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Snake Eyes 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
Director: Robert Schwentke
Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos(screenplay by), Joe Shrapnel(screenplay by), Anna Waterhouse(screenplay by)
Stars: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Takehiro Hira
Japan: Where undead Hollywood franchises go to get a new lease on life (if often by exoticizing the country until it feels cut off from the rest of the world, thus allowing brand-driven movies to start from scratch). It worked for “The Fast and the Furious” with “Tokyo Drift.” It worked for “X-Men” with “The Wolverine.” It even worked for “3 Ninjas” with “3 Ninjas: Kick Back,” at least so far as that movie paved the way for Hulk Hogan to star in “3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain” a few years later. And now — to a surprising degree even despite that precedent — it works for “G.I. Joe” with “Snake Eyes,” a back-to-basics origin story which overcomes some of the sloppiest action filmmaking to ever disgrace a movie screen on its way towards jump-starting a franchise that was right on the brink of being forgotten.
Arriving in theaters more than eight years after the mild success of Jon M. Chu’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and requiring exactly zero knowledge of either the previous movies or the Hasbro toys that inspired them, “Snake Eyes” is such a generic “cage-fighting orphan gets recruited into the Yakuza and then tries to earn his way into Japan’s most respected ninja clan” story that the valuable I.P. behind it seems almost irrelevant until the third act. The nameless hero — dubbed Snake Eyes in reference to a memorable dice score rolled by the man who killed his father — is an empty vessel who Henry Golding fills to the brim with off-the-rack charisma and “of course everyone wants this guy on their side” good looks.
After a clumsy prologue confirms that “Red” and “R.I.P.D.” director Robert Schwentke still has all the visual flair of a prescription drug commercial (side effects may include under-lit cabins, garish close-ups, and numbness to major character deaths; do not watch “Snake Eyes” if allergic to “Snake Eyes”), the movie catches us up with its protagonist some 20 years later as he brawls his way through the docks of Los Angeles in search of the man who murdered his daddy. A gig replacing fish guts with machine guns at a Yakuza-run pier finds Snake Eyes in the middle of a power struggle between the two men who are vying for control of the Arashikage ninja clan: Stoic but dangerously single-minded heir Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji), and unscrupulous outsider Kenta (Takehiro Hira).
The former spirits our hero away to Japan aboard his private jet — “I look into your eyes and I see honor,” he explains — but Snake Eyes’ allegiance isn’t so easy to secure; not when Kenta is offering him the vengeance he seeks in exchange for a mysterious heirloom that’s hidden somewhere in the Arashikage’s mountain fortress.
That’s where most of the movie takes place, as Snake Eyes — robbed of his only family as a child, and longing for a place to call home ever since — tries to prove his worth to the suspicious members of Tommy’s clan. If it’s a bit unclear as to why Tommy is so determined to adopt Snake Eyes as his brother in arms, the soft glare of Koji’s morally ambivalent performance (which is far more layered and nuanced than this material requires or deserves) helps distract from such basic questions.
So do the litany of broad yet instantly likeable supporting characters who fill the lavish Arashikage compound and confront Snake Eyes with the three “Challenges of the Warrior” he’ll need to pass in order to join their ranks. Haruka Abe is a major find as Akiko, the Arashikage’s skeptical yet ultra-sincere head of security, whose volatile distrust of Snake Eyes (and possibly of her own attraction to him) is the closest thing this movie has to sexual tension.
Ghanese actor Peter Mensah (who once brought a miraculous amount of dignity to the “Spartacus” television show that Starz made in an amusingly transparent attempt to launder speed-ramped softcore porn through the gloss of prestige TV) is delightful as the Blind Master who reminds Snake Eyes that Arashikage can be a safe haven for loyal outsiders who embrace its ethos. Neither last nor least, “The Raid” star Iko Uwais serves plenty of his signature “fuck around and find out” smirk as the invincible “Hard Master” who Snake Eyes has to defeat in the first of his three trials.
Alas, by the time Uwais shows up at the start of the second act, it’s damningly obvious that Schwentke won’t know what to do with him. Uwais is a skilled martial artist who descends from a family of bonafide silat masters and is capable of delivering the kind of “they really did that” long-take fight choreography that’s rarely found in Western cinema; Schwentke is a studio hack who apparently shoots action scenes by strapping a camera to the backside of an angry rodeo bull that he then unleashes in the general direction of his actors.
Yes, that approach can be tough to insure, but whatever strings Paramount had to pull were definitely worth it in exchange for footage so erratic and incoherent that even the coolest bits of combat blocking are reduced to the abstract idea of cartoon violence. Not even the nadir of Hollywood’s shaky-cam heyday could adequately prepare you for the Dadaist nonsense on display whenever people start punching each other in “Snake Eyes,” as there isn’t a single fight scene in this movie that wouldn’t have been more enjoyable if it were lensed on an iPhone that a production intern propped up against a hot aluminum tray of potatoes on the craft services table.
The results are absolutely perverse for a popcorn movie about the silkiest fighter in the “G.I. Joe” universe, a character whose two defining characteristics are “dresses like a BDSM ninja” and “looks sick as hell when slicing up bad guys.” Whatever the faults of “Retaliation,” at least Chu understood that much. Whatever the merits of “Snake Eyes,” Schwentke gets it so wrong that it almost feels like he was trying to sabotage the movie from the inside out (a very Cobra thing to do).
A more generous interpretation would be that Schwentke was leaning in to the rare summer blockbuster that largely eschews supernatural nonsense and CGI-heavy setpieces in favor of something more physical, and — in essence — “Snake Eyes” often feels like a refreshing change of pace for both of those reasons. The costumes are fun (Tommy’s Gucci-like white ninja suit and Akiko’s snake-scale chestware find designer Louise Mingenbach at the top of her game). The Japanese locations are evocative (it’s hard to overstate the difference between shooting along the banks of the Sumida River and faking Tokyo on a soundstage, as the latter approach made even mega-budget movies like “F9” and “Avengers Endgame” feel cheap by comparison). And the team-building is so warmly unforced that it almost takes you by surprise when Snake Eyes falls into a wide shot flanked by eight other enjoyable characters, even if some of them have been shoehorned into Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, and Anna Waterhouse’s script with the clumsiness of a kid trying to play with all of their action figures at once.
And yet, the action scenes are so inexplicably painful — and the character work in “Snake Eyes” is so unexpectedly strong — that your heart sinks whenever the swords come out. The good news is that the much-discussed, life-or-death “third challenge” that awaits Snake Eyes at the end of the second act isn’t just another duel. The even better news is that Snake Eyes, Tommy, Akiko, and the rest of the gang are reliably fun to watch during the parts of the movie when you can actually see them, and they would thrive in a potential sequel (with a different team behind the camera) if Paramount’s roll of the dice on this rightfully dormant franchise somehow pays off.