The biggest thing that Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins gets right is the casting of Henry Golding as the titular, iconic masked ninja. Not only is it nice to see the character played by an Asian actor (Snake Eyes has up to this point only been portrayed as a white man), but the Malaysian-English Crazy Rich Asians star does a fine job at kicking the living shit out of countless baddies, as well as giving the up-til-now silent character a voice that fans can get behind. And director Robert Schwentke treats the material seriously while still remembering to have fun along the way.
The movie opens with Snake Eyes as a boy, long before he becomes the wordless warrior fans know and love. He and his dad are on vacation at their family cabin when a group of militarized mercenaries led by a scraggly super-goon captures his father and forces him to literally gamble for his life by rolling a pair of dice. The old man, of course, rolls snake eyes (two ones) and is executed, albeit not before the kid is able to escape.
Twenty years later, that child is now an underground cage fighter going by the name Snake Eyes as a sort of pledge or reminder to himself that he will one day find his father’s killer and end him in violent fashion. When a shady Yakuza-adjacent figure named Kenta (Takehiro Hira) offers to help him find his father’s killer, Snake Eyes agrees to come work for him. And when Snake Eyes befriends Tommy (Andrew Koji), the heir-apparent the heir-apparent to the Arashikage clan, a wealthy, powerful family in Japan, he gets caught in the middle of a clan war that sees him play both sides to ultimately get revenge on his father’s killer.
Golding does a fine job of remaining likable and sympathetic in spite of Snake Eyes’ incessant lying, which is quite the feat considering just how desperate the character gets in the final act. Both physically and dramatically, Golding is more than up to the task here and proves that he’s got the chops to be a leading man on the big screen for years to come.
He’s also got a great cast backing him up too. Koji is magnetic as the sword-swinging Tommy, who will later become Storm Shadow (the writers do a good job of explaining why the fan favorite character is so duplicitous by nature). Adopted sister Arishakage Akiko (Haruka Abe) is the only family member skeptical enough to sense that Snake Eyes isn’t being 100 percent honest with them, and the friction between them serves the story well. The Raid star Iko Uwais lends a tremendous level of physicality to the action as Arashikage fight guru Hard Master, and Peter Mensah brings a palpable sense of mystery to the proceedings as Blind Master.
Unlike the previous G.I. Joe movies, Snake Eyes takes a more personal, ground-level approach to both the action and storytelling, with a smaller sense of scale that focuses more on character dynamics than bombast, guns, explosions, and hero-posing. There’s also a notable absence of the military aesthetic and milieu the franchise is known for since the 1960s, which may seem like a major departure but actually opens the brand up for a more diverse line of titles going forward.
As for tie-ins to the larger G.I. Joe universe, Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) and Scarlett (Samara Weaving) join the fray in the later acts, seemingly for the sole purpose of providing on-ramps to future titles that expand the story. A Scarlett solo movie seems likely (Weaving falls into the role well and deserves a brighter spotlight in the future), but what’s even more likely is a continuation of the ninja blood brothers’ saga, perhaps in the form of a Storm Shadow movie. If Snake Eyes is any indication, the future of the franchise looks bright.
But being something of a supernatural Yakuza flick, this particular movie is filled to the brim with fight scenes, mostly of the hand-to-hand variety. The combat sequences are choreographed well, and with practitioners like Uwais on-screen, you know you’re going to see some cool-looking stuff. The set pieces are nice (a duel set on top of a moving car carrier trailer later in the film is a highlight, as is a neon-lit mob fight on the streets of Tokyo), though a tussle between Snake Eyes and a trio of gigantic anacondas comes off as just a little hokey in contrast. The shaky-cam is abused often, mostly during intimate fight scenes, but not enough to ruin the mood.
As an action/martial arts movie, Snake Eyes is rock solid. But the story is what pulls you through—getting to know Snake Eyes and his relationship to the other characters, and watching him confront his inner demons is more riveting than it has any right to be. This is the kind of summer movie you’d watch on a whim, or perhaps out of sheer boredom, only to be surprised at how legitimately awesome it is.