He speaks, and we see his face.
Hollywood has always had an issue with depicting characters who don’t show their faces – they usually cast someone good looking and make sure they show their handsome or pretty face. Think Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian, where there are moments audiences will see the mug under the mask.
The one instance where the actor doesn’t remove his mask is rare, and Karl Urban’s take as Judge Dread is one of the few we can think of.
Not adding to that short list is the reboot of Snake Eyes, the latest from the live-action G.I. Joe franchise. While the nameless, faceless ninja commando has appeared in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and in the 2013 sequel, G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), he’s back in an origin tale that departs from the earlier films, kick starting a new narrative based on the almost 40-year-old toy line and cartoon series.
And with Crazy Rich Asian star Henry Golding wielding the katana, it’s no wonder that this is the first time in the character’s history that we’ll see the ninja assassin’s face, and hear his voice, in the form of the good looking Malaysian actor.
But put down your pitchforks, fans. Expanding the G.I. Joe franchise, this Snake Eyes movie tells a new story of the fan-favourite Joe before he became a Joe. With the blessing of franchise scribe Larry Hama, who wrote the bulk of the character in the Marvel Comics books from the 1980s, the film, directed by Robert Schwentke, offers a fresh take on the character’s origins, with certain core elements kept in place of course.
The film starts with the young Snake Eyes – who was never named in the toys or comics, and continues to be so in the movies – witnessing a horrible death that changed him permanently. Fast forward and we see the character in bad company involving violent boxing for spare cash and joining Yakuza gangs. To say he’s had it rough is an understatement but it’s his seething rage and vengeance that has allowed him to live this long, so when offered the opportunity to avenge the murder that largely impacted his life, Snake Eyes is quick to say yes.
Still, the opportunity did involve having to turn his back on the hand that fed him, and running off to Japan with his new friend, Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji). Or so we thought? At its core, Snake Eyes focuses on topics like loyalty, honour, vengeance and pure-heartedness, and it’s a running theme that don’t just see in the titular character, but also in others, including Tommy, Akiko (Haruka Abe), and The Baroness (Ursula Corbero). This is a primer for a larger G.I. Joe cinematic universe after all, so we do get to see a young Cobra in action, along with future Joe teammate and lover, Scarlett, played by the ever wonderful Samara Weaving. Where some are quick to switch loyalties, others lay unwavering so audiences never really know who’s on which at times, which can come off a bit confusing amidst all the action.
As the lore goes, Snake Eyes is welcomed in Japan into the Arashikage clan, and undergoes three different tests in order to secure his spot in the clan. A test of humility, physicality and honesty, Snake Eyes excels pretty well but his nightly escapades into the city has clan protector Akiko suspicious. On the flip side, Snake Eyes and Tommy grow closer, with the latter spilling secrets of the clan and putting immense trust into the mysterious fighter.
After tailing Snake Eyes on multiple occasions, Akiko learns of Snake Eyes true nature and reveals the truth to Tommy. Feeling betrayed, the clan go after Snake Eyes in a high-speed motorcycle chase, though it doesn’t take long for allegiances to switch, as alliances form to destroy the common enemy that has been toying and manipulating various characters.
As an origin story for an extremely popular character, Snake Eyes is a pretty good attempt at showing fans the man behind the mask and his pre-G.I. Joe days. Whilst his roots with the Arashikage clan remain similar to the comics and stories that fans have grown up loving, there are plenty of other missed opportunities with the script, in its attempt to appeal to the masses.
Let’s just put it out there – what’s the point of making the beloved character be as good looking as Henry Golding? Fans know that Snake Eyes dons his mask for a reason, along with why he doesn’t speak, which is why previous attempts did away by focusing on his ninja skills, and having martial artist Ray Park, of Star Wars’ Darth Maul fame play the deadly commando. Snake Eyes’ mysterious aura, paired with his badassery is the very essence of the character, so taking away those mysteries is akin to a magician revealing his secrets, or a Mandalorian removing his/her helmet.
While Henry Golding is a sight for sore eyes, he’s not known for his acting or his martial arts capabilities, so he was clearly hired for his looks above everything that we know of the character, and the movie could afford to adapt a little bit more of the comic book lore here, or at least do a Karl Urban and let audiences see Golding in full Snake Eyes costume for more than what we received.
Schwentke is also very liberal with this adaptation, leading to both pros and cons, and the biggest boon here is that this rendition of Snake Eyes’ origin allows for further, more interesting exploration, should there be a sequel, even if the studio has indicated that work has started on a G.I. Joe film that follows this new narrative.
Whilst an origin movie for the titular character, other characters such as Tommy got the opportunity to show off a little bit of their origin as well (spoiler alert for non-fans, Tommy in the comics becomes Snake Eyes’ arch-enemy Storm Shadow after a terrible fall out. Arashikage is actually two Japanese words, for Storm and Shadow). Both The Baroness and Scarlett have great potential for expanded narratives and as Hollywood goes, everything hinges on the success of this movie.
But as a standalone movie, there are missed opportunities too great to be overlooked, and will likely disappoint fans who have geared up for a faithful rendition of the character they grew up idolising. For the amount of deviation this origins takes, one would think that the action would make up for it but sadly, much of the action looks rather uncoordinated and messy, with only the motorcycle fight scene and final showdown standing out. The other action scenes are pretty forgettable, unless they involve Koji and Abe, who both have martial arts experience.
For the sake of G.I. Joe and Snake Eye fans, we sure hope this movie will receive a sequel, because while Snake Eyes is a good attempt for an origin story, it isn’t what audiences know, and knowing is half the battle.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Snake Eyes is a good attempt for an origin story of the iconic G.I. Joe character, with plenty of room for more action and faithful-adaptation to be a complete charmer.
Story - 6/10
Direction - 5/10
Characterisation - 6/10
Geek Satisfaction - 6/10