This is a strange year in which to release a new G.I. Joe movie. We’ve spent 16 months staying away from each other, worried about health and proximity, breathing, and hospitals. Big deal films have been shuffled around and at-home streaming has exploded. Some films have surprised with how much money they’ve made at the box office, while others quietly shifted to online, disappearing with little trace.
Personally, in the Before Times, I’m at the movie theater twice a week. Nearby are two non-profit repertory art houses, a medium-sized multiplex for smaller releases and a huge one for studio output, plus two neighborhood multiplexes. Without going out of my way, I can see Hollywood films in DCP, and both important works and notable schlock in both 35mm and 70mm. I don’t watch movies at home because there’s little power in that experience. I get it — you don’t like crowds, or jerks on their phones, and you want to pause for breaks — but there’s real energy in experiencing something with people, particularly when it is larger than you. Even my big TV doesn’t match the smallest screen out there.
And even stranger is that we live in a world where there are now four G.I. Joe feature films. One wasn’t released to theaters, of course, and this new one doesn’t connect with the previous two, but that’s certainly more than C.O.P.S. or Dino Riders have. But the G.I. Joe brand is in a delicate place. Hasbro, as both toy company and IP holder, has appeared less invested in this story of good-versus-evil than other brands. Transformers and Power Rangers are straightforward. Alien robots don’t bleed, lasers don’t kill, and martial arts are acceptable in a way that firearms aren’t. Further, the name “G.I. Joe” is an Americanism. Folks in other countries may not emotionally connect with the Joes. I’m not in the military, but if someone called me “an average Joe,” I’d understand and consider it a compliment. That doesn’t transmit everywhere, though. More importantly, American militarism has a checkered reputation. We’ve contributed to righteous wars and we’ve waged peace, but we’ve also invaded, overstayed welcomes, and ruined governments and movements.
The hardest hurdle to jump may be the simple fact that firearms create holes in people and people do bleed. The Empire’s Stormtroopers just fall over when “blasted,” and the monsters and giant robots of Power Rangers are similarly dispatched in not just bloodless ways, but ways that don’t even make you think about blood. I have long argued, and will continue to, that there is absolutely a way to make a palatable live-action Joe film that isn’t too “violent,” that is acceptable to a range of ages, that sells toys, that features favorite characters, and is still rated PG-13. That last bit is important, because a lot of people will avoid a PG film. PG-13 is that sweet spot. And so Paramount and Skydance Productions turned away from the machine guns and “army” action of G.I. Joe: Retaliation and settled on a martial arts flick. This clears one hurdle. And since the last two films are recent enough to suggest that this is a “threequel,” this one jumps backwards so it can be a continuity reset without having to explain that directly. There’s that question do I have to see the last one to understand this new one? You and I know the answer is “No,” but the casual movier-goer doesn’t. That clears another hurdle.
Just once I’ll use the original title, G.I. Joe Origins: Snake Eyes. Somewhere in the month or so before release, that was shortened to just Snake Eyes. I saw this opening night with two employees of my comic book shop, three friends (one who works in the toy industry), and the missus. The theater was pretty empty — noticeable compared to Black Widow at that location two weeks prior. Then, ten days later while visiting family in Maryland, I saw Snake Eyes a second time with my brother (a big part of my Joe fandom), his girlfriend, and the missus again. I’ll point out that my wife isn’t a G.I. Joe fan, but she reads up on anthropology and childhood development and is interested in the concept of play. She’s also game for historical comparisons. When I talk about why the G.I. Joe cartoon is better than MASK, she’s interested, and she’s a booster for my G.I. Joe history book. She hasn’t seen Rise of Cobra or Retaliation — or The Movie, for that matter — which makes for a helpful test audience — Does Snake Eyes work on its own?
I’ll admit I was surprised when Snake Eyes was first announced. Yes, that handsome guy from Crazy Rich Asians was an unusual pick — surely they meant he would play Storm Shadow? Yes, I didn’t need an origin story — visions of the botched X-Men Origins: Wolverine loomed. And a reboot from the previous continuity could be the worst of both worlds — confusing to people who like Dwayne Johnson and still too soon since that soft reboot from its predecessor. But if only seven years separate Man of Steel from Superman Returns, then the rules have changed. Besides, Superman Returns premiered during Smallville‘s broadcast run, and people weren’t confused. This is an important point. A few vocal fans online were dismayed that Snake Eyes was changing something integral to the character, that the backstory established in Marvel Comics in the 1980s and ’90s was inviolable. But continuities are plastic. As a kid, I wasn’t concerned that in some Bugs Bunny shorts he knows he’s a Hollywood star, and in others he’s in medieval times. There’s no one, pure Bugs Bunny.
With Snake Eyes, he has no back story in the TV cartoon, and nothing there establishes his ethnicity or hair color. I will fully admit my distress that folks out there think of the live-action Transformers films as definitive takes on those characters and their backstory — losing out on the richness of The Key to Vector Sigma or James Roberts’ jaw-dropping character turns in print. My concern with a new G.I. Joe movie was less that it would get something “wrong,” and more that it would do so badly. I don’t know that a disappointing box office gross for a G.I. Joe film in 2020 or 2021 allows for any more Joe movies after this, so the stakes are high.
My first impression came from Larry Hama in the fall of 2019. We were chatting in New York and he described his weekend in Vancouver, shooting his cameo. This was exciting, as Hama’s short appearance was cut from Rise of Cobra. Even better, he had good things to say about Snake Eyes. But there was a nagging worry on my part. Director Robert Schwentke had made some mediocre action flicks. I don’t know anyone who saw R.I.P.D., and while people are fond of RED, it doesn’t make anyone’s “best of” lists. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a drama based on a book — maybe Schwentke could balance the inter-character work and get lucky with the fights and explosions?
As time dragged on, the film’s release date was moved because of the COVID pandemic. Even if it’s not the film’s fault, delays hurt most films because audiences get tired or confused — “Didn’t that already come out?” But I was ready to believe the hype machine, that the practical fights are great. And I was hoping for a new version of Snake Eyes that was at least as interesting as the one we know from the comic books, if different. Writing for Forbes.com, Scott Mendelson worried “that this does feel like another doomed ‘the prequel to the movie you came to see’ origin story/franchise set-up flick,” that “because shareholders demanded it rather than audiences were actually excited about [it,] Paramount and Skydance [were] trying yet again with Real American Hero,” that “this looks like another destined-to-fail franchise relaunch that no one asked for.” What little online buzz I was absorbing about pandemic summer movies was reserved for Fast 9 and Black Widow. (Was that just Universal and Marvel spending more on marketing?)
As for the film itself, here’s my one-sentence review: I really, really like it, but it’s not very good.
The characters are all great. The casting is all great. The acting is all great. Golding’s likeability, Andrew Koji’s intensity, and all the things that contrast them, are great. Takehiro Hira is fully convincing as a villain, subtly chewing scenery, a turn I didn’t expect but thoroughly enjoyed.
The costumes are gorgeous. Every character looks great, and I particularly like Storm Shadow visual journey from the color black to the color white. That the motorcycles are electric vehicles is a nice nod to the future. The Soft Master has been replaced by Granny Demon, a modern invention of Larry Hama’s from the G.I. Joe comics. She doesn’t swing around her purse with a brick in it, but it was thrilling to see Tommy’s grandmother onscreen, and was a way to have one less man and one more woman in a film that needs to appeal to a wide audience.
I’ve been trying to figure out what the right formula is for a G.I. Joe movie, when and how it should introduce the team concept of G.I. Joe. Snake Eyes did what Rise of Cobra did, where roughly a quarter of the way in, Duke and Rip Cord are told of this secret team, and they want in. Similarly, a third of the way into Snake Eyes, we see a big Cobra logo. I like that it’s a visual nod (a stencil on a crate of weapons) before anyone says “Cobra” or “terrorist army,” but once that happens, as excited as I was to see the solo-origin-prequel, it was now also a more full franchise with marquee heroes and villains.
Again, I’m okay with Snake Eyes joining the team in a manner different from the Marvel Comics yarn, that Hawk and Stalker went up into the mountains to find this broken veteran who was now a bad ass ninja. But a new version of that recruitment needs to be exciting. And I’m struck by something that Jesse Farrell, sculptor and comic shop manager and thoughtful film guy, said: If Snake Eyes’ father was a Joe, than Snake Eyes is a legacy, which immediately makes him less interesting. He only sort of earned his spot. This is pretty damning, and unfortunately, the opening scene of our new film adventure, and a motivator for the protagonist, is to avenge his father. Sure, Snake Eyes demonstrates he can survive, and fight, and forgive, but losing his dad and going on a nebulous drifter quest for revenge — as presented in this film — is not as interesting as “Snake-Eyes: The Origin” and all of that from 1984. A year in-country weighs heavier on the protagonist — and the audience in shorthand! — than being a street fighter or a pit fighter.
Okay, maybe I can turn off my comparison machine and enjoy it on its own — a martial arts film that’s sort of G.I. Joe. The fight choreography was great. That is, I think it was, because it was undone by so much shaky camera and overly fast editing. Every time a film cuts mid-fight that’s a chance for me to not believe it’s the actor, but rather a stunt performer or a stand-in, making that effort. (Or the editor’s attempt to speed up the not-fast-enough movements of an actor who is not a professional athlete.) But this film went to great lengths to tell me how hard the actors worked on their practical fights — even Golding himself in a special onscreen welcome/thank you segment that played after the trailers and before the movie! Look at the director’s past works, that’s what a producer in New York and my creative partner on some film projects, Nick Nadel, says each time a G.I. Joe movie is announced. Van Helsing didn’t bode well for Rise of Cobra, and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never was a question mark before Retaliation (I’ve heard a great interview with director Jon M. Chu and made my peace with his Joe work). I haven’t seen RED (I liked the original comic and didn’t need any expansion), but based on how Schwentke handled Snake Eyes, now I’m much less interested.
One way in which the new Joe film excelled was its publicity. Henry Golding doing a lot of interviews, and the producers pulling in Larry Hama to talk about the movie, its connection to the comics, and the character of Snake Eyes all created goodwill. Hama’s involvement in particular provided some clearance, as he has some weapons training and his family comes from Japan, and he’s good on camera, and the two appearing virtually at a convention creates a striking visual — a veteran of G.I. Joe and the new guy, the older one saying “I approve of this” and having the cred to back it up because he’s still making Joe stories.
I do want to call out three visuals in the new G.I. Joe flick that are great: One, the sequence where Akiko follows Snake Eyes into the city and he loses her. There’s clear and dramatic visual storytelling with an over-the-shoulder shot looking down at him, and then a reverse angle looking past him up to her in front of a billboard. Then he loses her in an alley. It’s all real and practical. Two, the Arashikage shrine with the Jewel of the Sun. Snake Eyes enters a small room where each wall is a mirror with floor-to-ceiling candles! This was gorgeous! And yet the film rushed to the dragon-eye-button and the MacGuffin-in-the-wall and Akiko and Snake Eyes decidedly do not have a cool fight in this cool room. I know a franchise movie needs to be efficiently made to get to the business of selling those toys and video games and cereal box/candy tie-ins, but an important aspect of film is art direction — let me do that in caps — Art Direction. This ain’t Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049, but how did no one involved with Snake Eyes jump up and say “we need to do something more with this awesome infinity room!!!”? Or for that matter, design and build more spaces that were as visually compelling. (As an aside, this was the second time in two weeks a film crew had come up with the best visual of a movie only to skip past it too quickly — that bit in Black Widow where we see the other Widows training in sync, like dancers in a studio.) But Snake Eyes still gets points for even having that gorgeous room. Three, the alley/rooftop fight in the rain, lit by neon signs. This was filled with color, lights and shadows, a claustrophobic, narrow, vertical upward push, and was maybe my favorite fight scene in any live-action G.I. Joe movie. But then I was a little worried that the Act III fight wouldn’t top this. It did not.
And a handful of laudible assets do not a film make. Could I spend a paragraph on the silly stuff, like the giant snakes or the magic MacGuffin that wandered in from a less grounded movie? Yes, but I’m going to focus on Akiko’s inconsistent character, which took me out of the story. She didn’t trust Snake Eyes, but then felt so sorry for him that she ruined the third trial to save him. And then they have a talk where she wears her heart on her sleeve about how they’re both outsiders. Wouldn’t she have been fired for interfering with the test? Isn’t she steely enough to not need to reveal a vague, painful past to this outsider who she still should not trust? I batted this around with my wife, who also frowned at Natasha and Yelena’s banter/fighting/whatever in Black Widow, surmising that “Hollywood doesn’t know how to write women.” I’m disappointed the writers on Snake Eyes didn’t come up with a better arc for Akiko, because this was a chance to introduce a new fan favorite. Joe fans sure love Pythona and Big Lob, and they didn’t originate in the toy line. There’s little hope that Akiko will show up somewhere else now, part of the larger Joe lore.
Ultimately, if I squint and turn my head sideways, I can piece together the Snake Eyes movie I wanted out of the other films that beat it at the box office. If it was going to have a flashback, I’d want the emotional intensity of a young sleeper agent and her sister at the airfield in 1995 at the beginning of Black Widow. Natasha pulling a guard’s gun and screaming to keep her family together is something new for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the most powerful moment of that film. I’d want the martial arts of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Or at least the bus and scaffolding scenes, as Shang-Chi‘s Act III is a lot like Snake Eyes‘ — too much VFX zapping. And both even have giant CG “snakes”!) I’d want the balance that No Time to Die strikes between grit and emotional stakes and an over-the-top secret good guy group taking on an over-the-top secret bad guy group. Now, these aren’t fair comparisons because Black Widow and No Time to Die benefit from being follow-ups and sequels. We’ve seen these characters before. Additionally, all three films have much higher budgets. Yet every producer, director, and writer makes choices, and I wish those creatives on Snake Eyes had made different ones.
This film was always going to have a hard time. Its budget was much lower than its two predecessors, and there was some brand fatigue (wait, a third one? Where’s the Rock?) and confusion (is this a G.I. Joe movie if that word is cut from the title?). But something else built into it was going to make it a tall order, that it’s a solo movie that has to introduce a team. Yet there are also a dozen other people that the stakeholders must include. I wouldn’t want to remove either the Hard Master or the Blind Master, but just thinking narratively, if one were gone, the other would have twice as much to do. Or if we were to have Kenta or the Baroness but not both, the one remaining would similarly net twice the screen- and character-developing time. The aforementioned Nick Nadel has a shorthand critique, a term he calls “modern movie problems.” Much of that is too many characters. And a franchise film can’t linger too long before getting to an action set piece.
Let’s compare the original Karate Kid (1984) and Snake Eyes. So much of that earlier film is just two characters getting to know each other and demonstrating to the audience who they are. Imagine if every four minutes Daniel bumped into a another bully, or Miyagi went off and met up with an underling who had a boss. There’d be much less time for this duo to develop. I really like Scarlett’s airport scene in Snake Eyes, but the stakes are high because this is the one shot the filmmakers have to introduce her, and it all becomes a kind of shorthand. I often look at modern movies (think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and imagine taking these two characters’ roles and mooshing them into one, or cutting this side character who makes a reference and a joke and isn’t central to the core story. I think G.I. Joe fans may not see it in Snake Eyes because we expect to see Joes, Cobras, Arashikage, and some other types, but it is a crowded movie.
Pal, editor, and film brain Bill Scurry wrote that this team of writers… “contribute[d] every cliche and unoriginal scenario from ninja- and yakuza-fiction,” that “a blanched retelling of The Challenge or The Yakuza isn’t going to get us anywhere.” I’ll admit to not having seen either of those, but I’ve seen a few low and medium-budget martial arts flicks, and they have a focus (cf. “modern movie problems,” above) that this does not. It’s not really a G.I. Joe film, and it’s not really a solo Joe film, so I think back to what my wife said soon after we left the theatre: “That was not very good.” But it’s a lot of fun (she thought so, too), and I write that truthfully even though I was desperate for it to be excellent and high-grossing.
To hear, rather than read more on this film, you can listen to a special episode of Talking Joe, the long-running podcast that I’ve been co-hosting with “Talking Joe” Mark and Jay Cordray for almost a year. The Snake Eyes episode, just 67 minutes, is at Apple, Spotify, Podbean, Stitcher, Google, and audio-only on YouTube.