In an era where superhero films have dominated both pop culture discourse and the box office for over a decade, is there still a place for G.I. Joe? Outside of the comics, which still do solid business, one does not see the action figures in the toy aisle that often. This is probably tied to the fact that there has not been a G.I. Joe related cartoon since 2010. Even as a person who grew up watching G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero and playing with the action figures in the 80s and 90s, I have no qualms with admitting that nostalgia only goes so far.
The sense of childhood nostalgia is the syrup that the live-action G.I. Joe movies have desperately tried to tap into with only minimal success. Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, an action-packed spin-off that is meant to be the defibrillator to get the heart of the cinematic franchise pumping again, is the latest attempt to bring the once beloved characters to a new generation. While a drastic improvement over its predecessors, the film wrestles with juggling existing lore and its desire to tell a fresh and compelling story.
Opening with the death of his father, Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) has spent his adult life fueled by the desire for vengeance. Recruited by Yakuza boss Kenta Takamura (Takehiro Hira), who promises to find his father’s killer, Snake Eyes quickly learns that his new employer demands a steep price when it comes to loyalty. Refusing an order to kill a traitor, Tommy (Andrew Koji), within Kenta’s ranks, Snake Eyes soon finds himself facing off against the deadly criminal organization. It turns out that Tommy and Kenta are cousins who were both in line to take over the ancient Arashikage clan, a ninja-based society tasked with fighting evil and protecting a gem of great power. However, Kenta was banished when his lust for power superseded his oath to the clan.
Seeing potential in Snake Eyes, Tommy takes him under his wings in hopes of providing the orphan a home within Arashikage. Although a brotherly bond is formed between the two men, Snake Eyes’ blind thirst for revenge threatens to not only consume him, but also destroy those around him as well. Things are further complicated when he discovers that Kenta has ties to the terrorist organization known as Cobra.
To its credit, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins succeeds in making its protagonist a complicated hero. This adds to the growing tension that forms between Snake Eyes and Tommy, who will eventually become Storm Shadow. While Tommy’s initial intentions are honorable, Snake Eyes’ constant undermining coupled with the rigid rules of the Arashikage begin to wear him down. While director Robert Schwentke attempts to muddy the lines between good and evil, it is hard to ignore how selfish Snake Eyes is for the majority of the film.
The redemption arc never feels as satisfying as it should. His penance is not on par with the level of betrayal he repeatedly exhibits. It also does not help matters that the film feebly tries to inject the wider G.I. Joe versus Cobra conflict by throwing Scarlett (Samara Weaving) and the villainous Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) into the mix. Neither woman is given anything substantial to do, though Scarlett at least gets to join in on the action, and are mostly included to remind viewers of the larger G.I. Joe franchise.
While the action sequences have always been the highlights of the franchise, and there are two great ones here, they are not enough to sustain the film. Without a strong story to support them, the sequences feel hollow. While Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is an improvement, this franchise still has a long way to go before it truly finds its footing.
Bonus Features: Morning Light: A Weapon with Stories to Tell, Deleted Scenes, Enter Snake Eyes, A Deadly Ensemble, Arashikage