Origin stories can be a tricky thing to tell. A seed must be planted that is compelling and engaging enough that it will bear the fruit of many more stories yet to come. This is a difficult task in and of itself, but when the origin story is for a character who has been beloved by many through nearly 40 years of pop-culture, the challenge becomes much more difficult. This is the task ahead of the filmmakers behind Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, a foundation for what hopefully will be a new G.I. Joe cinematic universe. Snake Eyes rolls the dice on rebooting the G.I. Joe film franchise not by bringing the team’s epic battle with the shadow organization known as Cobra to the big screen, but rather by putting the burden square on the shoulders of the most iconic character the franchise has ever spawned.
Snake Eyes tells the story of how the titular character finds himself on the heroes path, and I was very surprised by how many turns that path had. As a child of the 80’s who had his fair share of Joes in my action figure pail I was familiar with the character, his adversarial relationship with rival Ninja, Storm Shadow, and of course his iconic black shadowy visage. The character of Snake Eyes in Joe lore has always been a silent warrior who speaks with his blade and nothing more, so it was quite a surprise to hear that the film adaptation would feature an unmasked, street smart wanderer as its hero. Henry Golding is cast as Snake Eyes, a chiseled and wise cracking young man who is just narrowly on the wrong side of the law and is hell bent on exacting revenge against the men who murdered his father before his eyes as a young child.
Along the way Snake Eyes becomes entangled in a battle between the Yakuza and a secret order of ninja called the Arashikage Clan, led by the infamous Storm Shadow (played by Andrew Koji). This is where the the movie elevates itself in my opinion. The film does a fantastic job telling the story of the bond between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow in a masterful way that not only subverts expectations but presents a compelling and tragic arc for the two. The tale being told plays brilliantly on the balance of light and dark and legitimately had me questioning where these two were headed. Character motivations are revealed in surprising order and the two land in very different and unexpected places by the end of the film. The way the film side-steps expectations provided more weight to these characters than I ever expected and I greatly appreciated the new perspective on these storied enemies.
This is a tale based on 80’s era action figures however so let’s talk about the action in the film. This G.I. Joe origin film is by its very nature a smaller scale adventure than one might expect from the franchise. G.I. Joe is a globe-trotting organization who saves the world time and again from the ranks of the Cobra, but Snake Eyes narrows its focus and provides a smaller and more personal conflict which may surprise some. Don’t expect fighter jets, lazer rifles or over-the-top super villains like Destro or Cobra Commander to command the screen. Instead the set pieces are often focused on ninja combat usually between Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow and waves of oncoming henchmen fodder. The film seems to relish in the thought that these two warriors can defeat scores of opponents without so much as breaking a sweat and I personally loved every minute of it.
One fight sequence in particular takes place at night in a rain soaked and neon-lit Tokyo back alley. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow dart in and out of the darkness as buckets of water pour on them while they dispatch their enemies. The battle rages from the streets all the way to the rooftops above as the ninja wall-jump to gain elevation and advantage as swords slice and bullets fly. The entire sequence was gorgeous and had me recalling the dance-like battles of personal favorite films of mine like The Transporter.
In the end I appreciated Snake Eyes for all that it was and all that it wasn’t. While we are given small bites of the larger world at play with appearances by characters like Scarlett and The Baroness, by stepping out of the shadow of the larger G.I. Joe formula and being bold enough to tell a story against the grain of the 80’s era interpretation of the characters. This allows us to be treated to a much more mature and thoughtful film that I hope will be the springboard for a larger film franchise to come. I cannot wait to see how these heroes are reimagined in future Joe films. I went into this movie armed with a childhood love of these characters that I know, but in true G.I. Joe fashion, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins showed me that knowing is only half the battle.