If you don't know your Flints from your Dukes, your Scarletts from your Lady Jayes, or your Snow Jobs from your Beach Heads, then you might overlook "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" as just another throw-away action-franchise wanna-be. But for fans of the original "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" cartoon series, this new film is packed full of content that will have you brimming with nostalgia-fueled joy.
Yes, despite the cold critical response it's received thus far, "Snake Eyes" could very well be the start of something special: A cinematic universe that at least has the depth of characters and storylines to eventually go toe-to-toe with Marvel, with albeit a smaller but much more fervent fan-base.
Yes, the G.I. Joe action-figures have been around since 1964, but it wasn't until the early 1980s when the Hasbro property really ignited. As a response to the Earth-shattering popularity of the Kenner Star Wars toys, G.I. Joe toys were created using the same smaller-scale, but with many more points of articulation (Joe characters could bend at the knees, shoulders and elbows, where Star Wars toys at the time could not).
To push the sale of their new toy-line, a comic book series was created in 1982, followed by a TV cartoon series in 1983. The "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero" cartoons were among the most successful of any in history, and produced 95 original episodes. G.I. Joe has existed in some form since then, with multiple new toy-lines, cartoons, comics and video games, but none have ever matched the popularity of the original 80s TV show.
For the uninitiated (in which there are many, it seems), G.I. Joe was an elite branch of the United States military, whose sole purpose was the take-down of Cobra who - to steal from the show's opening - is "a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world." And while the show's premise was appropriately neutered to fall in line with children's programming regulations at the time (nobody was ever shown being killed, and the guns shot red and blue-colored lasers), the stories were mature and deeper than you'd expect for a children's cartoon. Cobra often would win battles, but never the war. There were real stakes. And each episode ended with the now legendary PSAs where Joes would teach children important life lessons, where the children would say, "Now I know!" and the Joe would respond with, "And knowing is half the battle!"
The G.I. Joe universe in the cartoon promoted individuals who needed to set aside their differences and work as a team. This was a show ahead of its time in many ways, with a diverse cast that included characters of every ethnicity, where women were just as strong and smart as the men and where the story actually progressed and connected over the episodes. It's shocking to look back at the series as an adult and to realize that the entire show was just a vehicle to sell and promote the Hasbro toy-lines, but many of the characters have created lasting impacts on those that grew up watching, and idolizing, these fictional heroes and villains.
"Snake Eyes" smartly throws away the previous two attempts to bring G.I. Joe to the live-action big-screen (2009's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" and 2013's "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" both were creative busts, having little to do with the source material other than the character names), and instead leans heavily into two of its best and most popular characters: Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. They are both highly-skilled ninjas, with one on the side of Joe (Snake Eyes) and one on the side of Cobra (Storm Shadow)...actually, both were shown to have their own motives and shifting allegiances, which made them all the more interesting. They also had a past, which was reflected whenever they would run into one another. While the comic books dove into their backstory, the cartoon never really did...making this one of the most compelling entry-points into the G.I. Joe saga that the filmmakers could have chosen.
The new film borrows from existing material but shapes its own origin story. Snake Eyes ("Crazy Rich Asians" star Henry Golding) is orphaned when a team of bad men murder his father, and he dedicates the rest of his life to exacting revenge on whoever it was that committed the heinous act. Making his living in underground fight clubs, he is noticed by an influential criminal, Kenta (Takehiro Hira), and brought into his organization with the promise that if Snake Eyes serves him well, he'll help him find his father's killer.
It's there that he meets Tommy (Andrew Koji), who he befriends after saving his life. The two become like brothers, when Tommy brings Snake Eyes back to his clan in Japan. In order to be accepted though, Snake Eyes must overcome three warrior challenges. It's here where he meets the all-powerful martial artists, Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and Blind Master (Peter Mensah) and the clan's leader, Sen (Eri Ishida), along with the fierce and skeptical Akiko (Haruka Abe).
There are some twists and turns that long-time G.I. Joe fans will appreciate as Snake Eyes becomes the Joe that we know and as Tommy becomes his counter-part, Storm Shadow. A larger conflict is only hinted at, when a Joe by the name of Scarlett (Samara Weaving) and a Cobra operative known as Baroness (Ursula Corbero) become caught up in the conflict.
As in the cartoon, Cobra is seeking some sort of powerful artifact that will aid in its quest for world domination and the Joes are trying to stop that from happening. But the focus stays on Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, as the ninja in black and the ninja in white become involved in what is mostly gray-area...just like other great fictional counterparts like Professor X and Magneto, for example, neither are truly heroic nor villainous...they simply have different life experiences and view points that shape their current actions. These nuances make both characters much more appealing.
I'm totally OK with the fact that Storm Shadow overshadows (no pun intended) Snake Eyes, even though this is a film named after the latter. The character of Storm Shadow is way cooler than Snake Eyes in the cartoon as well, and the film does both characters justice. Snake Eyes, a man whose entire life has been dedicated to revenge, must learn to let-go, while Storm Shadow, a man who is only trying to do the right thing, is betrayed and becomes fueled by rage. Should there be a G.I. Joe cinematic universe, we now have two built-in characters to root for, both capable of doing whatever necessary to survive.
Is "Snake Eyes" accessible to those that are not fans of G.I. Joe? The argument can definitely be made that the moments of character development will be much less compelling to the uninitiated, and that they ultimately will have less patience when the action scenes segue into quieter moments. But the action set pieces too are exciting, as are the locales. Just like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it will take some time to get to know the universe's inhabitants and the inner-workings of it all, and from Baroness to Scarlett and everyone in-between, "Snake Eyes" is a good starting point.
What "Snake Eyes" was missing was a sense of humor...but I would argue that this should not be conflated with lacking a sense of fun. No, these characters are not making jokes and quips like you may find in a "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie, but does every film have to have the exact Marvel formula in order to be entertaining? Of course not. Trust me, if given the chance, there will be plenty moments of levity and hilarity in the G.I. Joe Universe given the cast of characters and potential story-lines, but the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow saga is not one of them. The movie takes its characters seriously, and I think purposely tries not to feel like a Marvel movie. That to me, is a fresh take.
So, will there actually be a G.I. Joe Cinematic Universe? You have to believe that's the hope of the studio, or else why call this film "G.I. Joe Origins," right? That implies there are more to come? To this die-hard G.I. Joe fan (who by the way, despised the last two Joe movies), this would be the greatest and most exciting news in years, made more so by how effective "Snake Eyes" was.
I'm not sure what other critics were expecting (at the time of this writing, "Snake Eyes" holds a paltry 41% on RottenTomatoes) or if they have the slightest understanding of the beloved G.I. Joe franchise, but knowing a little more about the context of these characters, the nostalgia, the backstory, the history and their immense popularity would definitely help.
And knowing of course, is half the battle.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy.
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute.
Starring: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Haruka Abe, Takehiro Hira, Iko Uwais, Samara Weaving, Peter Mensah, Ursula Corbero.
Directed by Robert Shwentke ("The Captain," "RED," "The Time Traveler's Wife," "The Family Jewels").
"Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" is in theaters on Friday, July 23rd, 2021.
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