Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures
It's hard to make a large-scale summer action movie when your main character doesn't speak. Snake Eyes, the code name for the beloved G.I. Joe character, is a masked living weapon with unparalleled skill in wielding the katana blade. Words? Not so much. There have been varying mythologies in the Joe-verse surrounding why this warrior remains in silence, but the creators of the franchise's next big feature-length movie found an alternative solution.
As shown in EW's exclusive first-look photos, Henry Golding stars as the lead of Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, which delves into the beginnings of this mysterious figure. "It was one of the reasons why we picked the backstory [of] 'How did he become Snake Eyes?'" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura mentions. "It allows him to talk, which was very helpful."
It's also beneficial to see Golding outside the Snake Eyes helmet, which is typically always fixed on the character's head. Always. But you just don't hide the silver-screen good looks of the 34-year-old Crazy Rich Asians star behind a feature-less mask.
"I wanted to see something different, and I wanted it to look different, to feel different," Golding says. "To be able to launch a franchise like that, it was just too good to be true — and especially with a character like Snake Eyes about whom a lot of people don't know too much. They know him as this insane operator that completes missions and is an absolute weapon, but who's the guy behind the mask and what's his story?"
Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures Henry Golding brandishes the sword Morning Light in 'Snake Eyes.'
Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures Henry Golding's Snake Eyes in the 'G.I. Joe Origins' movie.
Di Bonaventura says Snake Eyes will "answer some questions" left lingering in the minds of G.I. Joe fans after all these years. Like, what is Snake's real name? Such details were once considered "classified" in the canon of the series. "You'll learn who he is, where he came from," the producer promises.
Directed by Robert Schwentke and set to premiere in theaters (yes, theaters) this July 23, the film sees the man who will eventually become Snake Eyes as a scarred individual. Without getting into too many details, di Bonaventura says, "His life has now been completely and utterly affected by this scar." It's in this state, as he's "driven by the wrong motivations," where he's taken under the wing of Tommy (Warrior's Andrew Koji), better known to Joe fans as Storm Shadow, a member of the Arashikage ninja clan.
"Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, their brotherhood/relationship is one of the most famous in the G.I. Joe lore," Golding says. "They have such an interesting, forever-wavering relationship of hate and love. They love each other as brothers because they've been through the same thing." After saving the Arashikage's heir apparent, Snake is taken to Japan "to train" and "really bring out the true essence of who he is," the actor adds.
Facing three trials in order to be inducted into the clan will also see Snake cross paths with Akiko, played by Haruka Abe (Disney's live-action Cruella), whom Golding calls "phenomenal in this film" and will "really pop."
"He's a burdened man when the movie begins, and in this process, he lifts some of the burden," di Bonaventura notes. "A lot of it is an internal search to find the balance in his life. That's the gravity of the movie. There's forces pulling him in two different directions, good and bad."
Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures Andrew Koji as Storm Shadow in 'Snake Eyes.'
Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures Haruka Abe as Akiko in 'Snake Eyes.'
Paramount Pictures made a firm commitment to expand the universe of G.I. Joe after 2009's G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The studio even established a writers room in 2016 to workshop ideas for various Hasbro properties. However, di Bonaventura says that effort "really didn't generate much for us." "My opinion of that room was that never really worked very well, unfortunately. It was a good idea," he remarks.
The producers and Paramount toyed with multiple directions to keep the Joes going on the big screen, including a potential Retaliation sequel. Di Bonaventura says that could still be a reality one day as "there have been some scripts that are in development currently."
Another idea was to center a film around The Baroness, a popular villainess and the lieutenant of Cobra Commander, head of the international villainous organization. She is now played in Snake Eyes by actress Úrsula Corberó. "We never developed it, but we did debate," di Bonaventura says. "She's such a deliciously evil character." Evan Spiliotopoulos' script for a Snake origins movie just came along at the right time. (Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel developed the screenplay with Spiliotopoulos.)
Ed Araquel/Paramount Pictures Henry Golding behind the scenes of 'Snake Eyes.'
Paramount developed a shortlist of actors to take on the main role, but Golding was the first one they went out to, and he fortunately said yes. They were looking for someone with "machismo" and "physicality" who could also dive into the "vulnerable" side of this character.
"What I have learned over doing many, many, many action pictures is you can teach people action if they're athletic," says di Bonaventura, who's worked on Transformers, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Salt, American Assassin, and more. "If they're not athletic, good luck. Henry had it and also had the drive to do it, which was important to us because we're trying to do something with the G.I. Joe franchise which hasn't been done" — something that was less fantasy and more grounded in reality.
Golding did the work. He mentions five-hour sessions of choreography every day, followed by an hour and a half of one-on-one training, and then "a solid two-and-a-half hours of script work." That wasn't an issue. When he was first in talks for the role, it was important to him that they didn't make "a cookie-cutter movie." "Myself and Robert, we went for lunch and I was like, 'It has to be different. It has to feel fresh,'" he recalls.
After making movies like RED, Allegiant, and The Captain, Schwentke took an approach to Snake Eyes that paid homage to his love of Japanese samurai movies, especially chanbara (sword-fighting films). "We had one green screen set and the rest was all practical," Golding says. "I think the film really has this link with martial arts."
Production brought in Kenji Tanigaki, a stunt coordinator and director on movies like Legend of Seven Monks and Enter the Fat Dragon. And, of course, some of the cast members, including international martial arts megastar Iko Uwais (The Raid, Wu Assassins) as Hard Master, also know how to execute physical feats. (Uwais in Snake Eyes "isn't a huge role," says di Bonaventura, but he's "so much fun.")
If all goes as planned, Snake Eyes will be a launching pad for a new era of G.I. Joe movies. Part of that means teeing up a larger world.
Samara Weaving (Ready or Not, Bill & Ted Face the Music) appears in the film as Scarlett, one of the original members of the G.I. Joe team. Actress Rachel Nichols once played the character in the Rise of Cobra film. Now, Weaving's iteration will be drawn into Snake's story after he "gets his nose into something," di Bonaventura explains, which then also brings in The Baroness.
Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures Samara Weaving as Scarlett in 'Snake Eyes.'
Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures Úrsula Corberó as The Baroness in 'Snake Eyes.'
"Both Cobra and G.I. Joe take a back seat to the internal drama of the Arashikage and the character," di Bonaventura continues. "They are absolutely an element, but it's looking at it this way: You meet somebody, watch their struggle, the struggle leads to the world of G.I. Joe and Cobra. It does not start as a G.I. Joe-Cobra movie. It starts as an Arashikage movie, a Snake Eyes character arc. You come to realize the Arashikage as they've traditionally been are affiliated with the Joes, therefore that brings in Cobra. There is a gradual reveal that there's a larger world here."
"Having this solo movie, we get to set the precedent for where [Snake's] story leads," Golding adds. "It's phenomenal that Paramount and Hasbro chose to go right to the beginning and really start off with such a story. It gives so much more creative control over where this universe is going. I'm crazy excited to see what we do next."
First things first, let's see how this post-vaccine summer movie season plays out.