Snake Eyes

**1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Snake Eyes
"Hidden in this is a competent ninja flick."

This should perhaps be referred to more carefully as Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins, not so much to distinguish it from Brian De Palma's film of a similar name but to highlight both how constructed and derivative it is. There's seemingly a lot of fondness for GI Joe. It is hard to say if that's from Hasbro's willingness to license a media property designed to sell toys from a larger legacy that saw a new format on the popularity of Star Wars merchandise or the fact that those raised on a diet of GI Joe's cartoon and comic outings are now roughly in their forties and wishing they weren't.

Director Robert Schwentke is no stranger to adaptations or franchises. RED, RIPD, both based on comics, and as seems typical now the middle two films of an uncompleted trilogy, the two outposts of the Divergent series that aren't called Divergent. He also wrote and directed The Captain, based on the true story of Willi Herold, and that maze of identity and dishonour is a core element of this film. He's bringing to the screen text drafted by three others. The rule of thumb about quality being inversely proportional to the number of credits on the screenplay is often tested, but nothing massively sticks out here to disprove it. Evan Spiliotopoulos has form for 'found family' and also action sequences, the 2019 Charlie's Angels movie and some of the Heffalump animations bear his credit. Writing duo Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse also assist, though there's doubtless a distinction between their work on the reimagining of Rebecca and this.

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I say 'reimagining' and not 'remake' because this outing ignores the continuity established by Rise Of Cobra and GI Joe Retaliation and has another stab at it. These have all had a go at Snake Eyes' relationship with his clan and by my count we've had as many as the origin of his nemesis Storm Shadow. Cynics might suggest that Storm Shadow was a hasty re-colour of Snake Eyes to sell more ninja toys, but the original action figure was all original moulds. This film significantly less so.

You know that bit where Luke confronts his greatest fear in the tree at Dagobah? That bit in Indiana Jones with the pit? That bit in Avengers where they do that poster pose? That bit in Seven Samurai where the seven samurai are in a line? That bit in Black Panther where one speaks with one's ancestors? Black Widow's first scenes in Avengers Assemble? The bathroom fight in Mission Impossible: Fallout? Or indeed True Lies? I'd mention a particular bit of Conan but it might constitute a spoiler.

It's not just when the screen literally flashes to tell you there will be flashbacks in scenes 'Twenty Years Ago' that GIJO:SE feels familiar. From sets that have been constructed for set pieces, inevitable betrayals, even elements of costume design, these are predictable things in a finite series of combinations. That said, and even though the dice are loaded against it, Snake Eyes does manage to entertain.

Hidden in this is a competent ninja flick. There's some good sound effects and various arenas for the fights. They're let down by a tendency to keep close and cut quickly, though there is an effort to have actions in some sequences parallel or recall actions in earlier ones. That last is important, because it's in many of the small details that the film succeeds.

There are a fair few fight scenes, and they're well constructed but sadly a lot of skill appears to have been obfuscated in the edit. There's a reason Cobra are involved, though if I'm honest I think they'd be more interested in the other one of the ninja clan's secrets. The brand furniture of GI Joe sits around a relatively decent film about honour and sword fighting. There's what's probably product placement but a prominent bottle of Johnnie Walker Black label pales against the sudden arrival of a Hyundai. There are some good vehicles, electric motorcycles mostly but there's a Toyota Century as well. Private jet too, in a sequence that conveys the clout of the clan as they arrive at an emptied airfield in sight of Mt Fuji.

Henry Golding is Snake Eyes, his romantic comedy charm doing a lot to help a character who makes some pretty bad decisions. Andrew Koji (amongst other things, Peaky Blinders) is Tommy, who offers Snake an adoptive home. Haruka Abe, another British actor with plenty of TV credits is the clan's security chief, her concern and compassion both tested by Snake as he goes through the trials. In opposition Takehiro Hira, possibly most familiar from Lost Girls & Love Hotels or Netflix series Giri/Haji. He is the villainous Kenta, seeking a particular McGuffin.

GI Joe do turn up, in the form of Scarlett. Samara Weaving will be familiar to a number of TV audiences, and her battle armour recalls the almost cartoonish cast of The Mandalorian's interpretation of characters introduced in The Clone Wars. Rounding out the cavalcade of complexity is The Baroness, Úrsula Corberó is Tokio in Money Heist and here she's in Tokyo to get something else.

That something else is a magical gem. For sure where there's a 'Hard Master' (jokes made for you) played by The Raid's Iko Uwais, and a 'Blind Master' (previously played by The RZA) there's always going to be an air of unreality. That frequent genre and historic actor Peter Mensah's turn also has him serving as a lie detector gives room for more mystery. While apparently infallible, nobody seems to have a protocol for dealing with omissions.

That isn't true of the script though, which is cramming in a lot. There are some inventive fights, an alleyway is choreographed across three dimensions, through doors, and while it's lit like a Baudrillardian pastiche of the idea of Japan that comic book sensibility works for it. The first blush of the credits (which include a scene of sequel import) less resembles that than a GeoCities page, all blink tags and a different font for each line. Once you've seen a segment whose best bit is the cabin crew's "Cobra Airlines" wings (a cosplay certainty) you can leave. Though there's clearly a debt owed to the structure of MCU outings (and adjacent titles like the Wolverines) it doesn't extend to keeping you in your seat all night.

There's a lot of neon, and even more teal and orange. At one point a close-up of a character seems to have been colour corrected to the point of parody. There is magic, ridiculous footwear, shifting allegiances and a deadly grandmother. There's a sequence where one character reloads another's gun that's probably going to make some fan-fiction authors really happy.

Despite a large number of Britons in the cast this still labours under the label of GI Joe and not 'Action Force'. That comics publication differences (UK weekly vs. US monthly) mean tie-in fare like this and Transformers had a weird parallel continuity on these shores may also extend to this feature-length version of a sequence that's been flashbacks in the two other live action GI Joe pictures. Between all the lumps of exposition is a movie where Iko Uwais punches up a bunch of dudes and Henry Golding keeps hitting people with chains. It's not a winner, but it might be worth a roll of the dice.

Reviewed on: 08 Sep 2021
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A GI Joe spin-off centered around the character of Snake Eyes.

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writer: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse

Starring: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Haruka Abe, Takehiro Hira, Eri Ishida, Iko Uwais, Peter Mensah, Úrsula Corberó

Year: 2021

Runtime: 121 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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