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Solid ‘Snake Eyes’ a decent reboot debut

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As someone who was a child in the mid-1980s, I am VERY familiar with G.I. Joe. I collected the action figures and other toys. I watched the cartoons (which were essentially half-hour ads for the action figures and toys) and read the comic books (ditto). Was it a thinly-veiled celebration of American imperialism and military superiority? Absolutely! They were still cool.

That connection means that I am 100 percent the target audience for Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to craft a G.I. Joe Cinematic Universe (GIJCU). Previous efforts like “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009) and its 2013 sequel “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” weren’t what any right-minded moviegoer would call good, but even in their badness, my younger self felt validated.

The latest effort to get the GIJCU up and running is “Snake Eyes.” Previously titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe: Origins,” because of course it was, it serves as an origin story for one of the most beloved of all G.I. Joe characters, as well as introducing us to a handful of other character stalwarts. Directed by Robert Schwentke from a screenplay written by the trio of Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse and the so-perfectly-named-I’m-not-positive-he’s-real Joe Shrapnel, the film serves as a reboot and reintroduction into the franchise.

And it’s actually … OK? Maybe even pretty good, if you tilt your head and squint?

It’s nothing spectacular, but compared to the low-rent cartoonishness of the previous efforts, it’s decent. The performances are surprisingly compelling, and while the action sequences are a bit uneven, the truth is that if you’re going to reboot this sort of franchise, you could do a lot worse than what they’ve done with “Snake Eyes.”

We start years ago in the woods of Washington state. A young boy watches as his father is made to roll dice for his life, only to hit snake eyes; the boy escapes, even as the mysterious killers murder his father and burn down their home.

In the present day, the now-grown boy has become a drifter known only as Snake Eyes (Henry Golding, “The Gentlemen”). He wanders from town to town, fighting in underground bouts for money until his skill leaves no one willing to bet against him. It is after one of these fights that he is approached by Kenta (Takehiro Hira, “Lost Girls and Love Hotels”), a man who says that he has a use for a man with those sorts of talents.

Before he knows it, Snake Eyes is working for Kenta, helping him to smuggle guns and drugs through the docks of Los Angeles on behalf of the Yakuza. But when Kenta demands that Snake Eyes take the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji, TV’s “Warrior”), a thug who has become his friend, Snake Eyes refuses. This leads to a battle in which Snake Eyes saves Tommy’s life.

Wouldn’t you know it, turns out that Tommy is actually the scion to a powerful Japanese clan. Clan Arashikage is a noble and venerable organization, having spent centuries preserving order and battling evil. Kenta, an Arashikage cousin, was jealous and sought to assume control of the clan.

A grateful Tommy wants Snake Eyes to be inducted to the clan, much to the chagrin of security chief Akiko (Haruka Abe, “Cruella”), who is suspicious of any outsider. Still, with the blessing of clan leader (and Tommy’s grandmother) Sen (Eri Ishida, “Lost Girls and Love Hotels”), Snake Eyes is allowed to take on the three challenges that, should he pass them, will make him a member of the clan.

Of course, there’s far more here than meets the eye. What follows is a battle for power, both figurative and literal. We’re introduced to the forces of terrorist organization Cobra – including the deadly and seductive Baroness (Ursula Corbero, TV’s “Money Heist”) – and the existence of the counterterrorism strike force G.I. Joes via the elite operative Scarlett (Samara Weaving, “Bill & Ted Face the Music”). Betrayals upon betrayals ensue, with Snake Eyes trapped in the middle, unsure of who he can trust and whether vengeance is worth the price he might ultimately be forced to pay.

“Snake Eyes” is a solid action offering. Honestly, it’s a good deal better than I expected it to be. It’s pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. And it benefits from the fact that, aside from some iconography and a handful of character names, it isn’t completely tied up in the greater G.I. Joe mythos. This isn’t a homework movie, and it easily could have become one, so it has that going for it. It’s only in the back half that things get bogged down a little bit with the standard franchise table-setting.

Again, the action sequences, which serve as the centerpiece of the film, are only so-so. There are a couple of standouts – there are a couple of really good hand-to-hand combat sets – but for the most part, they’re basically average. Not terrible, but not outstanding. We have some fun.

Golding is very good – he has the combination of charisma and physicality to make a decent action hero. He’s outshined, however, by Koji, who I’ll cop to having never seen before, but he is an absolutely mesmerizing screen presence, whether he’s swinging a sword or simply raising an eyebrow. The dynamic between the two – a good chunk of the film – is first-rate. Hira is appropriately menacing; Abe is a good, sharp fit. Corbero and Weaving are here for fan service/franchise establishment; they’re both fine, but neither gets a whole lot to do (though I look forward to seeing what they bring to the table going forward).

“Snake Eyes” likely isn’t as good as the studios hoped it would be. But neither is it as bad as I feared it would be. These days, decent is a pretty solid start – and this movie is decent. Thanks to some surprisingly strong performances and hints at top-shelf action yet to come, “Snake Eyes” may not have rolled a winner, but at least it didn’t crap out.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 26 July 2021 08:25

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