The latest attempt by a studio to rejuvenate a series with big merchandising potential, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins,” is not a particularly good version of the prevailing popcorn blockbuster. The film is undeniably a triage mission to save a dying piece of intellectual property eight years after the disappointment of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.” It’s far too fixated on providing life support to the brand for it to give newly recast Henry Golding the star platform he needs or the martial arts action artistry the film deserves.
Yet, for those interested in the state of the industry at large, “Snake Eyes” does hold real value. The film is far more interesting for what it means off-screen than what it actually is on-screen. Paramount and Hasbro’s cautious, calculated retooling of a crown jewel in their catalog reflects the dire state of confusion constricting properties from outside the Mouse House.
“Snake Eyes” acquiesces to Marvel’s dominance, stepping back from aggressive universe building with G.I. Joe. The film abandons heavy-handed foreshadowing or winking Easter eggs. Credit where due: the writers craft a story that can largely stand on its own. But a film being able to stand alone these days does not mean it also stands tall.
Director Robert Schwentke makes for a curious personnel choice to guide this project. A recent run including two “Divergent” sequels and the notorious box office bomb “R.I.P.D.” has left his résumé far from spotless. It’s doubtful the German director added much cultural understanding or context to a film set in Japan and populated primarily by Asian performers, too. If the assignment was to rebuild the series largely from scratch essentially, perhaps the producers should have taken a risk by entrusting “Snake Eyes” with a director who could bring something specific or startling. This is still a derivative, paint-by-numbers effort that can’t decide if it wants to build a franchise or a character.
The origin story – yes, another one – of the mercurial title character focuses its energy primarily into his backstory without telegraphing the parallels and connections to a larger shared narrative. The ‘Joes’ do not merit a mention until a late perfunctory yet obligatory scene. There’s no shot of Golding in the full head-to-toes black robing of Snake Eyes until shortly after, either. A post-credits stinger with his rival Storm Shadow (Andrew Koji), whose villainy develops in reaction to Snake Eyes’ self-actualization, is much more heavy-handed in its embrace of the character’s mythology. A 50-50 ratio on subtlety and sledgehammering could be worse.
“Snake Eyes” embraces the biblical connotations of the character’s name, following his serpentine deception of heroes and villains alike to get what he wants. Though Golding broods plenty over what that deep desire might be, the film answers the character’s motivation from the prologue: he’s yet another tortured soul eaten up by watching his dad die at the hands of a nefarious foe. Snake Eyes initially seeks vengeance at any cost for this loss, aligning himself with whoever’s interests happen to coincide with this goal.
The scrappy, hardscrabble youngster first links up with some savory underworld figures to track down the killer, but the plot thickens when he rescues Tommy (Koji) from becoming collateral damage in a skirmish. In gratitude for his salvation, Tommy welcomes Snake Eyes into his ancient familial ninja clan known as the Arashikage. A team of sage trainers promises him entry so long as he can submit to their intensive training regimen of conditioning his body and mind.
The right performer has saved many trope-heavy hero’s journeys from playing like a rote series of familiar plot points. Unfortunately, “Snake Eyes” never puts Henry Golding in a position to transcend the material. The film asks him to do so much when what audiences really want is an actor who can just be the character. Golding just never feels comfortable or secure in his reinterpretation of the role.
Golding’s take on Snake Eyes toggles sporadically between the stoicism of Christian Bale’s Batman and the smarm of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man. Some of the code-switching makes sense for a character in a constant state of deliberation about his identity. But whenever Golding breaks out the gruff snarl to growl at his enemies, it feels more risible than realistic.
“Snake Eyes” scarcely lets Golding break out the overwhelming charm that won over audiences in 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.” Movies that understand his strengths, even ones as dreadful as “Last Christmas,” recognize his unique allure. Somehow, Golding carries himself with the swagger of the most popular kid in school but has a twinkle in his eye like a teacher’s pet. He scarcely has the chance to exude this energy because the film forces him to relentlessly emote every feeling passing through Snake Eyes’ brain as an emotional anchor for the audience. It’s a sad reminder that franchise films don’t make stars anymore – they subsume them.
Golding actually gets upstaged by the brief appearances of Samara Weaving, whose G.I. Joe agent Scarlett gets to show up, kick-ass, and drop a few punchy one-liners. The part feels in line with recent gun-toting roles in action films like “Ready or Not” and “Guns Akimbo.” Golding, inheriting a role previously played by martial artist Ray Park, feels outmatched by costars like Koji and Iko Uwais of “The Raid” fame, who have a significant background in the craft.
It’s unclear if these technical elements are what hold Golding back from unleashing the full arsenal of his charisma. Or perhaps the reverse is true, and Golding’s lack of experience holds “Snake Eyes” back from fully embracing the choreography and artistry of true ninja combat. If there were the seeds of a great martial arts film here, it’s lost now with frenzied cutting and shaky camerawork disrupting balletic combat action. Like the rest of the film, these scenes are an unfocused jumble, unable to hide behind the strength of a brand name or a name star. [C-]
“Snake Eyes” arrives in theaters on July 23.