‘Snake Eyes’ Looks Slick While Firing Recycled Action Rounds

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” is yet another example of a dilemma all too common with new, glossy action movies. In essence it’s made for two particular viewers: Fans of the “G.I. Joe” franchise who will be satisfied with loads of action and thin plotting and those who have never seen the previous movies, but want to escape with a movie with loads of action and thin plotting. The Marvel movies are Arthur Miller plays by comparison. It’s another one of those prequels or “origin stories” which are more of an excuse to try and expand the franchise. The dice is rolled this time with the backstory of Snake Eyes, played by Henry Golding, although there’s not much of a story to tell. At least it drapes it all with some slick style.

You may recall Snake Eyes is the mysterious sword-wielder from the previous “G.I. Joe” movies. Well, now we get the biography, and it turns out to be the same as every genesis you usually get for armed vigilantes. Many years ago young Snake Eyes watched as a pack of thugs in fancy coats with guns burned down his house and whacked his dad. He naturally vows revenge and years later, we find him as a grown underworld wanderer who catches the attention of yakuza Kenta (Takehiro Hira), who wants to take by force the leadership of his 600-year-old clan, the Arashikage. Kenta promises Snake Eyes he can find his father’s killer. Standing in Kenta’s way is current heir Tommy (Andrew Koji), who lives in one of those lush Japanese estates you hope doesn’t get blown up, but will. During an attempted execution, Snake Eyes actually saves Tommy, who takes him under his wing and introduces him to clan head Sen (Eri Ishida). Kenta soon returns, this time backed by international Cobra terrorist the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó), who seeks a crystal under the protection of Arashikage that has explosive powers. Snake Eyes must choose between the clan and his deal with Kenta.

There is little need to contemplate too much on the actual plot of “Snake Eyes.” Like many a prequel-sequel-spinoff, it’s arriving quite late in the game since “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” premiered in 2009 and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” pounded into theaters in 2013.  As a standalone movie its saving grace on a purely superficial level is that director Robert Schwentke shoots with cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, who has filmed some great-looking thrillers like “A Cure For Wellness,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Ring.” What they do is turn this into a movie where you can completely shut off any cares for the story and bask in the exhilarating shots of neon streets, leathered assassins on motorcycles gliding through tunnels and hordes of fighters clinging katana swords in a rainy Tokyo. Visually the whole movie is composed of endless winks at Asian action cinema, which gives it a nice edge in terms of aesthetic. Like Antoine Fuqua’s “The Replacement Killers,” you might lose track of what’s even going on with the scheme, but at least a chunk of the budget was invested in emphasizing the skills of the crew. This aspect of the movie plays better on an IMAX screen as well. 

The plot itself is a blender of countless macho action clichés and global terrorist hijinks. Before the storyline involving the Baroness and her desire for a powerful jewel, Snake Eyes (for it is he), has to pass three “tests” in order to join the Arashikage. It didn’t matter that Tommy clearly saw the guy take down a whole platoon of yakuza, but there you have it. The tests involve what every test in a martial arts thriller entails, such as dodging arrows in a forest (despite the fact that actual combat in this movie involves lots of guns) and an admittedly amusing scene inside a pit involving giant snakes, which will come in handy later. Snake Eyes also has to impress two teachers, the Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the always essential Blind Master (Peter Mensah). Their scenes are some of the movie’s best, including a duel between Hard Master and Snake Eyes involving two bowls of water, which an opponent must take without spilling. It’s a lesson in letting go of ego. How any of this contributes later to stopping the less-than-meditative Kenta is hard to pin down, since “Snake Eyes” becomes more about dodging bullets than discovering humility. 

Once Snake Eyes proves he can deal with water bowls and giant serpents, the movie stops caring about doing anything original and focuses on giving those hungry for nonstop explosions what they want. Kenta and the Baroness have to make the prerequisite attempt to storm the Arashikage compound and blast their way through Snake Eyes, Tommy, and the clan’s head of security, the icy Akiko (Haruka Abe). Ah, and since Baroness works for Cobra, the mortal enemy of the “Joe’s” from the “G.I. Joe” movies, Scarlett (now played by Samara Weaving), pops in to help out. The shootouts, fiery standoffs and eventual use of the crystal are all quite well done on a technical level, even when it feels dragged out. When the dust clears someone gets in trouble for using the crystal’s power and exile follows, while Scarlett offers Snake Eyes a spot in the G.I. Joe team. And since everyone has to naturally copy the standard set by the MCU, we get a bonus scene which finally answers for fans how Snake Eyes’ main enemy, Storm Front, came to be.

It’s a rather mixed verdict on “Snake Eyes.” On a lesser scale it’s similar to last year’s “Bloodshot,” where you almost want to forgive the testosterone mayhem because effort was put into the visual style. It’s not every day you get shallow action romps that emulate the texture of Japanese action thrillers, as if the filmmakers wanted to sneak some better style into what is most certainly a pure studio product. The acting is passable because Henry Golding was excellent in “Crazy Rich Asians” while Andrew Koji does action much better in the show “Warrior.” Unless you are truly invested in the whole “G.I. Joe” world, this movie won’t appeal beyond its looks. We are so overloaded now with expensive gun-wielding at the movies that all that wasted ammo may inspire more yawns than cheers.

Shake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” releases July 23 in theaters nationwide.