A young Asian-American man is lured into the underworld of Tokyo yakuza and Japanese ninja clans in an effort to find the assassin behind his father’s murder in Snake Eyes, titled onscreen as Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
That plot description doesn’t exactly scream G.I Joe, a franchise based on the classic action figures that has become synonymous with the United States military and a jingoistic mentality. Snake Eyes doesn’t feel anything like the previous two films in the franchise, the Prague-shot G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, but it’s the best Joe film yet thanks to an unexpectedly rich depiction of Japan and a charismatic lead performance by Henry Golding.
Golding stars as the titular character, who has taken on the name Snake Eyes after the death of his father, murdered by a mysterious assassin (Samuel Finzi) after an unlucky roll of the dice. Snake Eyes has spent the years since training in underground rings, and Golding enters the movie in a deadly-looking match against a far larger opponent, played by professional wrestler Mojo Rawley.
Yakuza boss Kenta (Takehiro Hira) makes Snake Eyes an offer he can’t refuse: come work at the San Francisco docks packing guns into fresh fish, and the assassin behind the murder of his father will be revealed.
But when the yakuza task Snake Eyes with executing an honest man, he can’t bring himself to do it; this leads to the film’s action highlight, a wonderfully-choreographed fight between Snake Eyes and Tommy (Andrew Koji), the man he was supposed to kill, and dozens of sword-wielding yakuza goons at the San Francisco docks.
Luckily for Snake Eyes, Tommy also happens to be the next-in-line heir to lead the Arashikage, a Japanese ninja clan. The pair fly to Tokyo with Tommy keen on turning his new friend into an ally and protector, but there may be more secrets lurking on the streets of Japan.
Less G.I. Joe and more The Yakuza, The Wolverine, or one of the better 1980s ninja films, Snake Eyes is a surprisingly evocative mix of action movie elements and an easily-digestible storyline fed through the perspective of the lead character. We have little doubt that he will do the right thing by the end of the movie, but the inner conflict that drives the narrative is well portrayed.
Particular bright spots here are Snake Eyes’ ninja trainers, played with a wink by Indonesian martial artist and The Raid star Iko Uwais and 300’s Peter Mensah. Less engaging, meanwhile, are Scarlett (Samara Weaving) and The Baroness (Úrsula Corberó), familiar G.I. Joe characters that feel like they were tacked on to a self-contained script for reasons of franchise-building.
Golding, who previously made a strong impression in the KVIFF hit Monsoon and in support in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, is especially charismatic in the lead. The actor has essentially taken an anonymous action figure of a character (played behind a mask by Ray Park in the earlier two G.I. Joe films) and crafted a grounded and empathetic lead presence, displaying some real movie star chops in the process.
Snake Eyes won’t jump start the G.I. Joe franchise for a new generation, and under direction by Robert Schwentke (Red, R.I.P.D.) it’s only barely serviceable as an action blockbuster; nothing tops that San Francisco opener, and a dim climactic chase on a Tokyo highway is especially underwhelming.
But as a one-off trip to Japan fully committed to its central premise and bolstered by a strong lead performance, Snake Eyes is a better film than the two G.I. Joe movies that have preceded it and a more engaging experience than it has any right to be.