Pretty much everybody is kung fu fighting in “Snake Eyes,” a satisfying martial-arts action-adventure with two magnetic leads, a heap of lightning-quick swordplay and the best argument yet for a G.I. Joe cinematic universe.
Back in the 1980s, youngsters adored the cartoon-and-toy franchise as much as today’s generation lives for Marvel movies, and among the many colorful members of the G.I. Joe counterterrorism superhero squad, Snake Eyes was Captain America and Iron Man rolled into one silent fan-favorite ninja. Directed by Robert Schwentke (“Red”), the new “G.I. Joe Origins” film (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) casts “Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding as the title character, a vengeful loner needing a family, a home and a stable way of life.
After watching his father murdered in front of his eyes when he was a boy, grownup Snake Eyes is an underground fighter seeking the mystery man responsible when Yakuza arms dealer Kenta (Takehiro Hira) makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Working for the bad guy, Snake meets Tommy (Andrew Koji), an undercover spy who’s infiltrated Kenta’s crew, and the pair runs afoul of the gangster, leading to a number of increasingly dangerous dockside skirmishes with henchmen they have to survive.
Because Snake Eyes ticked off a major crime figure and can’t stay in America, Tommy takes him to Tokyo and wants him to join his family’s ancestral ninja clan, the Arashikage. The heir apparent to lead one day, Tommy sees honor in Snake’s eyes and figures he’s the kind of recruit they need battling 21st-century foes like Cobra, a shadowy criminal and terrorist organization bent on global domination.
To be initiated, Snake Eyes needs to pass three tests of his mental and physical mettle or die trying – he gets some help from the likes of the clan’s Hard Master (Iko Uwais), Blind Master (Peter Mensah) and head of security Akiko (Haruka Abe) – while also becoming embroiled in staving off Kenta’s plan to destroy the Arashikage.
There’s an intriguing push-and-pull between Snake and Tommy, aka Storm Shadow, as their relationship deepens, with some surprises for those familiar with their comic-book lore. Playing the twosome, Golding and Koji are endlessly watchable together whether having a deep conversation or punching goons in the face. Golding’s bravado and chiseled features nicely belie Snake Eyes’ inner turmoil and darker side, and Koji, a standout performer from the Bruce Lee-inspired TV series “Warrior,” has a soulful turn as a man who finds a needed brother yet still struggles with the weight of family legacy.
The action sequences also don’t disappoint, from bullet-riddled nighttime car chases to sword fights in the rain on neon-lit Japanese rooftops. Even when Snake Eyes’ core personal story gets lost a little in the larger global stakes, the film has an unrelenting sense of style with a few hints of over-the-top absurdity that act as a throwback to the film’s Reagan-era, Saturday morning cartoon source material.
When it comes to “G.I. Joe” movies, the third time is sort of the charm. “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” (2009) with Channing Tatum was a middling exercise in sci-fi camp, and while quite a bit better under the direction of Jon M. Chu, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” (2013) was a soft reboot with Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis that still didn’t know what kind of franchise it wanted to be.
“Snake Eyes,” though, emphasizes character first, world-threatening shenanigans second. The war is on between the Joes, including crossbow-wielding heroine Scarlett (Samara Weaving), and Cobra, represented by femme fatale Baroness (Úrsula Corberó), but their overarching conflict doesn’t completely take over the narrative.
It seems “Snake Eyes” understands Marvel’s scenic route to “Avengers”-esque teamup success, and as the saying goes, knowing is half the battle.