I understand the desire for a G.I. Joe cinematic universe—lord knows every recognizable intellectual property is vying for one—but Snake Eyes is yet another losing roll for the Hasbro toy line. Robert Schwentke is no stranger to blockbuster action after helming RED, except none of that shows in this mismatched blend of Eastern and Western fighter choreography. I was all ready to praise an American studio project that treats uncontainable brawls with the capability of fluid martial artistry over meathead bulkiness, yet that pitch is back-burnered until further notice. Snake Eyes is some return-to-the-drawing-board fumbling if I’ve ever seen a franchise shake-up (and trust me, this isn’t the first).
Henry Golding steps into the counter-terrorism boots of “Snake Eyes,” an orphaned child who watched his father’s assassination and became a rough-and-tumble mercenary as a result. His Yakuza servitude unites him with Tommy (Andrew Koji), next in line to rule the Japanese Arashikage clan. Should Snake Eyes pass three challenges of honor, he will become part of the Arashikage family—a feeling he’s never felt since the day a pair of dice decided his papa’s fate. If Snake Eyes survives, he’ll become Tommy’s brother-in-arms. That’s if ulterior motivations of revenge and blackmail don’t endanger his chances.
Let me start by confirming how quickly the action set pieces reveal their unappealing chaos. It’s not long after a flashback introduction before Henry Golding and Andrew Koji are fighting back-to-back, in a tee-up that evokes the outnumbered hallway one-take rumble in Oldboy mixed with The Night Comes for Us. Any other movie would allow viewers to feel punishing blows and behold choreography worth our breathless attention, but cinematographer Bojan Bazelli is out of their depth. The minute Golding and Koji start throwing hands and swinging steel weapons, Snake Eyes becomes an indecipherable hyper-blur where shaky camera tactics sabotage scene after scene of brawler intrigue. It’s like whoever’s operating the camera enters hurricane grade winds whenever attacks commence, attributing to some inexcusably ugly lensing whenever Snake Eyes should be at its most sensational. How do you waste Andrew Koji and Iko Uwais’s brutal pageantry on the equivalent of earthquake home video footage? Especially when a few instances where slow motion comes into play do boast some old-school partnership moves where, for instance, Koji vaults over Golding as the latter cuts his hand restraints mid-glide?
Maybe that’s a tad on Golding, who never feels wholly comfortable as the “iconic” G.I. Joe figure Snake Eyes, his first immersive foray into action cinema. A PG-13 rating lends itself to bloodless butt-kicking, but even at that, Schwentke feels like he’s purposely trying to hide incapable trading blows that wouldn’t sell without distorted frame quality. I won’t say the Crazy Rich Asians star has no presence, but I’m not sold in the least on his G.I. Joe casting choice. Rather, the entire ensemble feels out-of-place, whether it’s Golding’s inconsistent accent swaps between American, British, and something else or the improper sterilization of Samara Weaving as handheld crossbow enthusiast Scarlett. So few characters carry presence beyond their costumes, especially the typically renegade Weaving playing cardboard and uninteresting—something I’ve never dared suggest thus far throughout the wild-card specialist’s career.
Snake Eyes plays like a re-re-boot into G.I. Joe lore for the zillionth time, which balloons the title’s running time over two hours. The do-gooding ninja aspects succeed because of security specialist Akiko (Haruka Abe) or elder Blind Master (Peter Mensah), but recasting comes at a price. I’m into the mysticism of upholding tradition and respecting the words we utter from our hearts. Still, Hollywood’s approach to representing anything outside American comfort zones is disheartening when countries like Indonesia are trouncing our action output. Snake Eyes pales in comparison and even squanders golden hour scenic views on a burgeoning tournament-style fighter who can barely keep up with the techniques used to hide his presumably lacking swordplay and combo moves (can’t comprehend motion-sick tremors as a stylistic choice).
It pains me to say Snake Eyes is a borderline insult to action cinema that blends elements of Japanese syndicate mysticism into G.I. Joe’s marketability, but never well. Gemstones with fireblast powers and auras of champions are no match for the putrid visual storytelling on display—primarily through foot-fist ways. Even an introduction like The Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) faceplants as her stunt inclusion becomes jumbled within the blatant team-up shots and narrative abandon that’s all over the map. The film becomes a cycle of suited criminals sprinting towards Snake Eyes or Tommy like maniacs, a mess of dizzying “action” garble, and then some egregiously written beats that play all the predictable hits. I’m shocked how little Snake Eyes connects with this critic, but I guess that’s just consequential runoff when you squander two of the most electric, masterclass action icons in this international but still too Americanized take on franchise reinvigoration. Watch Warrior or The Raid: Redemption or Headshot or The Night Comes for Us to grasp an idea of what Snake Eyes so desperately wants to be—and never once becomes under a neon Tokyo mask that never feels injected into the production’s DNA.