Producers: Brian Goldner, Erik Howsam and Lorenzo di Bonaventura Director: Robert Schwentke Screenplay: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse Cast: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Úrsula Corberó, Samantha Weaving, Iko Uwais, Haruka Abe, Takehiro Hira, Peter Mensah and Eri Ishida Distributor: Paramount Pictures
You have to admire—or deplore—the persistence of Hasbro and Paramount. Despite the fact that the first two big-budget movies based on the G.I. Joe franchise—“G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009) and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (2013)—were, though moderately profitable, atrocious (Channing Tatum, who starred in the first, supposedly demanded that his character be killed off early in the second, so as not to have to continue the series) that the financiers have decided to push on with a third. The result is this prequel presenting the origin of the titular character, one of the stalwarts of the franchise from its earliest days, as well as of Storm Shadow, his nemesis.
As cobbled together by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, and directed without much imagination by Robert Schwentke, “Snake Eyes” is a tale of revenge, loyalty and betrayal, though not necessarily in that order or in the singular. It differs from the previous “G.I. Joe” movies in that it’s not primarily an exercise in humungous CGI effects, except for a couple of sequences featuring computer-manufactured giant snakes, some others involving a glowing jewel (the story’s MacGuffin) with mystical destructive powers, and the usual artificially manipulated adornments to the wild vehicular chases. For the most part it’s a rather simple action movie, filled to the brim with martial-arts fighting and swordplay—too much of it, in fact.
And it is extraordinary in one respect. It’s so pervasively silly that the degree of absurdity approaches the sublime, made all the more so by the utter seriousness with which the nonsense is presented. Some viewers will understandably find it difficult to sit through the movie without snickering. “Snake Eyes” is by any objective standard pretty bad, but taken in the right spirit it can be a hoot.
Henry Golding, who made so many women swoon in “Crazy Rich Asians,” plays the title character. As a boy (Max Archibald) he witnessed his father (Steven Allerick) killed by a dark assassin (Samuel Finzi) who used a pair of loaded dice that always comes up double ones to decide his victim’s fate, and so he adopted that nickname to signify his drive for revenge.
Twenty years later, he’s become an underground fighter who’s recruited by steely-eyed yakuza chieftain Kenta (Takehiro Hira) to be part of an operation to smuggle guns inside fish (!); in return Kenta will hand over his father’s killer. Snake appears to turn on Kenta when he rescues Tommy (Andrew Koji), identified as an undercover enemy, from his boss’ wrath, and the two men escape with their lives.
It turns out that Tommy is actually the heir apparent to a noble clan, the Arashikage, headed by his grandmother Sen (Eri Ishida), which serves as the custodian of that formidable jewel in its walled compound outside Tokyo. Tommy nominates Snake for inclusion in the clan, which requires that he pass three tests overseen by Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and Blind Master (Peter Mensah) to prove his worth—the last involving those big anacondas. He must also pass muster with the clan’s security head Akiko (Haruka Abe).
In reality, however, Snake is still working for Kenta, another grandson of Sen, who left the clan after being passed over and is seeking revenge by using his man to steal the jewel and use it against its protectors. He is also a part of the terrorist group Cobra, represented here by the slinky Baroness (Úrsula Corberó)—whose extraordinary high heels are a special effect unto themselves. She’s being pursued by Scarlett (Samantha Weaving), an agent of the G.I. Joes, the force for good to which, Snake will ultimately learn, his father also belonged.
The crux of the plot is where Snake’s loyalties will ultimately lie, and how often he will switch them. It’s a back-and-forth routine that allows for a lot of action, and Holding handles the requirements of the role—which, in addition to the physical demands undoubtedly met to a large extent by stand-ins—largely consists of standing in pretty poses looking smoldering and conflicted. Snake has his counterpart in Koji’s perpetually tense Tommy, who’s devoted himself to his clan’s ideals but always looks on the verge of exploding, and eventually does—which seals his future as much as Snake’s choices do his.
Koji’s is especially fortunate in his garb, which like that of the other members of the clan is frankly gorgeous as the result of the efforts of costumer Louise Mingenbach. That’s good, because apart from wearing her creations Abe, Ishida, Uwais and Mensah really don’t have much to do, apart from looking impressive. Neither do Corberó or Weaving, though at least the former has the chance to ham it up while the latter is simply bland. The only cast member who really stands out, apart from Golding and Koji, is Hira, who has some fun glowering as Kenta, especially when he wields the jewel.
“Snake Eyes” cost substantially less than the previous “G.I. Joe” movies, relying as it does less on bombastic VFX than they did, but like Mingenbach they’ve used their resources fairly skillfully. Production designers Alec Hammond and David Meyer have fashioned a pretty impressive, if not very realistic, Arashikage compound, while Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography makes good use of splashes of color against a generally dark, murky background. Stuart Levy’s editing lets the fight sequences go on too long, but for the most part they’re less muddled and incoherent than those in most action movies nowadays, and Martin Todsharow’s score is okay, in a standard-issue way.
“Snake Eyes” is by definition a losing proposition, and it proves so here—unless you’re either an inveterate fan of the franchise or in the mood for a good, if unintentional, laugh.