Snake Eyes, Paramount Pictures’ attempt at a superhero franchise based on the G.I. Joe line of toys and comic books, focuses on the titular character (played by Henry Golding) as he tries to avenge the mysterious death of his father. It feels odd to call this film an “origin story” — aren’t all such movies prequels these days? Have not most studios from Warner to Disney implicitly conceded they are mostly afraid of moving many franchise stories forward, and prefer to retrench to the purportedly safer, more well-known space of a character’s past? This is the problem that afflicts Snake Eyes and all its brethren — the story feels preplanned and riskless to the point of dullness, with the outcome even more predetermined than in your typical blockbuster. What saves Snake Eyes from being utterly forgettable is a strange combination of good acting with decently exciting effects that render it just entertaining enough, even considering whether to ask for more.
When we first meet the enigmatic Snake Eyes, he is pulling off a daring rescue of the enigmatic Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Coji) by fighting off a series of katana-wielding goons in Los Angeles. A few well-placed ninja kicks later, and Snake Eyes and Tommy are off to Tokyo, to meet with the clan whose name Tommy bears and whom he is one day set to lead. Tommy sees good in the eyes of the wayward hero-to-be, and wishes him to pass certain trials to test his might as a warrior in the eccentric and historic group that Tommy belongs to. At present, that tribe is led by Tommy’s grandmother, and protected by a trio of enigmatic warriors, comprised of Blind Master (Peter Mensah), Hard Master (Iko Uwais), and Akiko (Haruka Abe).
Later on, Snake Eyes will encounter the equally enigmatic and talented warrior Scarlett (Samara Weaving) a member of the elite G.I. Joe unit into which we all know our hero will eventually be recruited into, as well as the dangerously intriguing Baroness (Ursula Corbero), a member of the Cobra terrorist organization that provides the Joes their main foil across the franchise.
Nothing in Snake Eyes’ story, including the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos, is inventive, let alone surprising. The principal character inevitably has daddy issues (here, he’s on a mission to find out why his father was mysteriously murdered and will stop at nothing to find his killer); a group of bad guys are plotting to ruin somebody’s day or life (here, the Cobra, led by the Baroness, want to steal a sacred and powerfully destructive jewel guided by the Arashikage); and the budding protagonist will find his way, through a series of seemingly random events, inside a greater organization of do-gooders that will later save the world (here, Scarlett is on the Cobra trail when she encounters young Snake Eyes’ talent and potential). There really is no way to spoil such a paint-by-numbers film, or even to miss anything of the story if you fell asleep for large chunks of it. There is nothing risky in the approach by director Robert Schwentke (best known for directing part of the dubious Divergent film franchise), nothing exciting about this particular superman whose backstory we get to selectively explore.
And yet, despite the blandness of the proceedings, despite the corniness even (with Snake Eyes letting off an arch-villain he’s been looking for based on a roll of the dice), there is something strangely entrancing about Snake Eyes. The best example is the special effects, led by Olaf Wendt, which avoid the sloppiness and excess that made prior entries in the G.I. Joe franchise almost impossible to watch. Here, the most interesting scene features the main character facing off, in one of the challenges laid down by the Arishakage clan, against three terrifying creatures properly cast as venomous cobras. Perhaps the darker lighting set-up by Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, or perhaps the finely-tuned CG — whatever the reason, the snakes appear so real and so scary that it becomes almost difficult to watch every time they appear, and that’s a good thing. The other most notable effect comes when the precious jewel is deployed as a weapon, another setting in which Paramount could have directed its technical crew overboard but allowed them to tone it down just enough to fear the destructiveness of the weapon rather than mock it.
Snake Eyes is also helped by decent acting, principally by Golding himself, who is imminently believable as an ultimately-good bad boy who is searching for his place in this crazy world. But his costars also prove themselves impressively adept at taking cartoonish proceedings and making them slightly less like they are action figures, and a little bit more like serious, real people. The two actresses who headline the proceedings (Cordero and Weaving), in fact almost steal the show, trading barbs as sexy, semi-serious vixens who are in on the joke but can still pack a mean roundhouse kick. It is critical for the cast to seem to be enjoying itself — as the cast of Snake Eyes clearly was — to permit the audience to do so as well, even in the middle of an otherwise lackluster story.
Will Paramount revive the so-far lifeless G.I. Joe movie franchise with a series of backstories for the varied characters that make up the storyline? You can bet that they will try. Whether they succeed will be a different issue. Too much content pollutes this genre, and the one produced by the Big Purple Mouse, er… elephant in the room, occupies too much of the space. Will audiences really care about yet another set of action heroes brought to life? I find it hard to believe and yet, with Snake Eyes, Golding and his pals gave us just enough vivacity to make us ever-so-slightly curious for a bit more.
Paramount Pictures will release Snake Eyes in movie theaters across North America on July 23, 2021.
All photos courtesy Paramount Pictures.