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'Snake Eyes' is better than expected, thanks to a guy you've never heard of

The original premise of the "G.I. Joe" franchise ages pretty badly. But scripts written by the great Larry Hama breathed a different life into the adventures.
Image: Henry Golding in a scene from \"Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.\"
Henry Golding in a scene from "Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins."Niko Tavernise / Paramount Pictures

For about an hour, “Snake Eyes,” the latest installment in Hasbro’s "G.I Joe" film franchise, is honestly pretty good. The movie, which opens in theaters on Friday, has “Crazy Rich Asians” leading man Henry Golding as its star, and a shockingly good turn from British actor Andrew Koji. Of the three “Joe” films, this one, directed by Robert Schwentke, is most clearly influenced by the hundreds of issues of "Joe" comic books written by the great Larry Hama, an American writer and cartoonist whose comics draw skillfully on both his Japanese heritage and his experiences as a Vietnam vet.

Then the movie starts reminding us to buy some toys, and we snap out of it.

For about an hour, “Snake Eyes,” the latest installment in Hasbro’s G.I Joe franchise, is honestly pretty good.

Golding plays the nameless hero, a brawling drifter whose nickname Snake Eyes constantly reminds him of the moment his father lost a rigged dice game and was killed in front of him. Eventually, Snake washes up in Los Angeles, where he meets Kenta (Takehiro Hira), who promises him the identity of his father’s murderer in exchange for… a favor. Like most favors in movies of this sort, the cost keeps going up: First Snake must take on a horde of suit-wearing, sword-wielding Yakuza; then he must betray a friend; then he must help Kenta take over the world. It’s a little silly, but it’s also very entertaining. Our hero is, more or less, the bad guy, and the question of when he’s going to finally do the right thing provides an interesting tension throughout the film.

This is a movie about toys, but it is not a kids’ movie. That is, in part, because men my age (39) are the market for G. I. Joe action figures now. We were conditioned to love toys with stories attached: When President Ronald Reagan put conservatives in charge of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the 1980’s, children’s rights groups failed to have the “G. I. Joe: A Real American Hero” (and “Masters of the Universe”) cartoons designated “program-length commercials,” despite the fact that they were made by toy companies. The result was a glut of top-selling action figures like the Joes, Transformers and ThunderCats who also starred in their own cartoons and movies.

The original pitch for "G. I. Joe" is pretty cynical: the Joes are a heroic special ops force that must stop COBRA, a network of terrorist cells, insurgencies, smugglers, and drug dealers centralized under a single, malevolent command, as one character in “Snake Eyes” puts it. (That’s a perfect description of the CIA during the period when the toys were created, by the way.) I got down a box of old toys from my closet recently and let my four-year-old son go through it; I turned my back for a second only to hear the dreaded “Daddy, what’s this?” I looked, and he had a little plastic strand of concertina wire. I put the toys back up.

All this is to say that the original premise of the "Joes" ages pretty badly. But Hama’s scripts breathed a different life into their adventures.

Toy companies often hired comic-book writers to make up the stories they could tell with their plastic soldiers and robots.

Toy companies often hired comic-book writers to make up the stories they could tell with their plastic soldiers and robots; former Marvel Comics editor Jim Shooter is the main creative force behind the “Transformers” character identities and backstories. Hama was responsible for fleshing out the "Joes" when he was at Marvel, too. Shooter, who was in charge, gave him the job after several other writers turned it down.

But Hama was always more than a comic-book writer. He personally wrote nearly all of the little biographical file-cards that Hasbro printed on G. I. Joe action figure packages, and he created a vast fictional world of warring factions within a secretive Japanese martial arts clan, the Arashikage. With depressing regularity, he had to shoe-horn in bright orange helicopter backpacks and silly-looking monsters, but that was the job. When he could, he made formally inventive, even brilliant stories about war and martial arts.

Koji's performance in particular brings some of that inventiveness to the screen. His every magnanimous gesture backfires, stoking a bitter rage that is destined to consume him. And yet, he keeps us hoping that it won't, which is no mean feat for a guy code named "Storm Shadow."

I’m not saying “Snake Eyes” is going to win any Oscars, but you can finally see enthusiasm for something other than money in this movie. The bit parts are especially welcome — Iko Uwais and Peter Mensah are wonderful as Arashikage trainers called the Hard Master and the Blind Master, respectively — and for a while, the movie is a pleasant, even old-fashioned oasis from IP-farm franchise filmmaking.

But more heavily armed toys are always waiting in the wings.