When measured against other contemporary action franchises, the G.I. Joe films don’t exactly have a sterling reputation—something that even the actors who participated in them can agree on. “I fucking hate that movie,” Channing Tatum said of 2009’s The Rise of Cobra, while costar Christopher Eccleston went even further by saying, “I just wanted to cut my throat every day.” It’s a tough look, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that The Rise of Cobra and its 2013 sequel, Retaliation, have been misjudged, there’s a cheesy quality to these movies that might be somewhat underappreciated in our current era of homogenous superhero blockbusters. After all, Joseph Gordon-Levitt showing up in The Rise of Cobra with a sleep apnea machine attached to his disfigured face was nothing if not an inspired choice:
That overarching weirdness extended to Snake Eyes, a fan favorite who lets his ass-kicking ninja stuff do all the talking because, well, he had taken a vow of silence. (Snake Eyes’s specific peculiarity came from the fact that his signature helmet in The Rise of Cobra had creepy-looking lips that were entirely unnecessary on account of the whole “vow of silence” deal.) But given Snake Eyes’s limitations as a character, martial artist Ray Park—known primarily for his memorable, if nearly wordless, portrayal of Darth Maul—was at least able to focus on what he does best. The result was a character who soared during fight scenes and otherwise faded into the background, like a toy being put away on a shelf after a kid’s done playing with it. Yet the temptation to flesh out any breakout character’s backstory is strong—i.e., discovering why Han Solo is called Han Solo—and Snake Eyes’s mysterious origins were ripe for the stand-alone treatment.
But a wordless ninja wouldn’t necessarily make for a compelling lead. Snake Eyes’s self-titled origin story doubles as a franchise reboot in 2021—and in the film, the character gets a reboot of his own. In the hands of Henry Golding, Snake Eyes not only speaks, but also shows off a handsome, unobscured face. It’s a conventional choice in an otherwise unconventional movie—by which I mean Snake Eyes appears to be a grounded action film until a trio of giant, man-eating anacondas show up as part of a ninja training rite of passage. (Resist the urge to shout, “the Chamber of Secrets has been opened!” in the theater.) But while the giant CGI snakes will (understandably) grab most of the headlines, Snake Eyes is an oddly intriguing (if flawed) film because of its characters’ choices, which is an element of storytelling that blockbusters often ignore.
Following a brief prologue in which his father is assassinated when he was a child, Snake Eyes—yes, he doesn’t ever go by a real name—is driven by the single-minded pursuit of avenging his father’s death by finding and killing the man responsible. After being spotted at an underground fighting circuit, Snake Eyes is recruited by yakuza boss Kenta (Takehiro Hira) to smuggle weapons in Los Angeles. There, Snake Eyes befriends Tommy (Andrew Koji), who is actually working undercover to take out Kenta; they both have familial ties to an ancient ninja clan known as the Arashikage, which protects a sacred stone capable of untold power. (The folks making this movie are apparently really into Harry Potter, because it legitimately resembles the Sorcerer’s Stone.) When Kenta apprehends Tommy, he orders Snake Eyes to kill him as a show of yakuza loyalty—instead, Snake Eyes helps Tommy escape to Tokyo. His reward is being invited to join the Arashikage, as long as he passes a series of challenges to determine if his body and spirit are worthy.
It’s an interesting, if somewhat boilerplate, setup, but Snake Eyes really kicks into high gear when it’s revealed in the first act that—minor spoiler alert—Snake Eyes is actually working as a double agent for Kenta. If he retrieves the stone, Kenta will give him the man who killed his father. In short: Snake Eyes is kind of an asshole, and decidedly not worthy. Without any knowledge of Snake Eyes’ preestablished IP, the audience’s sympathy would fall toward Tommy, whose ninja clan intentionally avoids using a stone with god-like powers in order to protect it from evildoers, and who generously welcomes a relative stranger into his home to join his [Dominic Toretto grumble voice] family. But in the G.I. Joe series, Tommy is destined to become Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes’s archnemesis and one of Cobra’s elite warriors. (For the blissfully unaware, Cobra are the bad guys.)
There are two ways to look at it: Either Snake Eyes delivers an incredibly sympathetic portrayal of a would-be villain, or it has one of the most unlikable protagonists in recent memory. (It’s a good thing they cast a dude who feels like a modern Prince Charming, thanks in large part to Crazy Rich Asians, to carry the burden of being the absolute worst.) In the broader pop culture landscape, you only need to look back one week to the Loki finale to know that the satisfaction of finally exacting revenge is fleeting, and ultimately, empty. Of course, the moral in Snake Eyes is that its title character learns this lesson the hard way, and only after betraying someone who looked to him like a brother.
A frequent problem with modern blockbusters—the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular—is that the villains are almost cartoonishly flawed and one-dimensional, leaving little room for nuance so that the viewer comfortably sides with the good guy(s). (Ironically, Killmonger’s philosophy in Black Panther was a little too reasonable, so the movie threw in half-baked scenes like the character needlessly choking an old lady to keep you on T’Challa’s team.) But Snake Eyes more than tempts fate with its protagonist’s double-crossing actions standing in stark contrast to Storm Shadow’s honorable intentions, seeding the notion that Snake Eyes isn’t worthy of redemption.
Whether or not the legitimate emotional weight in this ninja rivalry is by accident—it’s difficult to imagine anyone at Paramount Pictures wanted Snake Eyes to be this reprehensible—it’s an absolute shame that the film’s action can’t live up to it. As far as casting goes, Snake Eyes assembled a talented roster, headlined by Koji—currently the star of Warrior, where he’s playing a role Bruce Lee once envisioned for himself and is somehow living up to Lee’s weighty expectations—and Iko Uwais, a criminally underrated action star whose skills haven’t yet been utilized properly in a major studio project. But rather than play to their strengths, director Robert Schwentke (Flightplan, Red, R.I.P.D., two Divergent movies; just an incredible resume of Ls) inexplicably employs quick-cut, shaky closeups that deny viewers the satisfaction of clean compositions. Even an extended motorcycle chase is a derivative of the far superior motorcycle scene John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, which itself was an homage to an even more badass motorcycle sequence in The Villainess. If only a movie based on a bunch of action figures stayed true to its roots by embracing the limitless potential of its characters—and the capable actors playing them—being treated like a bunch of action figures. (The giant anacondas can hang, though.)
With brief appearances from members of Cobra and the Joes, Snake Eyes does complete the requisite cinematic-universe building that most modern blockbusters are burdened with (provided the movie doesn’t tank at the box office). Going forward, a filmmaker with a keener eye for action and clever staging would do well to build upon the surprisingly compelling (and/or accidentally subversive?) backstory to Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow’s rivalry. But considering all of the transgressions that make Snake Eyes so hard to root for in his own stand-alone film, it might be in the characters’ best interest to take that vow of silence and let his fighting do the talking once again.