Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
As time goes on, we’ve just had to accept that the movie business is now based entirely around franchise filmmaking. Over 90% of films released currently are either sequels, remakes, reboots, reimagining or are based on some pre-existing material (no, I am not making that statistic up). Even the rare original film eventually becomes the jumping off point for some kind of series. This business strategy has gotten so ridiculous that it barely matters whether or not audiences care about the intellectual property. For example, no one has had any interest in seeing any more Terminator films, yet that hasn’t stopped the release of a new addition every few years. Even poor box office numbers aren’t enough to discourage this, as is evident with the release of Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021).
Framed as a prequel to the G.I. Joe series (2009 – 2013), we are introduced to the (apparently) fan-favourite ninja Snake Eyes (Henry Golding), a man hellbent on seeking revenge for his father’s murder, which he of course witnessed as a child. Snake Eyes is approached by the obviously shifty Kenta (Takehiro Hira), who promises the location of his father’s murderer in exchange for some work. The job in question is to gain the trust of a sacred ninja clan known as the Arashikage, a group in charge of guarding a powerful and dangerous magic stone. Snake Eyes must infiltrate their ranks and acquire the stone, but that’s easier said than done as the clan puts him through a series of rigorous challenges. All the while, Snake Eyes begins having a crisis of conscience, as he (very) slowly realises he may be fighting for the wrong team.
What must be addressed right off the bat is that it’s kind of bizarre to see a Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) style prequel to a franchise like G.I. Joe. At this point, media properties like Star Wars, Marvel, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings,The Matrix, 007, Mission Impossible and Indiana Jones still permeate popular culture, whereas G.I. Joe has mostly faded into obscurity. Neither of the recent films made any discernible impact, making Snake Eyes feel redundant almost immediately. This isn’t to say that long forgotten stories haven’t ever reemerged, but it takes a lot to come back into the cultural lexicon. Snakes Eyes barely makes any impact, despite it clearly staking a claim at the franchise table. To be fair, Snakes Eyes doesn’t assume audiences know the franchise details, taking the time to explain the various elements for the layman. Regardless, even that can’t help the film avoid getting bogged down by the worst clichés.
Rest assured, nearly every single action movie trope finds its way into the film. This wouldn’t be a problem if the characters, stakes and emotions were at all compelling, but nothing rises above the templates. When characters need to feel conflicted, they’re conflicted in exactly how you would expect at actually the point you’d expect it. When it’s been too long between action scenes, a fight will break out right when you think it will even if the narrative doesn’t call for it. Just when you’re expecting there to be reveal, twist, or turn, it happens and it ends up being what you’d immediately assumed. It’s one thing to competently string together a series of functional plot beats, but it’s another thing entirely to do the bare minimum and automatically expect the viewer to care.
The saddest part is that we really don’t care. On paper, Snake Eye’s narrative arc as presented here should be one filled with inner turmoil, conflict, and existential moralising. Outside of one fairly interesting training scene with a mildly cute resolution, very little actually connects in any meaningful way. This is due to the stark disconnect between what the character says and what he actually does. Despite being told that he’s completely driven by a self-serving need for revenge, we’re never convinced of that given how he always acts like he’s already had the come-to-Jesus-moment. At best, these moments of inner conflict fall completely flat and at worst are unintentionally hilarious. This isn’t at all helped by the story constantly jumping from overly serious to wildly absurd.
With that in mind, you might be thinking the cartoony fantasy elements negate the need to take the film seriously. After all, why hold a film to such high standards if it’s all a big romp anyway? While that’s usually true, Snake Eyes doesn’t seem to respect itself enough to give its supposedly ‘spectacular’ action a chance. All the various sword battles, car chases, fist fights and so on are all shot with unmotivated shaky-cam, despite having actors who actually know how to fight. The sets have been carefully crafted to bring interesting cultural designs and artwork to life, yet it’s all under-lit and shrouded from view. Even the various magical plot devices are barely given defined rules. Granted, it’s easy to say this or that detail doesn’t matter in a popcorn film such as this, but none of it feels like it matters at all.
The most embarrassing thing is that a large collection of talented and charming actors have found their way into this film, probably under the pretence of it being the start of a big franchise. It’s unlikely Snake Eyes will tarnish the rock solid reputations of Henry Golding, Samara Weaving, Úrsula Corberó and others, but it’s a shame they dedicated their not inconsiderable abilities to a franchise that’s dead on arrival. To be fair, Golding and co are all likeable and have great screen presence, ensuring that Snake Eyes isn’t entirely unwatchable. However, you find yourself wishing they spent their time on a project with more integrity.
In truth, Snake Eyes is probably not the worst big budget blockbuster around. There’s definitely far worse films out there, but there are few as contemptible. Far be it from me to say that franchise filmmaking can’t yield amazing results, but there’s a downside to every trend. Snake Eyes is that downside, as it represents nearly everything wrong with the corporate side of filmmaking. It’s far from being the worst film ever made, nor is it the worst film of the year, but it is the film that broke my spirit.
Best way to watch it: Just don’t. Go for a walk instead.