Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is a dumb movie with a dumb name based on a dumb idea. G.I. Joe Origins? Really? Every child fan of G.I. Joe, the crappy old cartoon series about an elite force of blah blah blahs fighting a villainous group of whoever the hell now, has bills to pay and endless speedruns of old Nintendo games to watch. Who in the world was crying out to learn the deep backstory of a 1980s Hasbro cartoon for sugar-addled six-year-old boys just home from school and desperate to watch quasi-militarized comic-booky good guys fight goofy international terrorist baddies hellbent on non-specific world domination? This was a dingbat plot—okay, a successful dingbat plot—to sell tiny plastic Barbie dolls with guns to American elementary school boys, fercryinoutloud, not a richly imagined, morally complex fantasy epic for adults meant to sell something culturally important, like streaming service subscriptions. Anyway.
So it's dumb. But I have to admit: It's affably dumb, pleasantly stupid, the kind of movie that may not know much but knows just enough not to ask too much of you, except that you enjoy some cool sword fights and cooler motorcycles. Also, there are hard bros with pent-up feelings, and giant snakes and a mystical fire talisman and, lest you think you've had enough, still more motorcycles and swords, some of which are pretty cool.
The dialogue ranges from clever quips to exposition dumps to content-free koans, the sort of poetic pseudo-philosophy that sounds like it means everything, because it means nothing. In the space of about five minutes, I scribbled the following quotes in my notebook: "If your heart is pure, our secrets will reveal themselves to you." "You have that look you get sometimes—a shadow before a storm." "A win without honor is no win at all." Sadly, very little in this movie revealed itself to me. Maybe my heart isn't pure?
This is the sort of film where you can tell a lot just by the font sizes in the logo. "Snake Eyes" is rendered in large, menacingly cool red while "G.I. Joe Origins" is tacked on in tiny letters at the bottom. And for the first hour, you'd hardly know this was a G.I. Joe film at all: Instead, it's a half-competent martial arts picture, the sort of movie where most conflicts are resolved with swords and jump kicks. The action sequences aren't quite great, but the best ones have a playful energy to them; one early sequence ends with our hero, Snake Eyes (Henry Golding), and his battle buddy/feelings bro, Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji), in the cab of a cargo truck, surrounded by a dozen-plus swords, all of which have just barely missed them. It's a fun beat, and the movie could have used more of them.
Sadly, as the G.I. Joe elements creep in during the second half, the movie becomes more of a conventional blockbuster, a ninja-gizmo melodrama with ho-hum stakes and characters you could only care about if—and I'm just hypothesizing here—you spent hours upon hours as a child during the Reagan era imagining the psychologically sophisticated inner lives of cheap plastic gun-Barbies. (I'm not saying the 1980s iterations of G.I. Joe and Transformers taught a generation of boys theory of mind. But I'm not not saying it either.)
And even people who have fond memories for the mail-in Cobra Commander doll and his Cobra Missile Command Headquarters—a Sears exclusive!—probably won't find much to love in the movie's depiction of the Joes, who are hurriedly described as "an elite global counter-terrorism network" and "the good guys" and then rather haphazardly integrated into the swords-and-bro-feelings movie.
The problem isn't that Snake Eyes departs from classic G.I. Joe lore, which was mostly just a mishmash of militarized comic-book tropes designed to get 8-year-olds to nag their parents to trudge to the mall to buy Sears exclusives. It's that it doesn't have much to replace it with, except a bunch of dudes growling platitudes about loyalty, clan, and honor. Fine, fine, I get it, it's all about famil— I mean clan. Let's get to the parts with the motorcycles, swords, and giant snakes.
Did I mention the snakes are psychic? Because they're psychic.
Those parts range from pretty good to tolerable, and they are certainly better than the similar sequences earlier this year in Mortal Kombat, another movie based on a decades-old pop-culture property—in that case, an early 1990s video game—that has survived despite somehow having both too much plot and not nearly enough.
There have, of course, already been two live-action G.I. Joe films, both of which were constructed more like generic summer action blockbusters. If nothing else, Snake Eyes deserves some credit for taking a crappy old pop-culture franchise and trying to do something new with it. But the story it tells is too muddled, the characters too indistinct to matter. I think I'm going to need some backstory here.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.