Director: Robert Schwentke | Screenwriter: Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse | Cast: Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Úrsula Corberó, Samara Weaving, Iko Uwais | Distributor: Paramount Pictures | Running Time: 121 min. | MPAA Rating: PG-13

G.I. Joe was rarely a franchise I didn’t view through campy eyes. I grew up with the cartoons and came back to them in my teenage years admiring the absurdity of it all. The same goes for the first two live-action films which were highly scorned for being big and dumb, even though that had been my initial draw to the lingering obsession of the franchise. True, there were numerous cartoons and comic books that took the premise far more seriously but few of them ever really resonated. One series that stuck out to me was G.I. Joe Renegades, which interestingly staged Cobra as a corporate goliath and the Joes as terrorists on the run trying to combat the evil organization. Snake Eyes has aspects of trying to take G.I. Joe in a different direction that is sure to be polarizing. Maybe I’m just tired of action films where thematic elements become lost but I was surprisingly won over by the more focused writing of this film, even if the camera can’t match such steadiness.

The origins of the sword-wielding G.I. Joe are different from that of previous movies, a sign that this film is trying to be something more than mindless action. Before he became a silent warrior, Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) was an orphan who watched his father being murdered by a hitman. His life turned into cage matches that led to him pursuing a gig with the yakuza, led by the sinister Kenta (Takehiro Hira). Through a series of fights and showdowns, Snake Eyes finds himself playing a double agent, sent to infiltrate the Arashikage clan and steal a precious gem of untold power.

As an action film, Snake Eyes can be rather frustrating at times. There are some elaborate fight sequences of kicks, punches, guns, and swords. Yet they’re all framed in a rather chaotic manner, mired by cutting too quick and mobility too wobbly to truly appreciate such sights as our hero fleeing in a truck that is pierced with swords. The few times when the camera settles, there’s some great shots here and there, especially the secret location of the Arashikage gem that exists in a hall of seemingly infinite mirrors.

The acting is also pretty wooden, even for characters who dance around different accents and dialects. The bitter Tommy (Andrew Koji) of the clan doesn’t quite have that brewing sense of bitterness to make the villain in the making and the security officer Akiko (Haruka Abe) seems to fluctuate with an English accent. Even Golding has his moments of feeling a bit too understated, despite some faint glimmers of charisma that pop out here and there. The European accents of the only G.I. Joe member, Scarlett (Samara Weaving), and the only Cobra member, Baroness (Úrsula Corberó), are a bit of a mixed bag as well, despite how good the characters both look while kicking ass as always.

What worked for me most about this film is how it never loses focus of the lesson on the emptiness of revenge. The twists keep mounting as the film goes on, where we learn that it is not only Snake Eyes seeking revenge but also Kenta and Tommy. All of them are bound by such draining motivations that they can’t quite see that it is Cobra who is winning by taking advantage of their emotional reactions.

It makes the adventure a bit easier to appreciate when it starts getting wacky with the additions of man-eating anacondas and magic that can incinerate the Arashikage clan. The fact that revenge doesn’t become the ultimate resolve and that those who resort to it are doomed to death and dishonor is so damn refreshing. Too long have I seen action pictures of revenge-seeking fulfill that revenge fantasy where whoever wields the bigger swords is the true victor and hopefully the good guys.

Snake Eyes is a low-key G.I. Joe movie which is both its strength and curse considering its branding as a summer action flick. All the fantastical elements have such an understated quality, to the point where the iconic donning of the Snake Eyes costume is more of an epilogue. The starts and stops are enough to make any fan squirm in their seat, letting out a Milhouse-style whine about when Cobra Commander and Destro are going to show up (spoiler: they don’t). As someone who grew up with the cartoon and has even adored the ridiculous nature of the many films, it was mildly pleasing to watch something a little more grounded with this franchise. It still stumbles all over the place and oftentimes doesn’t land the excitement it aims for but the few times that the film works, it powers through decently with a thematic core that modern action films often lose track of in the chaos. That element, to me, is far more important than the nitpicky questioning of giant snakes and fire-emitting stones. This is G.I. Joe we’re talking about after all; such fantastical elements are about as grounded as this saga is going to get.

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