequences are filmed shakily, edited too severely, and come across as either a blur or overly enhanced with CGI.
Golding has too much swagger and is too lightweight for the title role. It was a promising choice to cast the star of Crazy Rich Asians in such a big role but he’s not right for the part. Golding’s vibrant presence always works in his favor, but his slumping posture and luminous smile are a good fit for romantic comedies, not here. The actor never connects with the grittiness of the character and doesn’t impress as an action movie hero. You know your lead isn’t working out as Snake Eyes when Bob Odenkirk would have been a much better choice.
Co-star Iko Uwais, from The Raid movies, clearly has the chops to carry his own movie (note how, unlike Golding, the camera holds on him for an extended time during his combat scenes) but is assigned too small a part. Ursula Corbero is underwhelming as Baroness, allowing her Halloween- costume wardrobe to do most of her acting.
The best scene finds Snake Eyes undergoing a test by immersing himself in a pit with a surprising opponent- the movie finally cuts loose of the seen-it-before vengeance and personal journey story and unleashes an outrageous visual. Considering how the G.I. Joe animated series and Marvel comic books of my youth were military adventure novels infused with fantasy and sci-fi, I wanted far more fantastic elements. The film is nearly done by the time it truly gets wild.
It’s refreshing to see a big studio film with a primarily Asian cast, though the characters are too one-note all around to resonate like they should. In addition to the aforementioned Odenkirk sleeper (in this year’s Nobody), there’s much on display that was done better in John Wick, but for less than the half the money spent here.
While it was mostly filmed in Canada, the end credits reveal some actual filing in Japan took place. That’s surprising, because the country is so luminous, and this is an ugly looking movie. Even Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989) efficiently captured the beauty of the country.
Oddly enough, Schwentke’s film doesn’t seem entirely comfortable being a G.I. Joe movie. In fact, you could edit out all the franchise references and only be missing a few minutes of this two-hour movie. As B-movie guilty pleasures go, I actually prefer the junk food cinema nonsense of Stephen Somer’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), which at least had frequent and adequate action sequences. Overall, the 1987 G.I. Joe: The Movie is still my favorite take on this franchise, as animation allows things to cut loose, whereas live action adaptations tend to weigh down the screenplays with expositional busywork.
Finally, having to wait the entire movie just to have Golding wear the helmet and actually appear as the title character for just a few seconds is a letdown. Considering that Ray Park played the character twice in the two prior G.I. Joe movies, is an accomplished martial artist and a genre fan favorite, I’m unsure that the decision to cast Golding instead of Park was a sound one. Golding is clearly an appealing star on the rise but, for now, he’s not right for movies like this. I wish him well…and hope the next G.I. Joe movie with Snake Eyes in it has more than a couple of seconds of him dressed as Snake Eyes. Schwentke should have known that, and knowing is half the battle.