Strident Interlude – Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021) 4K Ultra HD

Following two previous attempts that performed acceptably at the box office but were little loved among fans of the original property, Hasbro and Paramount framed their third live-action G.I. Joe movie as a solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Unfortunately, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins has little in its 121-minute length recognizable as either Snake Eyes or G.I. Joe. That’s kind of a problem.

As anyone who’s ever had even the faintest passing acquaintance with the G.I. Joe brand will know, Snake Eyes is a silent ninja who never speaks and never takes off his signature mask. Those basic traits have remained consistent through decades of comic books, cartoons, and the two earlier live-action movies. Naturally, in making a feature film entirely about such an enigmatic character, the first thing the genius studio executives guiding this project decided was that he should talk a lot and almost never wear a mask. It simply wouldn’t do to cast a dreamboat like Henry Golding only to make him hide his handsome face and not speak.

You said it, sister!
Title:Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins
Year of Release: 2021
Director: Robert Schwentke
Watched On: 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Also Available On: Amazon Prime Video
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

I grew up as a child of the 1980s and fell hard for Hasbro’s G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero toy line as soon as it hit retail in 1982. Over the years, I collected hundreds of action figures, vehicles, playsets, and related accessories. I watched the cartoon every day after school and read every issue of the comic book. The 1980s were filled with numerous amazing toy properties, and I played with many of them, but G.I. Joe is the one I kept coming back to. I like to say that G.I. Joe was my religion. As I got older, I eventually sold off all my Transformers, Masters of the Universe, M.A.S.K., and other toys, but I could never part with my Joes. Even now, as a middle-aged adult, I keep a complete collection of the original 1982-1994 run of figures on display in my home theater room.

Of course, I must recognize that being a fan of anything to this degree carries a lot of baggage. I’ve always considered the Marvel comic book series written by Larry Hama to be the canon for G.I. Joe. It’s difficult to let go of that. Even as the mature film watcher in me understands that any movie adaptation of old source material like this will require some updating for a new day and a new audience, the fanboy in me wants it to stay true to the comic as much as possible. I could accept some tweaks to move the timeline up a couple decades, but a wholesale rewriting of the story is tough to swallow.

I keep trying to remind myself that G.I. Joe was never just a comic book. The comic was only created to sell the toys. A lot of kids in the ’80s mainly knew G.I. Joe from the goofy Sunbow cartoon series and never read the comic. The two had little connection in narrative and were vastly different in tone. Many others may have skipped both and made up their own stories for the toys. In my head, I know that G.I. Joe doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to Larry Hama.

Nevertheless, when the first live-action movie, called G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, was released in 2009, I absolutely loathed it. My hatred for it was so visceral that I still find my body tensing up just thinking about it. Not only did the plot stray far from the comic book, the movie was infuriatingly stupid and terribly made. I still hate everything about it. The next entry, 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, was in many ways a soft reboot. Although technically a sequel, that film opened by wiping out most of the cast from the first one in order to focus on a separate batch of characters. It was also made by people who seemed to have some idea of what G.I. Joe was, which can’t be said about The Rise of Cobra. Yet despite being a big improvement over its predecessor, Retaliation was ultimately very mediocre as either an action movie or a piece of entertainment. Better was surely possible. Sadly, we’re still waiting for it.

Here comes the fan-service!

As should be obvious from the full title, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins is a prequel. The movie is also another soft reboot that tries to reset and relaunch the franchise without paying much heed to anything that happened in the previous movies. In themselves, neither of these are bad ideas, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Ninjas were huge in the '90s.

That Snake Eyes is a popular character in the first place is entirely due to the Marvel comic. He was barely a presence at all in the cartoon. The comic made him a breakout star, to the point that later issues published during the ninja-crazy ’90s put his name on the cover in a much larger font than the actual title. For better or worse, Snake Eyes became the face of G.I. Joe (ironic, considering that he didn’t show his), and the G.I. Joe comic effectively became the Snake Eyes comic for a while.

Most of his appeal was due to how well Larry Hama wrote and fleshed out the character, especially the tragic backstory involving a wartime injury that left his face disfigured and took his voice. The Snake Eyes movie completely ignores that part, yet selectively mines the comic for other story bits and inconography, mostly focused on his induction into a ninja clan and his friendship with Tommy Arashikage, the man who would later turn against Snake Eyes and become the rival ninja known as Storm Shadow. Most of these details are reinterpreted (to put it politely) and thrown haphazardly into an entirely new story for the character.

Movie Snake Eyes has no military background, no disfigurement, and no aversion to talking. Flashbacks to childhood dole out a clichéd murdered-parent storyline and a painfully literal origin for the “Snake Eyes” nickname. As an adult, he’s a street thug who hones his skills in underground fighting matches until being recruited by a yakuza cell operating in America. That’s where he meets and befriends Tommy (Andrew Koji), who turns out to be a mole working to bring down the gun-smuggling operation. In short order, the two travel to Tokyo, where Tommy reveals that he’s actually the heir to an ancient clan of do-gooder, crime-fighting ninjas and wants his new best bud to join up, become a badass super-ninja, learn all their secrets, and fight by his side.

None of this has much of anything to do with G.I. Joe beyond some character names and incidental details dropped for fan-service, usually divorced from their original context or meaning. (For one thing, the elderly Hard Master is now a much younger man played by The Raid star Iko Uwais.) More significant franchise ties start up in the second half, where conflict brews with another ninja clan backed by the Cobra terrorist organization, represented only by The Baroness (Úrsula Corberó from Netflix’s Money Heist). The Arashikage are then in turn helped out by Scarlett (Samara Weaving), an agent of “The Joes.” (The full team name is never spoken.)

Some convoluted plotting leads both the Joe and Cobra sides to temporarily join forces against a common enemy – a yakuza ninja baddie whose name I can’t be bothered to remember. Nothing about this is interesting in the slightest, least of all when the movie throws in a bunch of dumb supernatural nonsense including a magic crystal and cheesy CGI snake monsters.

How could you cover up such a handsome face?

This Snake Eyes was helmed by Robert Schwentke, director of the passable RED (2010) and the less-passable R.I.P.D. (2013). By my math, Schwentke was already a teenager in the early 1980s and probably too old to play with action figures at the time. I’m not suggesting that a movie like this absolutely has to be made by a fan (in fact, that can often cause its own problems), but it seems pretty obvious to me that Schwentke never had much interest in G.I. Joe, if he was even exposed to it at all growing up in Germany. Rather, what it feels like he really wanted to make was a 1970s-style kung-fu movie, complete with large hordes of sword-wielding martial arts warriors charging at each other to battle in elaborately-choreographed skirmishes.

Fair enough. That could be fun. However, forgive the stereotype, but I’m not sure that a fiftysomething-year-old white man was the right guy for that job. Yes, fine, Quentin Tarantino may have pulled it off with Kill Bill a couple decades ago, but Robert Schwentke is no Quentin Tarantino. Even if he were, he’d still be hamstrung by the limitations of a PG-13 rating and too much corporate oversight to ensure that he serviced the IP acceptably.

As it stands, Snake Eyes is just another generic, CGI-heavy superhero movie in a market already oversaturated with too many others just like it. Despite all the shaky-cam slicing and stabbing, the action scenes are entirely bloodless and never build any sense of consequence or stakes. The stunts defy both physics and logic. The story is dumb, and the dialogue (of which there’s far too much from a character who’s supposed to be mute) is typically cringe-inducing. To say that it’s not as infuriatingly inept as The Rise of Cobra is damning it with faint praise, but that’s about as much enthusiasm as I can muster for it.

Upon the movie’s release, the more toxic factions of G.I. Joe fandom lashed out about Snake Eyes no longer being a blonde-haired white dude under the mask. Personally, I have no issue with the casting or the race-switch. Henry Golding (star of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians) delivers a perfectly adequate performance as the hero, but he simply isn’t playing Snake Eyes by any definable criteria. Meanwhile, Úrsula Corberó affects a truly perplexing accent as the Baroness that seems to be parts German, Spanish, and possibly Scottish. As much as I thought Samara Weaving made an appealing lead in Ready or Not (2019), she’s a pretty awful Scarlett. She looks awkward in the costume and lacks conviction trying to sell the franchise-building exposition.

Delayed from its originally planned 2020 release date, Snake Eyes didn’t hit theaters until mid-2021, upon which it landed with a huge thud, grossing less than half of its ~$100 million budget. Part of that can be blamed on pandemic-related issues that continue to make theatrical attendance difficult or undesirable for many people, but I suspect that it mostly comes down to the general public’s waning interest in G.I. Joe. At this point, the brand primarily caters to nostalgic middle-aged fans like myself and has little hold on the imaginations of kids or other younger audiences. As such, rebooting the storyline so drastically from established G.I. Joe lore proved to be a disastrous decision that left the movie appealing to no one.

Perhaps "Craps" would be a more appropriate title?

The Ultra HD Blu-ray

After it came and went from theaters in July 2021, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins made a quick transition to digital streaming within a few weeks. Physical media releases on all the relevant formats from DVD to 4K followed in October. Even though I’m still not sure this movie is really worth owning permanently, I’m a completist for G.I. Joe stuff and I couldn’t resist the very attractive SteelBook offered at Best Buy. Perhaps those are shallow reasons to buy a movie I’m not particularly enthusiastic about, but problems like that come with the territory of being a collector.

The SteelBook offers the movie on both regular Blu-ray and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray formats, plus a Digital Copy code. Both discs have identical content for the feature and supplements. The Ultra HD is proficient in all technical respects. The 2.39:1 image is sharp and well-detailed. It has good contrast and nice colors (though some seem purposefully oversaturated). The HDR grading pops nicely in the neon-lit nighttime streets of Tokyo and appearances of the magic glowy crystal.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be upconverted from a 2K Digital Intermediate. The movie is very CGI-heavy and its photography is mostly solid and workmanlike without any particular visual flair.

Snake Eyes (2021) 4K Ultra HD SteelBook

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack (available on both formats) has some occasional fun uses of overhead immersion, but seems light on bass. Only a select few moments hit with any depth. Not helping matters, the generic electronica musical score is purely forgettable auditory wallpaper without even one single recognizable theme or motif.

Bonus features are minimal and pointless. Five deleted “scenes” come to a grand total of two minutes of footage. Four promotional featurettes straight from the movie’s Electronic Press Kit add up to another half hour of junk not worth watching. No effort was put into any of these. It feels as if someone at the studio slashed the content budget after deciding the movie couldn’t be salvaged.

Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from the standard Blu-ray edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.

One thought on “Strident Interlude – Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021) 4K Ultra HD

  1. Your title was a beautiful play on the title of what is quite possibly the best Joe comic to come out during the Hama era.

    I know it’s one of my favorites along with what I believe was the second issue of Hama’s run. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it had four Joes tracking an Eskimo villain (Quinn?) somewhere up north. The story and characterizations were well done…at least that’s how I remember them (it’s been at least 35 years since I last read the book), and the ending was pretty cool as well.


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