MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Ask any child of the 1980s who either watched the G.I. Joe cartoon or read the G.I. Joe comics who their favorite character was and majority would likely say, “Snake Eyes.” The mysterious ninja clad in all black, completely mute, but an expert martial artist who wielded a katana has consistently been one of the most popular Joes through every iteration of the franchise. In 2009’s live-action G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, popular martial artist Ray Park brought Snake Eyes to life on the big screen. In 2021, however, the character gets his own movie in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
Twenty years ago, a young Snake Eyes (Max Archibald) and his father (Steven Allerick) are on the run from people hunting the father down. The father convinces the son to hide while he confronts a certain “Mr. Augustine” (Samuel Finzi) who uses a pair of loaded dice to determine the father’s fate. Seeing his father murdered before him, the son begins calling himself “Snake Eyes” after the results of the dice and trains to become a martial arts fighter while hunting his father’s killer.
An adult Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) is recruited by Yakuza member Kenta Takamura (Takehiro Hira) from an underground Los Angeles fighting circuit to help run guns for him. In exchange, Kenta will reveal the identity of the murderer of Snake Eyes’ father. Eventually, Kenta orders Snake Eyes to kill someone who has betrayed him, his own cousin, Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji). Kenta and Tommy were battling over leadership of the Arashikage clan, a family of ninja that has protected Japan for 600 years.
Refusing to kill Tommy, both Snake Eyes and Tommy are attacked by Kenta’s underlings, leaving Snake Eyes injured. He wakes up in Tommy’s private jet on the way back to Japan as Tommy is convinced that Snake Eyes is someone he can trust and wants him initiated into the clan. Standing in the way are Tommy’s grandmother and head of the Arashikage clan Sen (Eri Ishida), the head of security Akiko (Haruka Abe), and the mentors of the clan: Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and Blind Master (Peter Mensah).
If Snake Eyes can pass a series of tests before him, he will be welcomed as part of the Arashikage clan. If he fails, he dies. Unbeknownst to everyone else, however, Snake Eyes has an ulterior motive for protecting Tommy and trying to get close to the heads of this band of ninjas.
After Snake Eyes was introduced as a toy in the G.I. Joe toys by Hasbro in 1982, he eventually appeared in the cartoons and the Marvel Comics adaptation written and drawn by Larry Hama. In all of these iterations, an adult Snake Eyes never spoke and was generally accepted as Caucasian but disfigured, hence requiring his face to always be hidden behind a mask. From that part alone, this film adaptation already fails miserably.
Director Robert Schwentke can be given credit for showcasing a stylish Tokyo bathed in neon lights at night and high production values, but the screenplay by Evan Spiliotoupoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse was severely lacking in clarity and believability. These are admittedly characters which were created to sell toys before being seen in cartoons, movies, and comics, but Snake Eyes was always rooted in something that made the character more “real.”
By tapping the British-Malaysian Golding to play Snake Eyes, the character’s race was conveniently changed, perhaps to pander to an Asian audience that already has Koji and majority of the actors in the film. The stories of Snake Eyes and Tommy (who eventually becomes the lethal ninja Storm Shadow) have long been intertwined and it was nice to see that nod given in this film. Placing stuntman and martial artist Uwais from The Raid films and Mensah from the Spartacus TV series were nice touches that should have lent more gravitas to the film.
However, there were just too many things wrong with this motion picture that doomed it. From the otherworldly and supernatural “Jewel of the Sun” that the Arashikage are protecting to the giant CGI anacondas that real clan members can survive to just the overall lack of bite of the action sequences. The latter was particularly difficult to swallow because Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow have always been portrayed as such excellent fighters in previous iterations of the characters.
Considering that two Rurouni Kenshin films were just released over the past two months, one can’t help but compare that adaptation from anime to live action to this adaptation from cartoon to live action. The fight choreography alone in the Kenshin movies are miles ahead of what we see in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins. Although there are several shoutouts to G.I. Joe and rival terrorist organization Cobra, as well as appearances of Samara Weaving as Scarlett and Ursula Corbero as The Baroness, those almost seem forced and trite rather than be seamless in the plot.
Even at the film’s conclusion, as Snake Eyes dons his iconic visor for less than five minutes of screentime, the character is speaking and not disfigured because the filmmakers were obviously hoping that this would require a sequel where (perhaps) they can show how Snake Eyes loses his ability to speak. Judging from how bad this was and how poorly it has performed at the box office however, I don’t believe we’ll get that part of the origin any time soon.