A German director might seem like an odd choice for an installment of Hasbro’s G.I. Joe franchise, yet director Robert Schwentke (“The Time Traveler’s Wife” in 2009 and “The Divergent Series: Insurgent” in 2015 and “The Divergent Series: Allegiant” in 2016) takes the reboot of “Snake Eyes” into a loud, unapologetically violent vehicle that is helmed by two hapa heroes: Malaysian actor Henry Golding and British actor Andrew Koji. The casting avoids the White superiority angle of the main character and Schwentke’s robust direction supplies violence via clanging katana and banging guns at a frenetic pace. The costume department has made the actors look sufficiently cool that whenever comic-cons reopen for in-person gatherings, I expect to see cosplayers celebrating this film.
The original portrayal of Snake Eyes was a blue-eyed blond White man.
In 2009, Hasbro released “G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra” which focuses on two US soldiers, Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), who are leading NATO troops delivering warheads, when they are attacked by the Baroness (Sienna Miller), who is Duke’s former fiancée, Ana Lewis. The G.I. Joe Team of Scarlett (Shana M. O’Hara), Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Breaker (Saïd Taghmaoui ) and Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) rescue Duke and Ripcord. Duke and Ripcord join the Joes.
The warheads are actually part of weapons master James McCullen’s (Christopher Eccleston) new nanotech-based weapon which employs nanomites to devour metal and other things. He intends to use to to create a new world order.
Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) and the Baroness retrieve the warheads. The Baron DeCobray (Grégory Fitoussi) uses his particle accelerator to further weaponize the warheads. Storm Shadow kills the Baron and the Baroness and Storm Shadow release the nanometers on the Eiffel Tower. The Baroness’ brother, Rex (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), was believed to be dead, but is actually the Doctor and he becomes the Cobra Commander. Zartan uses nanomite technology to assume the identity of the US president.
What’s important here is that a Scottish actor, Raymond Park, plays the mysterious ninja commando, Snake Eyes, and he supposedly has taken a vow of silence. This was a departure from the explanation of an injury resulting in his only being able to whisper. Thomas Arashikage/Storm Shadow was played by South Korean actor/singer Byung-hun Lee. Hard Master, the ninja master for both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow was played by Japanese American Gerald Okamura.
In the 2013 “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” Cobra operative Zartan impersonating the president and the Cobra organization attempt to frame the Joes as traitors. Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis join the cast as G.I. Joe team captain Roadblock and found and leader G.I. Joe, respectively.
Lee returns as Thomas Arashikage and Cambodian French actress Élodi Yung plays his cousin, Kim/Jinx. African American Robert Fitzgerald plays Blind Master.
“G.I. Joe: Retaliation” was directed by Jon M. Chu.
“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” begins 20 years ago, somewhere in Washington state. A father, (Canadian who is part Chinese and Indian Steven Allerick) is taking his son (Max Archibald) to his safe house, a cabin out in the wood. Suddenly, the father, tells his son he has to leave immediately, but it is too late. He tells his son to stay put and be quiet. Exiting the front door by himself, the father finds two red lasers on his chest.
“You were almost hard to find,” the bad guy sneers as his two henchmen escort the father back in the cabin. The father has only one chance, dictated by the roll of two dice: “Win you live; lose you die.” The father rolls snake eyes. He dies and the bad guys set the cabin ablaze.
The son has become a cage fighter called Snake Eyes. He drifts and fights until his reputation results in no takers and then he moves on. Kenta Takamura (Takehiro Hiraganas), a Yakuza member, makes him an offer: Takamura will find his father’s killer if Snake Eyes will join his organization. Kenta is running a smuggling ring in the Port of Los Angeles. Snake Eyes becomes “Fish Boy,” gutting fish and stuffing things inside. Kenta says, “We operate on one thing–not money, not fear. Trust. Everything we want in life comes at a price.”
Kenta asks Snake Eyes to kill his cousin, Tommy Arashikage (Andrew Koji). Kenta was cast out from the ninja clan because of his lack of character. Instead, Snake Eyes helps Tommy escape although Tommy’s impetuous nature hinders their flight as they escape both the guns and samurai swords play. “Your fish boy life in Los Angeles is over; there’s no going back.” Snake Eyes will later explain to Tommy, “I’m not a murderer; I looked into your eyes and saw honor.”
Tommy tells him, “I owe you a blood debt.” Somehow, without a name or passport, Snake Eyes ends up on a private airplane heading to Japan. Landing in Tokyo (Yes, you can see Mt. Fuji from Tokyo.), they head out to a spacious white castle. Our feral Snake Eyes seems to easily assimilate into the Japanese customs, helped by the dialogue being mostly in English. At the castle, Snake Eyes meets the head of security, Akiko (Haruka Abe), who is neither related to Tommy nor emotionally involved with him.
Tommy wants Snake Eyes to become part of the clan, but the clan is clannish and there are three tests which Snake Eyes must pass. Only 20 percent pass the first challenge which is given by the Hard Master. The second challenge is about personal psychology–knowing your own weakness and how you harm yourself and presented by the Blind Master. The third challenge involves a moving stone in a pit.
Snake Eyes’ need for revenge will drain his blood brotherhood with Tommy. Fans of G.I. Joe will know that they become enemies and sometime allies. The Arashikage are still battling the ambitious smuggler Kenta who has allied himself with the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó). They aren’t alone; aid comes in the form of American agent Scarlett (Samara Weaving).
The screenplay written by Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse, and Joe Shrapnel, from a story by Spiliotopoulos, has major lapses in logic. Is there anywhere in Tokyo except the Imperial palace that can be considered spacious and that wasn’t bombed during World War II? The emperor is supposed to be descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu, and she gave the Three Sacred Treasures (三種の神器) to the first emperor, Jimmu. The Imperial Regalia of Japan are sword Kusanagi no Tsurugi (草薙劍), the mirror Yata no Kagami (八咫鏡), and the jewel Yasakani no Magatama (八尺瓊勾玉). The jewel is thought to be something like green jade.
If the Arashikage clan only has one heir, he should be married and producing heirs instead of spending time in California and challenging his cousin to suicidal fights. Likewise, Kenta should have a wife and family and perhaps not all of them sided with Kenta. Over the 600 years, the house must have splintered into lesser relatives from amongst which an heir could be found.
That’s not to say all the casting is successful. In the 2009 film, Hard Master was played by Hawaiian Japanese American Gerald Okamura. And if the Arashikage were so clannish as they seem to be toward Snake Eyes, then how does one explain Hard Master (who doesn’t look Japanese) or Blind Master? One non-Japanese top master might be a dubious diversity choice. Having a Black man as the Hard Master seems like an illogical inclusion. Using Indonesian actor Iwo Uwais as the Hard Master and Ghanaian-British actor Peter Mensah as Blind Master seem to indicate the ninja tradition is all but dead amongst the Japanese and this ninja clan has opened its doors to international entries.
While Tommy states that he wants Snake Eyes to join because the “new threats” call for new strategies, when we see the command center of the Arashikage, it becomes apparent that they aren’t afraid of innovative technology. And yet, when Snake Eyes asks for a motorcycle and rides into Shinjuku, the motorcycle doesn’t have a tracking device. That would seem to be a lapse in security. This is especially questionable when the head of security loses Snake Eyes.
And considering Snake Eyes seemed to be raised with no records of schooling beyond the school of hard knocks, the likelihood of him being able to read Japanese are low. Getting to a location in Tokyo which has so many small roads and alleys that even a native speaker of Japanese might be befuddled. Not our hero, Snake Eyes. Without GPS, he seems to find his way and he will out-ninja the 600-year-old traditional ninjas.
Then there’s the question about bringing a sword/knife to a gunfight in Los Angeles or in Japan, especially since Kenta is a gun smuggler.
Hooray for Two Hapa Heroes
Having two hapa heroes is a courageous step for Hasbro and Paramount. This origin story is rough around the edges, but at least it gives us a conflicted character that Golding does gracefully and he plays off Koji well enough. They both waiver between good and bad, hero and anti-hero, driven by anger over real familial threats.
After reading some earlier discussions about the decision to change the race of Snake Eyes, I realized some people don’t get it. To be clear: the original Snake Eyes seemed to have been one of those White men do it better proofs of White supremacy. White guy goes into an East Asian culture, takes a few comparatively brief lessons and becomes better than the masters and ultimately a superhero. In this respect to a large extent in the context of G.I. Joe, Snake Eyes represented cultural appropriation–the taking of Japanese samurai and ninja traditions without really understanding the cultures. There are some questionable aspects of this script, but the casting of hapa Henry Golding is a step forward and, as one person pointed out, not unlike the change of Nick Fury from White to Black. Having people of Asian descent as leads is a win and avoiding the White supremacy angle is another win.
Cinematically, “Snake Eyes” works quickly and isn’t focused on the grace of martial arts, but the quick, jarring stop, block and chop of a chaotic fight. There’s style in the production and the pulsing rush and blurred motion almost push past a lot of the logical holes in the plot. That doesn’t mean this is a good story or good cinema. It’s just good to see Hasbro coming to a better solution than Marvel did with “Doctor Strange” or “Iron Fist.” Yet while we still see diversity on a binary of Black and White without people of Latino or Asian descent, I wonder when we’ll be able to see diversity without a Black or African American illogical inclusion.
“Snake Eyes” was originally scheduled for release on October 23, 2020, but opens on 23 July 2021. In English with some Japanese (English subtitles).