The worst sin a martial arts movie can commit is not properly showing its action. The second sin is casting martial arts superstars and not letting them fight. On both counts, the extraordinarily limp G.I. Joe reboot Snake Eyes is guilty.
“But,” you might say, “isn’t Snake Eyes a G.I. Joe movie, not a martial arts movie?” Technically you’d be right, but this G.I. Joe Origins film does its utmost to divorce itself from the Hasbro franchise and start fresh as a hip standalone martial arts movie with some neat fight scenes and genuinely cool moments of Andrew Koji wielding two swords. But alas, it falls victim to the inevitability of “origin story” world-building — and to the sad fate of Hollywood over-editing.
A hilariously miscast Henry Golding growls his way through Snake Eyes, a blockbuster that is primed as a vehicle for the Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor star to make the leap to action. But whereas his effortless charm and mega-watt smile — the latter of which he lets slip through a couple of times before remembering he’s supposed to be a brooding tortured soul — worked for romantic-comedies, Golding seems woefully lost (and questionably accented) as the titular protagonist of Snake Eyes.
The film follows a lone fighter known only as Snake Eyes as he vows vengeance for the murder of his father, whom he saw assassinated by a group of hitmen as a young child. Growing up on the streets, Snake Eyes is a brawler who regularly participates in underground cage fights for money, until one day he’s approached by a mysterious man named Kenta (Takehiro Hira, chewing up the scenery like an ’80s action villain), who offers him a chance to find his father’s killer, for a price. The price is getting close to Kenta’s cousin and the heir to the elite Arashikage Clan, Tommy Arashikage (Koji), who immediately takes this newcomer under his wing after Snake Eyes saves his life.
The majority of the film takes place at the Arashikage Clan’s fortress-like estate in Japan, where Snake Eyes trains to be accepted into the clan — all the while acting as Kenta’s double agent. And that’s all fine and dandy, until the G.I. Joe of it all brings the film to a grinding halt. Up until that point, Snake Eyes had mostly lived up to its aspirations of being a simple — and knowingly dumb — martial arts origin movie, the kind that embraced the cheesy training montage and the satisfying kitsch of martial arts superstars bullying Henry Golding for 10 minutes straight. But somewhere down the line, it gets the idea that it has to “build the lore” and use a nauseating amount of handheld shaky cam to be taken seriously.
While Samara Weaving‘s natural charisma saves the blatant sequel set-up that is her G.I. Joe character Scarlett, other Joe characters don’t fare as well. Haruka Abe is handed a bad haircut and a role verging on stereotype as the Arashikage head of security Akiko. Úrsula Corberó gamely vamps it up as Baroness, but as soon as she and Kenta start to scheme in their high-tech lair together, the film becomes sluggish. The wooden dialogue and uninspired performances by everyone except Koji don’t help to revitalize a movie that seems to be running on autopilot for the majority of its runtime. But even then, Snake Eyes might have been salvageable if not for the offensively badly-staged action.
Director Robert Schwentke (The Divergent Series: Insurgent and Allegiant) commits the cardinal sin that many a Hollywood filmmaker has done when making a martial arts movie: he doesn’t show the action. The fight scenes are almost exclusively shot in close-up and shaky cam, and when they’re not, they’re edited so much that Snake Eyes might as well have shredded the frames with his sword. Often this kind of editing is a result of under-trained stars who benefit from the use of fast cuts, which give the illusion that they can actually throw a punch. But the alarming trend in recent years is the use of frantic editing to feign energy and tension — a byproduct of the Bourne films that has rarely been replicated very well — but mostly ends in a headache. This wouldn’t be so insulting if Snake Eyes hadn’t cast actual talented martial arts stars like Koji and Iko Uwais (The Raid films). Most maddeningly, Uwais barely gets to fight — the film baits you at one point into expecting a big battle, of which you only see the first five seconds of Uwais smoothly taking down a group of henchmen, before it immediately cuts away.
But, perhaps in a testament to Koji’s insane charisma, the Warrior star runs away with the film. Koji oozes cool, even when he’s forced to shave off his facial hair and stalk around a traditional Japanese estate for the majority of the film, spouting off some of the film’s most awkward lines with the kind of conviction that the script by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse doesn’t deserve. In the brief scenes that Koji gets to really fight, effortlessly twirling his dual swords while a smirk creeps into his face, you can tell he’s having a blast. Koji is so likable that it’s hard to root against him when Tommy inevitably turns, and I ended up wishing that this origin movie was titled Storm Shadow instead.
But mostly I wished that Snake Eyes wasn’t such a drab repeat of past G.I. Joe movie failures. It’s too beholden to the “world” and the “franchise” that it ends up wimping out on any of the promising elements that might have salvaged it. Because come on, how could you cast Iko Uwais and not let him fight?
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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