Have I ever told you how much I love G.I. Joe?
If you know me in person, the answer is probably yes. In addition to an entire room of our home being devoted to movies, there’s an entire room for my collection. Did you know that they made an aircraft carrier that’s bigger than your coffee table? I do. It’s in my house.
When I first started dating my wife, the entire upstairs of my house was devoted to this toyline. And not just a figure here or there. I’m one of those maniacs that troop builds, which if you don’t know, be happy that you’re a normal human being and not devoted to buying and outfitting hundreds of the same army figures and building gigantic platoons of them. Hey, to be fair, Peter Cushing did this as well, so I cling to the knowledge that at least one respected person also played with toys, but I doubt Peter Wilton Cushing, OBE ever had a woman say to him, “Why do you have thirty of the same tank?*”
I’m telling you all of this to tell you that there’s no way that I can be objective about this movie.
Snake Eyes has the same problem that comic book movies had before the Marvel Cinematic Universe did something incredibly simple: they just followed the source material. Sure, the problem is that there’s all sorts of source material. G.I. Joe has multiple comic books, toy lines and cartoons, but perhaps the best version of the story are the Marvel Comics that came out written by Larry Hama in which Snake Eyes was the central character**.
Snake Eyes looks at that source material, especially the central story of two sword brothers who fate has torn apart — actually, it’s super close to Enter the Ninja — and says, “Well, we can do some of that. But what if, and go with us on this, there was a meteorite that people can use like a laser?”
The issue is that there’s an audience that knows G.I. Joe from the silly cartoon stories***, an aging out audience that angrily only loves the comic and toys, and then there’s the audience you want: the general ticket-buying public, the ones that actually make a movie successful.
Look — if you plan on watching this movie and don’t want perhaps its dumbest plot point spoiled — sneak out now.
I’ll get to it. Trust me.
Snake Eyes is not a soldier in this movie. I understand that the Vietnam War was decades ago and the story needs to be updated. I’m also not even remotely upset that Snake Eyes is now Asian-American and played by Henry Golding, who is a fine actor and really went all out to do the physicality that this movie needs. And I get it — the idea that Snake Eyes lost his father and it put him on a path of revenge is also not a bad idea. There are tons of movies based on the very same idea and it works.
In fact, a lot of the movie works up until the middle of the film, when a moment just tanks the concept (and it gets worse from there).
A Yakuza boss named Kenta (Takehiro Hira) discovers Snake Eyes fighting in an underground MMA circuit — how that gets him close to the man that killed his father is debatable — and hires him to put machine guns into fish. One day, Kenta asks Snake Eyes to shoot a traitor — it ends up being Tommy AKA Storm Shadow and Kenta’s cousin and yet he doesn’t recognize him — but our hero ends up saving the man’s life. But to double back on why he didn’t recognize his own cousin it turns out that it’s all a ruse and Snake Eyes is really the bad guy, sent to infiltrate the Arishkage Dojo, a family of ninjas that has protected Japan for centuries.
Trust me — other than Akiko (Haruka Abe) most of the Arishkage are complete morons who just allow a stranger into their midst and show him every single one of their secrets.
Which brings up one of my biggest issues before we dare go any further. There are moments of great drama in this movie, like when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow slice their hands open and become blood brothers. We know that this should happen, but we’re never given a dramatic reason why they should be so close when it’s all based on a series of lies, which makes Snake Eyes seem to be a manipulative jerk instead of the hero we should get behind. And don’t give me the redemptive journey excuse — this is the first time I’ve met the hero, I guess, and I want to like him.
The film cannot decide if we should know the source material, because if we do, we’re going to dislike lots of this. And if we don’t, we’re not going to understand the dramatic reasons why so many things are happening****.
The dramatic event that causes Storm Shadow to turn away from his family — in the comics — is when Zartan has infiltrated their dojo and uses technology to murder the Hard Master (he had intended to kill Snake Eyes for Cobra Commander, as Snake Eyes’ family and the evil leader’s brother were in a car accident that ruined both of their lives). This makes it seem as if Storm Shadow killed his uncle out of jealousy, so the ninja clan dissolves and Snake Eyes leaves for America. The two are destined to battle again and to become brothers once more after all of the intricacies of fate are untangled.
Contrast that with Snake Eyes being hired by the Yakuza and Cobra — kinda shoehorned in with the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) appearing to battle (and team with, awkwardly) Joe representative Scarlett (Samara Weaving, who deserves to be the lead in movies like Ready or Not and not a second banana) — to steal the Ariskage source of power, which leads to Storm Shadow using said McGuffin and being kicked out of his ninja clan while Snake Eyes just asks to be forgiven and everyone says, “Well, you got our entire base burned down and lots of our people killed, but at least you said you were sorry” while Storm Shadow quite understandably flips out.
But back to the point that ruined this for me.
Snake Eyes must get through three trials. The first one is a great lesson in selflessness, as he must take a bowl from the Hard Master without losing his bowl. The second seems like straight-up Luke in the cave The Empire Strikes Back moment. And finally, he must descend into a pit and be judged, as the third trial kills most of the people involved.
That’s because — seriously, this is the spoiler — deep in that cave there are a whole bunch of sacred anacondas that can sniff out whether someone is pure of heart so that they can be ninjas, which are killing machines when you come to think of it, which reminds me of how Wanted went from an order to supervillains in the comic to sacred assassins all listening to a loom that wove fabric that told them who to kill for the good of humanity in the baffling goofiness of the film.
The moment I saw a gigantic snake start judging this film’s hero, I just sat into space, staring and said, “Well, I’m out.”
If I can say anything nice, there’s a decent neon-lit Oldboy influenced battle at one point. Scarlett’s costume looks a lot like the new Classified figure. And it remains a thrill to see the Cobra logo on the big screen. Yet the majority of the fights grow too dark, too oddly cut and too small for what should be a big and bold action film.
I really think the potential to make a G.I. Joe move exists. Actually, it’s called The Expendables but that’s a moot point. It’s just hard to watch filmmakers make a simple concept more difficult than it needs to be. The story beats have been lined up for you. And if you follow them, they can help make a movie that makes sense. And yes, giant snakes are silly, but if they work for the story, they can be forgiven, because I watched an entire film where Cobra Commander devolved into human snake while clinging to Roadblock and bemoaning how he was once a man and then Burgess Meredith leads a Lovecraftian world of bugs against the Joes. As dumb as G.I. Joe: The Movie is — and the first five minutes remain the best distillation of what a movie with these characters could be — it’s somehow nowhere near as daft as this.
I really wanted to love this. Hasbro stopped making G.I. Joe toys for years and shuttled the fan club just to reset the brand for this. But hey — as bad as the movie is, at least I have new action figures. If that’s all I get, as most Joe fans, I’ve learned to be happy***** with it.
*That same woman, nearly a decade later, said to me at the end of this movie, “All this time, I thought Snake Eyes was the bad guy.” I have failed.
**Which is interesting because Snake Eyes is the whole reason I was allowed to have these toys. My parents were hippies who were very anti-guns and military. The inclusion of a ninja allowed them to see that this was not all just army figures. To be deeper, the comic series was an integral part of my brother’s development, as it was how he learned how to read — he’s somewhat dyslexic — as my mom and he would read it together. He had the opportunity to tell this to series creator Larry Hama, which is a treasured memory.
***Snake Eyes once dressed as a disco woman with a dancing dog on the show. Yes, really.
****Why does Akiko change her mind and see anything in Snake Eyes when all he does is act like a jerk to her and repeatedly sneak punch her in the face? Why does Tommy give Snake Eyes his sword when they’ve known each other for all of a few days and not years like the comic? Why does the word of the man who killed Snake Eyes’ father mean more to him than nearly everyone else in this entire story? Why does the film wait until the end to give you what you want — Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow taking their names and costumes? Am I the only one that remembers that it took 90 minutes of sheer dross for Jem to give audiences what they wanted when Kesha showed up as Pizzazz right when you realized that there was no way a sequel was happening?
*****It’s still better than the first movie, which is the lowest bar ever even if that movie has a Brendan Fraser cameo as Sgt. Stone, and about the same as the second, if only for that film’s astounding ninja mountain battle scene and because it has the Rza as the Blind Master.