I had been pretty excited for SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS, but I was skeptical about director Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) so when it came out and everybody said the action scenes were unwatchable I put off seeing it. I don’t know if the tempering of expectations helped, but catching up with it on video I found it was pretty much the enjoyable studio b-movie I had been hoping for.
Maybe there’s a better word for that, but it’s a category I appreciate: mainstream studio theatrical releases with huge budgets compared to the DTV stuff we love, but without any expectations of either being giant hits or critical successes. Unpretentious, crassly commercial movies, sometimes seemingly out of touch with what is considered cool at the moment, all generally seen as lowbrow also-rans, whether or not their creators had higher aspirations. Stuff like non-FAST Vin Diesel movies, most of the video game and/or Milla Jovovich movies, fantasy sword guy movies, Rob Cohen and P.W.S. Anderson movies. I know not to hold them to my normally stringent artistic standards and just hope for a satisfying mix of pretty cool, kinda stupid, hopefully excessive in some goofy way, maybe in some ways better than most people were gonna give them credit for.
From the last couple year’s releases I think I would include HELLBOY, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, UNDERWATER, BLOODSHOT, THE NEW MUTANTS, MONSTER HUNTER, MORTAL KOMBAT, VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE, RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY, and maybe THE KING’S MAN to be in this category. I’ve seen most, not all of those, didn’t hate most of them, but would put this on the more positive end of that spectrum. It’s got a heightened but not too winky tone, some colorful gimmicks, a great cast and a fun story. And most of all it takes the resources of that type of movie and puts them toward a genre I very much enjoy: the American ninja movie.
Okay, let’s get this over with: this is based on Hasbro’s GI Joe toy brand and related cartoon and comic book works. And yes, it is madness to try to sell a movie to the niche market of “people who care about the GI Joe character Snake Eyes” but then make the movie not about most of the things those people like about the character. If you’re not familiar, he’s a mysterious ninja who does not speak and always wears a blank mask. But here they have a prequel explaining away some of the mystery, starring Henry Golding, using his trademark handsome face and voice throughout. At the very end he puts on the mask and drives away, but he still talks, and is gonna take it off as soon as he parks his motorcycle. So the movie pretty much misses every single thing people like about him except that he’s a ninja.
But as I said, that’s what I wanted. A ninja movie. And this is a ninja movie.
It begins with a pretty standard origin prologue: a young boy (Max Archibald, The 100) is with his father (Steven Allerick, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER III: UNFINISHED BUSINESS) in a cabin, bad men show up to exact some sort of retribution, kill the father in front of the boy. First they make him roll dice to decide his fate, inspiring the kid’s nickname 20 years later when he’s played by Golding and dedicating his life to vengeance.
Like the main character in this year’s MORTAL KOMBAT (one of the studio b-movies I feel this is better than), adult Snake Eyes is introduced in an underground fighting circuit, and somebody approaches him in the locker room with an offer he’s resistant to. In this case it’s Yakuza boss Kenta Takamura (Takehiro Hira, HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI) and he convinces him to come work for him by promising to find the identity of his father’s killer.
While he’s working as a lowly employee slicing fish to hide guns inside, he’s asked to prove his loyalty by executing a co-worker said to be a traitor. Tomi (Andrew Koji, Warrior) is the boss’s cousin, a swaggering toothpick chewer with flashy jewelry and Yakuza collar who calls Snake Eyes “Fish Boy.” It only occurs to me now that normally you’re not supposed to like a character like that, making it extra merciful when the hero refuses to kill him. But Koji is so charismatic of course Snake Eyes helps him fight off the rest of the gang and escape.
Next thing he knows they’re on Tomi’s private jet headed for a private ninja compound in Tokyo, where Tomi pressures him to join the Arashikage ninja clan. It’s run by Tomi’s grandma Sen (Eri Ishida, LOST GIRLS & LOVE HOTELS) aided by head of security Akiko (Haruka Abe, CRUELLA), who doesn’t trust Snake Eyes.
I believe Snake Eyes is American and Golding is sort of doing the accent. He wears a weathered Tom Cruise style motorcycle jacket, or sometimes a grey hoodie under a jacket, both code for a cool but regular working class guy. Fish Boy is a fish out of water when faced with all this ninja clan shit. But also it’s gotta be flattering to be asked to join an ancient ninja order. It hasn’t happened to me so far, so I can only imagine. But he sort of reluctantly agrees to undergo “the three trials,” where if he fails he dies (they say) and if he succeeds he has to pledge his life to ninjadom. That’s a scary decision for a guy who we know is a loner and individualist because he seems suspicious of the clan and lies in order to steal one of Tomi’s motorcycles and sneak off into the city on his own. And some of that is redundant because as I have noted many times, in action movies riding a motorcycle is shorthand for being a loner and individualist.
Still, he decides to go for it, and this is why I can’t resist this movie: We get rituals, training, challenges, montages of climbing stone walls and dodging arrows and logs in the woods. Tomi gives Snake Eyes a sword called “Morning Light” and mystical wisdom like “It’s easy to shoot with a gun, but the sword is a weapon of honor,” and “Abandon ego, strike with honor, selflessness and truthfulness will lead to harmony.” There are not one but two badass senseis to test Snake Eyes. Peter Mensah (JASON X) plays the accurately named Blind Master, and I like him, though unfortunately I remember that RZA played that character in GI JOE: RETALIATION and did a bunch of cool RZA narration, so I miss that. Oh well. Not his fault. I’m more excited about the great Iko Uwais of MERANTAU/THE RAID/HEADSHOT/THE NIGHT COMES FOR US/TRIPLE THREAT etc. playing Hard Master. He honestly gets more to do than I expected – it’s good for one of these “incredible international action star plays small role in Hollywood movie” type deals. A better use of him than THE FORCE AWAKENS, that’s for sure.
Before Snake Eyes can be trained he has three chances to take a bowl of water from Hard Master’s hand without spilling it or his own bowl of water. And the solution is the most counterintuitive one. I can’t escape it, I always love that kinda shit.
Then there’s the stuff that you might not get in a normal low budget ninja movie but you do in the studio b-movie version. That includes a pit fight against giant CG snakes (it’s cooler than it sounds) and a rainy battle on a big soundstage set of neon-decked Tokyo rooftops and alleyways, with cool camera moves like the one gliding over five people in a sword fight, up to Kenta standing on a roof watching and around behind him looking down as the fight continues. (Cinematographer: Bojan Bazelli, KING OF NEW YORK, DEEP COVER, THE RING, THE LONE RANGER.)
Maybe the best action sequence is a big motorcycle chase/car carrier sword fight, which has some well done FX and camera moves making it a descendent of the MATRIX RELOADED freeway chase (with a little VILLAINESS influence on the side).
Fight coordinator/second unit director Kenji Tanigaki – a long time Donnie Yen collaborator who choreographed KILL ZONE, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, LEGEND OF THE FIST and THE LOST BLADESMAN – is one of the movie’s strengths, but also I think the reason some action fans were hard on it. Undeniably the action here doesn’t match the incredible work he’s done on the RUROUNI KENSHIN series, and many say it was ruined by the camerawork and the editing (credited to Stuart Levy, JESUS’ SON, RED EYE, SAVAGES, FOXCATCHER).
Yeah, I noticed some bumpy handheld stuff (not too bad), some mild disorientation, and one part where I thought they blew an opportunity. When Tomi summons Fish Boy from the gutting table to the meeting he tells him “Leave the knife.” Snake Eyes thinks about it, stabs the yellow-handled knife into the table, and the camera holds on it vibrating as the two walk away. When the two have to fight off the whole gang two minutes later, you just know he’s gonna have to make it way back to his knife, right? Well, no. A whip pan across the warehouse is him looking at the exit, not the weapon, and then all the sudden he has a different black-handled knife.
Still, it’s a pretty cool fight, a highlight being when Tomi gestures to the ropes on his wrists and leaps up over Snake Eyes as he runs through and slices them.
I think there’s alot of good camera movement and visual storytelling, setting up the sides facing off, showing them running toward each other, showing the differences in discipline with Tomi’s two-sworded ninja pose next to Snake Eyes clutching a small knife poised for a street fight (a comparison that’s revisited in the climax, by which time they both have swords and pose similarly). And that first sequence ends with them driving a stolen truck with so many swords stuck through it it looks like an iron maiden. How can I not appreciate that image? In the rare case where a movie like this is made on a budget that allows stabbing a truck with dozens of swords, there’s kind of a responsibility to stab a truck with dozens of swords. But most movies do not live up to that responsibility.
I’m not claiming it’s up to the international state-of-the-art of action filmmaking, but it’s definitely above average enough for me to have fun with it. There is some good stuff in here, if not greatness.
I was gonna say the weakest part was the GI Joe shit, but I guess the ninja shit is GI Joe shit. So unfortunately the weakest part is the white people. There’s a scene 51 minutes in where Snake Eyes barges in on a weapons sale, and the Cobra logo is visible on some crates, and I thought that was cool – a nod to this taking place in the GI Joe world without going full-on into it. But then Akiko says “Let’s call Scarlett” and calls Scarlett (Samara Weaving, THE BABYSITTER, READY OR NOT) of “elite global counterterrorism unit” GI Joe, who is trailing The Baroness (Ursula Corbero, THE EMOJI MOVIE) from Cobra, “a secret network of terrorist cells, crime syndicates, arms manufacturers and paramilitary groups linked under a single centralized command, a shadow organization devoted to bringing about global revolution through violence, extortion and fear.”
Corbero captures the hot/gross dichotomy of the character pretty well, but never seems like a more interesting threat than the already established villains of the movie, and this is maybe the first time I’ve seen Weaving not be the best thing in a movie. Not that she’s terrible, but I think the task of delivering lingo-heavy exposition in a cartoon-tough voice doesn’t really mesh with her natural charm.
Fortunately there’s not that much spent on those two, they just become participants in the big battle when the Yakuzas show up at the ninja compound. This is a cool climax because Blind Master and Hard Master have been set up as these great mentors, and Sen as the leader, and now we get to see all three of them go into action to protect their clan.
Action complaints aside, I wonder if this would’ve gone over better if it had been called SNAKE & SHADOW or something. I give the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos (POOH’S HEFFALUMP MOVIE, BATTLE FOR TERRA, HERCULES , BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, CHARLIE’S ANGELS), Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (FRANKIE & ALICE, RACE) credit for pushing the notions of good guy vs. bad guy a little. When I was a kid, we had these toys that were broken up into “good guys” and “bad guys,” but if there was a character like a Boba Fett or somebody that we interpreted as being neutral, that was always the coolest one. And I think the brotherhood and betrayal melodrama between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow made them fall into that category.
(plot twist spoilers coming up)
This is basically an undercover movie, but in those you usually know the hero is undercover by the time he’s struggling with guilt over it, if not from the very beginning. In this one it’s not until 39 minutes in that we learn that when Snake Eyes saved Tomi – the primary heroic choice and basis for the relationship at the center of the movie – it was a set up to gain his trust and steal a magic jewel from the dojo for Kenta. I think it’s an interesting twist on the formula because we, the audience, feel betrayed even before Tomi does. Motherfucker, we believed in you!
And then when he fails the third trial by keeping secrets and is ejected from the clan, but apologizes and becomes blood brothers with Tomi (who lets him keep the cool sword!) I was touched by that shit. So when I realized it was a ploy to get Tomi’s DNA to unlock the vault it was such a violation! I couldn’t believe the title character was doing that so late in the movie! For the last half hour he tries to undo his wrong, but you can understand why at the end Tomi wants him dead.
But also, Tomi is wrong! He was right for most of the movie, but it’s his own violation of the clan’s oath that prevents him from inheriting leadership. When he throws a fit and yells about his “blood right,” it reveals that he was never as pure or honorable as he seemed. So in the end the “bad guy” and “good guy” we’re left with are a former good guy trying to get revenge against the hero and a former bad guy trying to redeem himself by trying to redeem the other guy. I really would’ve been up for the continuation of that story, though like all GI Joe movies this surely failed to kick off the franchise they were planning.
For what it’s worth, this is easily the most solid of the three live action GI JOE movies, though I loved aspects of RETALIATION and got a kick out of the awe inspiring lunkheaded crappiness of Stephen Sommers’ G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA.
And that’s all I have to say about SNAKE EYES except that sometimes they just call him “Snake” for short, which is probly what I would call him too if I felt comfortable enough.