Stockwell review: ‘Snake Eyes’ squeezes intrigue into action

Wow! The end of July already!

Summer is flying by, yet this weather has been beautiful over the last few days, so I hope you have had the opportunity to get out and enjoy it. We’ve come out of Great Outdoors Month and are capping National Park and Recreation Month. Of course, being outdoors means we sometimes encounter animals that also enjoy the warmer weather.

While most don’t draw any attention, snakes are usually the ones that understandably make people quite uncomfortable. For the most part, they are harmless. For one, they can’t commit robbery because they are unarmed. Secondly, they are relatively short, for they are only measured in inches because they have no feet. Except for the one that is 3.14 feet long. You know – a Pie-Thon.

Don’t blame me, I have to work with the titles of the films. I suppose I could have made jokes about eyes, but I couldn’t see that working.

Anyhow, this week’s review is on the reboot of the Hasbro Cinematic Universe and a legendary warrior.

“Snake Eyes”

It opens with a young boy and his father returning to a cabin after a day of fishing. In the middle of the night, a group of unknown men disrupts their slumber, and after a shootout, the boy escapes but is left orphaned. Flash-forward 21 years, and he goes by “Snake Eyes” (the murderer of his father made him roll dice before he was executed), and is fighting in Los Angeles’ underground martial arts battles.

“Snake” (Henry Golding) is approached by Kenta (Takehiro Hira), a rich businessman, who offers help in finding the father’s killer in exchange for Snake working in a fish market (a front for black market weapon sales). When Kenta discovers that another worker, Tommy (Andrew Koji), is not playing by the rules, he wants Snake to execute him. Believing he has a good heart, Snake spares Tommy’s life, and the two fight their way out, though Snake is wounded in the process.

He wakes up on a private airplane and discovers that Tommy is part of the Japanese Clan Arashikage, a ninja order with ancient roots, entrusted with the “Jewel of the Sun.” Grateful for what he did, Tommy brings Snake to his dojo, and wants him to be brought into the clan. Although it’s incredibly risky (not to mention rare), the head of the clan, Sen (Eri Ishida), allows it because Snake saved her grandson.

Not trusted by others, Snake must complete the three trials of the order. He is torn between his desire for revenge and being part of the clan. Of course, there are some outside forces working to try to unseat Sen and her clan, meaning not everyone is what they seem.

I was completely unaware of the story of “Snake Eyes,” and only partially familiar with G.I. Joe and the comics, so I went into the film completely cold, yet curious. And 121 minutes later, I was deeply satisfied, enjoying the movie on several levels. Director Robert Schwentke, who also directed Jodie Foster in the thriller “Flightplan” and Bruce Willis in the action/spy film “Red,” balances this origin story with action and depth extremely well.

On the surface, the story might seem a bit clichéd, but I found it a little more intriguing than the reincarnation of a vengeance tale. Yes, he is on the hunt for his father’s killer, yet the character of Snake Eyes is more mysterious and purposefully incomplete. In fact, it isn’t until almost two-thirds of the way through that we discover more about him and his journey, but his arc develops still further even after that point.

The action scenes are exciting, and the cinematography work is nothing short of dazzling. The martial arts that are used (along with some incredible swordplay) give the film a wonderful classic flavor. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (whose credits include “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “The Ring”) is spot on with this one, too, as he lights several scenes with an amber glow, and employs camera moves that put the viewer right inside the action. The scene on the semitrailer hauling cars is nothing short of fantastic, and the climax is a kaleidoscope of colors and shadows that will lock you in.

The acting in the film is smooth, with performances that are quite impressive. Golding plays Snake with a mix of compassion, guilt and selfishness, which is a remarkable combination. He carries himself with a sense of purpose, but he develops honor as the story progresses.

Koji is equally powerful as Tommy, who flips between multiple personas, making him one of the more intriguing characters in the film. Yet it is the females, Haruka Abe (Akiko), Eri Ishida (Sen), Ursula Corbero (Baroness) and Samara Weaving (Scarlett), who actually drive the story. Each of them plays an important part in the development of their male counterparts, because they are catalysts to the major turning points of the plot. It is their presence and decisions at vital moments that bring the film to life.

The ending provides a sense of resolution, yet teases the beginning of a series. Similar to what Marvel has done with its installments, “Snake Eyes” provides a springboard to an entire universe of possibilities. While it might be difficult to determine who is on whose side (alliances shift), that can be spun in many different directions to keep the audience guessing.

The film is exciting and a visual treat, with a touch of comedy to lighten the mood. The PG-13 rating is fair, for the fight scenes can get somewhat graphic, with a little blood here and there. However, the “pit” is going to make most want to cover their eyes when you realize what is in there, but certainly a necessary part of the story.

I was going to close with an eye joke, but it was too cornea. Happy viewing!

• Jim Stockwell is a tenured instructor of film and broadcast journalism at McHenry County College, teaching Introduction to Film, Advanced Film and Introduction to Public Speaking.