After lukewarm responses to the too-stupid G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and the not-stupid-enough G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Paramount and MGM have pivoted with Snake Eyes, a soft reboot of the franchise in theatres July 23. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the man who fought to make The Matrix and bought the rights to Harry Potter, couldn’t be a wiser choice to produce the rebranding.
The film follows Snake Eyes (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding), a loner driven by the singular desire to avenge his father’s death as he’s recruited into the Arashikage ninja clan. Focusing on the origin story of one of the most popular characters in the G.I. Joe series “opened up a new way of telling a G.I. Joe story so it’s part of the universe but stands alone”, Bonaventura told the Georgia Straight during a prepandemic visit to the aptly named Mammoth Studios in Burnaby.
Snake Eyes is equal parts action movie and character study, and the film’s eponymous protagonist advances through a series of physical and mental tests to determine his spiritual oneness and official adoption into the Arashikage clan—“all the great kung-fu mumbo-jumbo stuff”, as Bonaventura put it, including ancient albino anacondas that can sniff out true ninja masters and annihilate imposters.
In the backdrop, an uber-conflict plays out between the Joes (the good guys) and the Cobras (the bad guys) that throws Snake Eyes into the ultimate trial between his ego and his ascension. The film’s denouement, presumably, reveals the reasons behind the vow of silence that sets him apart in the universe.
Under Bonaventura’s direction, the franchise has traded in supersized all-American military propaganda for a character-driven story with minimal CGI stunts, six weeks shooting in Japan, and an international cast.
The lead actors hail from Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Australia, Britain, and Ghana, with a notable absence of any Americans. These changes amount to “serious risks”, Bonaventura’s assistant said while watching Golding pretend to rappel into a snake pit.
Risks artistic and literal
Golding and his costars trained extensively to perform many of their own stunts. The highway-chase sequences involve real cars, real motorcycles, and real people. Legendary action figure Iko Uwais (The Raid) plays the Hard Master, and Japan’s heavyweight stunt coordinator, Kenji Tanigaki, choreographed all the combat scenes. “We have a lot of firepower going on here,” Bonaventura said, though actual explosives will take a back seat to kung-fu fights and deftly wielded katanas.
The fact of the impossibility of translating months of hard work, skill, and fight-scene choreography into a three-minute action scene only intensified when the production team led a visitor down into the belly of the Mammoth, a studio large enough to contain multiple city blocks and a Goodyear blimp. The artistry involved in constructing the immaculate sets will whiz by on the silver screen, effectively unnoticed.
Much like the "kung-fu mumbo jumbo” at the heart of Snake Eyes, the labour behind the scenes demands herculean feats of mind and body—and no glory.