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"G.I. Joe" fans finally get an extended look behind the mask of their favorite ninja and, thank goodness, he's Asian. If nothing else, the franchise would deserve serious credit for shrugging off the grand old tradition of cultural erasure; as a butter-on-your-popcorn bonus, "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" has some fun as well.
The resident ninja of the good-guy military unit known as the "Joes," Snake Eyes has rarely been shown in the toy-comic-cartoon-movie franchise without his iconic black mask. On such occasions, he has been depicted as blond and blue-eyed … as one would imagine most ninjas to be? In the previous films, he was played by the brilliant physical performer Ray Park (best known as Darth Maul of "Star Wars") and "Kickin' It" star Leo Howard. Here, he's played as an Asian American boy by Max Archibald ("The 100") and as a man by Henry Golding (the Malaysian-British star of "Crazy Rich Asians"). Larry Hama, the Asian American writer and artist who created the popular comic book "G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero," said in the new film's promotional materials he was once asked by a young Asian American fan "why the most badass ninja in the world is a white guy," and it stuck with him. The new film thankfully obviates that question.
As the movie's set before Snake Eyes stopped talking (either by vow of silence or combat injury, depending on the origin version), the character will come across as downright gabby to longtime fans. He starts as a boy witnessing his father's murder, then shows up as a grown, scrappy loner on the no-holds-barred-fighting circuit calling himself "Snake Eyes."
The movie feels more like a yakuza picture than something from the previously established "G.I. Joe" franchise, which is something of a relief as well. Magnetic Takehiro Hira (so good in "Lost Girls and Love Hotels" and who really needs to be cast as Ken Watanabe's son or brother in something) plays Japanese crime boss Kenta. He recruits Snake Eyes to join the bad guys for a very special role. Kenta's rival, Tomisaburo Arashikage ("Warrior's" Andrew Koji, a compelling fighter), attempts an assassination and Snake switches sides. Tomi is heir apparent to the Arashikage clan — good guys who've been defending Japan for hundreds of years. He asks his new AsianAmerican brawler friend to undergo ninja training and join them, and Snake naturally accepts, what the heck. What follows are betrayals, quests and an ultimate weapon that will remind viewers of recent blockbuster cinema of a certain set of stones.
The action looks great when we can see it. Director Robert Schwentke (of the "Divergent" franchise) unfortunately chose to capture much of it in quick-cut, jolted-camera close-ups, diluting the blows' power rather than enhancing their impact. What we can make out is impressive, especially with the high-level swordplay and the all-too-limited appearance of Iko Uwais as Hard Master (make your own jokes here). In brief screen time, Uwais shows again why he's one of cinema's top martial arts stars.
There are over-the-top VFX scenes that fit right in with previous "G.I. Joe" movies as well, such as the car chase/swordfight featured in the trailer, and an entertaining sequence that could be described as Snake auditionin' for the House of Slitherin'.
This completely rethought origin story still leaves some important blanks empty — How did this orphaned kid become such a great fighter? Did he really only need three weeks of ninja training to master those mysterious arts? — but unquestionably adds dimension to one of the franchise's most popular characters. That's not to say there's much in the way of character development. After all, it is a G.I. Joe movie based on the toy line and cartoon-and-comic franchise; subtlety likely wasn't a watchword in the writers' room (unlike, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which character development is paramount). Exactly who Snake Eyes is, beyond a helluva fighter bent on avenging his father's murder, remains unexplored. That failure to engage us deeply in the story's humans can make the film drag between swordfights.
That said, despite happily recasting the protagonist's ethnicity and dumping his commando past, the movie includes plenty of elements that will please fans. It's also an origin story for Tomisaburo, or Storm Shadow — the prominent hero/villain and blood brother to Snake Eyes. The film is largely about their relationship. Other "G.I. Joe" characters such as The Baroness (Úrsula Corberó) are re-introduced or re-invented, and the talented, versatile and chronically underutilized Samara Weaving shows up as Scarlett, whom fans know will be an extremely important figure in Snake Eyes' life.
Though it couldn't have augured well for fans that the film's titling convention hearkens to the widely reviled Fox-Marvel "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins" ends up having enough good-time action sequences to make it worth the popcorn money. That's just how it rolls.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.