By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Okay, so the movie “Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins” is for entertainment. It’s for comic book fans (I guess?), GI Joe fans (maybe!), and definitely for fans of Henry Golding, fans of Asian actors in general, and fans of representation for Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood.
And that’s really enough. It is good fun. It’s got a great, driving soundtrack, replete with taiko drumming; it’s got enough Tokyo neon to make any Tokyo neon fan happy (these exist, I think); and everybody looks amazing in their leather outfits. Also, Golding is great. I’m pushing for him as the next #JamesBond. Can everyone get behind this? Seriously. He’s got the looks. He’s got the accent (which he lost for this film so he could be ‘Merican). He’s good with the ladies and pals with the men. He can be tough, and he can shed a tear. And he can keep secrets like a pro.
Such is the character of Snake Eyes—an “alternate continuity” version (I had to look that up)—in which the most popular character in the GI Joe franchise plays both sides and gets away with it. This is the part about who the Snake Eyes movie is maybe not for. People who are sticklers for his origins, for one thing. Or who are not fans of newer versions being able to do just whatever they want with the character and the entire GI Joe universe.
So in the original (yeah, I looked that up, too), Snake Eyes is an Army soldier, Vietnam vet. Let me pause there. That is nowhere in this movie. Okay, moving on. In the Marvel Comics storyline, Snake Eyes’ parents are killed in a car accident (oh, that familiar trope) and he is invited to study ninja arts with the Arashikage clan. In this movie, kid Snake Eyes’ dad is killed execution style right in front of him (that other familiar trope). He grows into adulthood, apparently, by cage fighting his way through his anger and guilt for not being able to save his father from murderers when he was about knee-high to their murderous knees, and also had no weapons (that other, other familiar trope). He’s not invited by Storm Shadow and the Arashikage right off, but by way of the Yakuza. That’s where the double agent/spy stuff comes in, which Golding plays to a tee.
The 2021 movie acts more as an addition to the movies that came out in 2009 and 2013, “GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “GI Joe: Retaliation.” In those movies, Snake Eyes was played by Ray Park.
Obviously (was anyone in doubt?) there have been grumblings that Snake Eyes in this movie is not played by a white man. In a trailer preview interview, the Weekly asked Golding his thoughts about “Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins” within the trajectory of his career and AAPI representation in Hollywood.
“It was such a great opportunity because it was a colorblind casting. Snake Eyes’ story is a ‘fish out of water’ story…People are like, ‘But he’s meant to be white’…You can be white American, and do you think if you landed yourself in Iceland, you’d have the same cultural references…? No. Him going to Japan is a complete and utter new world territory for him, so it doesn’t matter what race you are.”
All true, and Golding’s follow up statement sort of summarized what’s going on in this “alternative continuity” version of the GI Joe saga.
“Let’s bring it back to the core essence of the characters and what the actors can play.” This movie does that. It does keep to the core of the spirit of the GI Joe team and the individual team members. And it keeps to the ever-presence in the comic and movies of betrayal and moving back and forth between team GI Joe and team Cobra. In other versions, maybe it was Tommy/Storm Shadow. But this time, it’s Snake Eyes.
Was Golding’s inclusion as the leading man what is being called “performative allyship”? Maybe it was, but first, oh my God, can we revel in this a little bit? Golding’s face, an Asian actor’s face, is front and center on the poster for the movie. Golding’s face, an Asian actor’s face, is on the poster for Comicon 2021 (with which the movie’s release coincides). Golding, an Asian actor, is the leading man. And not like in “Crazy Rich Asians,” where he sort of tag-teamed with the female lead and was this nice, kind of innocuous guy mostly flaunting his abs and just how nice he was, but a hard-hitting action lead with skillz, and the ability to heat it up with a female counterpart. He is the leading man in a franchise whose origins are to pump up American-ness. GI Joe.
Maybe it’s timing—and Golding thinks it could be—but let’s for sure take advantage of that! (Did I say next #JamesBond?)
“The industry really works on…what’s hot right now…That’s really sad when it comes to diversity because like, ‘What’s the hot race right now that we need to put at the [fore]front of our movies?’ … it shouldn’t even be that decision to make,” Golding said. Similar to the mission statement of the makers of “Crazy Rich Asians.” Golding urged, “Let’s try to get the industry to a stage where all of that doesn’t matter…Every time a person of color gets cast, it’s like a [win]…but it’s going to be a never-ending cause until…[it] becomes normality.”
Yes, this is a win for representation. And a super fun one! Count the Asian actors in the movie. There are so many! And they are so great! There’s the badass grandma Arashikage, played by Eri Ishada, who starts whipping out ninja fans in the grand finale; there’s a new character, Akiko, played by Haruka Abe, the head of security with a heart of gold; there’s the Yakuza meanie out for avenging his bruised ego, played by Takehiro Hira—they are just all over the place in the movie—and last but not at all least is Tommy/Storm Shadow, played by Andrew Koji, who almost upstages Golding with pure awesomeness.
This is a fun movie. It’s got swords. It’s got motorcycles. It’s got neon in the rain. It’s got leather. It’s got themes of loyalty and identity that resonate, even if there are some holes in the way the messages are put across (if swords are the honorable way to fight, Tommy, why do the purportedly dishonorable Yakuza use them?). But if you let yourself get caught up in the action, which is, literally, spinning (be forewarned)—if you let yourself get caught up in the glamor and fascination of the mythical Arashikage clan, their three challenges, their hard master, and their blind master; if you let yourself get caught up in Golding as Snake Eyes with the moves to be whatever and whoever he wants, at this point—you’re gonna love it.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.