After years of comics, cartoons, action figures and two big-budget movies, the GI Joe franchise is turning back the clock to explore one of the more mysterious characters in its arsenal: commando and ninja warrior Snake Eyes. The masked and silent assassin has been a perennial favourite for Joe fans, but his origin has rarely been truly explored.

Now along comes Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, which promises to look beneath the mask and explore what made him the man we know in the fighting force. With Crazy Rich Asians and Last Christmas actor Henry Golding inheriting the mantle, the new film has its latest trailer online (see it below). Empire went on a one-man mission to track down Snake Eyes producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and have him talk through some key elements.

Eye(s) On History

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Though parts of Snake Eyes’ history have been prodded in the comics, he’s still largely a man of mystery. The new film promises to find out what makes him tick, from a tragic backstory to his finding new purpose with an ancient Japanese warrior clan known as the Arashikage, and his eventual contact with the armed force he’ll end up joining.

“I find, and the fans seem to find, both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow to be the two most popular characters,” says di Bonaventura. “Snake Eyes has been this great enigma, so getting underneath the mask presented an interesting challenge for us and also an opening that no one had any real preconceived biases towards. And it’s different from the Joe movies, it’s different from comic book movies. This movie owes more to the samurai film tradition or the Hong Kong film tradition than it does to the way we’ve been constructing these action pictures. It offers us a way into a character that no one had ever seen. And honestly, part of that came out of the fact that it was a struggle to shoot with Snake Eyes before, because he could never talk! By starting before he has problems talking and before he’s hidden, it just allows you into the character in a way that I don’t think you very often get.”

Regarding Henry

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Given that we’ve mostly seen him as an affable, charming romantic lead (though he’s shown range in films including Monsoon and Guy Ritchie‘s The Gentlemen), this represents a chance for Henry Golding to forge an entirely new path — action hero. And from the looks of the trailers, he’s leapt (and kicked and punched) at it.

“This was the studio’s idea. We embraced it immediately but also had questions about it, because I think the action audience can be very critical of people coming into it, especially people who’ve been established in a romantic comedy or lighter vein of movies,” explains di Bonaventura. “Henry’s a rising star, there’s no doubt about that, so that wasn’t a question, he’s a handsome guy, no question, but when you see him in his movies, he’s a big guy, he’s tall, he’s wide, he’s got a real physical presence, which helps a lot. But you never know about that dedication. Our conversation was, ‘We have to wipe the audience’s memory clean of the romantic comedy Henry Golding.’ We open the trailer with Henry in a cage fight with a big guy. That’s the introduction to the character. In that scene, you see he’s got blood on his face, a huge guy waging a real war with him, and you immediately go, ‘Oh, this guy’s got what it takes.’ So for us, that was an important thing to say to anyone who wanted to question whether Henry had it, you can’t really ask that question after that sequence. So we wanted to give you that and go from there. He put the work in, he really did.”

Stormy Weather

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Andrew Koji, who plays Storm Shadow, raised no such concerns on the action front, as anyone who has seen him in TV series Warrior can attest. But according to the producer, he brought more than just fast fists…

“Andrew is a phenomenal actor, and he comes with the skill set, so that helps. He’s asked to do some pretty complicated sword fighting here and fighting in general. And he also has a gravitas that is really right for that character. And also the way we were positioning that character, he fit it. The spine of the movie is the relationship between those two guys, both its strength and its dysfunction and they really hold the screen together and are fantastic together.

Bad Blood

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Famously, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are rivals, bitter enemies who are usually clashing on screen and in comics. Snake Eyes will be digging into the roots of that conflict, and how a deep friendship could sour into a vengeful clash.

“You’ll definitely get a sense of why these two have fallen apart. And the seeds of it, which is most important,” di Bonaventura outlines. “We’ve never explored really what was driving Storm to turn. Here, he’s not a bad guy by any stretch of the imagination, he’s a representative of the Arashikage clan. But you see the internal rage and internal perspective that could lead him down the path that he eventually comes to, that we’re more familiar with. The Arashikage believe there is a certain way to apply violence and he walks the line partly because of his inner rage and who he is. So he may break a cardinal rule. You do not apply violence in the name of vengeance. Storm has some reasons to want vengeance so he struggles to walk the line. You see the seeds of why he has a falling out with his clan, not just Snake.”

What’s In A Name?

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If there’s one element that has truly not been explored, it’s where the name “Snake Eyes” comes from in the first place. This new film will offer the basis for that, largely thanks to the title character’s tragic, troubled backstory. And no, it’s not a tribute to the 1998 Nicolas Cage film…

“It’s the first time we’ve explored it. Larry Hama, the creator of Snake Eyes, is in on many of the decisions,” says di Bonaventura. “Snake in the comic is blond haired and blue eyed. We asked him why he made him that way. He said he didn’t really know. So we asked if he cared if he’s dark haired and Asian here? ‘Probably should have done that in the beginning!’ We try to give a little bit of an explanation. His character’s journey is that he’s had a life of bad luck. That’s the simplistic way of saying that’s how he got to Snake Eyes and then you watch it, and he struggles with that and he makes bad decisions in the movie, which I think is ballsy and hopefully the audiences are going to like it. Some people might wish it were cheerier, but others are going to get into the fact that we went gritty.”

Practically Speaking

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In an age where CG can be used to do anything, there’s still scope for practical effects. And, according to di Bonaventura, that was absolutely the focus here, with Golding, Koji and the rest doing as many of their own fights and stunts as possible, while maintaining the cast’s safety.

“Everything was done as practically as possible. Obviously, certain pieces you couldn’t do 100% because they’d be life-threatening!” di Bonaventura chuckles. “But I would say 90-95% is practical. The car carrier sequence you see in the trailer, the exterior of the carrier is CG because you couldn’t go that fast and have that big a fight, but the fight is real. You’re having motorcycles go 50-60mph. I’ve pushed for practical as much as I can in my career because I learned all the way back on The Matrix that by having Keanu and Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss learn how to fight that it was so much better. We won’t put the cast at risk, but we pushed to do what we could practically.

One of the things we did to give it a different feel is we made this a combination of styles. We brought on what I believe to be Japan’s best second unit director, Kenji Tanigaki, who has done all these samurai movies and does sword fighting in different ways than an American or a British stunt co-ordinator would do. And so we were trying to find a fusion of Hollywood action and samurai action, with a little bit of Hong Kong thrown in there. It was really interesting to work with somebody who hadn’t done that big American movie, but brought a whole skillset that we could lean on.

Scarlett Fever

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Despite its focus on Snake Eyes, the film also finds room for nods to his future, including appearances from Ready Or Not‘s Samara Weaving as Scarlett and Money Heist‘s Úrsula Corberó as Cobra operative The Baroness. Just don’t go expecting a full on GI Joe adventure here.

“Samara was an easy choice, as was Ursula as The Baroness. I’m a huge fan of hers. The way to look at this movie is as a Snake Eyes movie, not a GI Joe movie. Snake Eyes is a window into how eventually he joins the Joes, so neither Scarlett nor Baroness are the biggest characters, it’s more setting up that they exist in this universe and if we’re lucky enough to make a sequel, that will expand more into a Joe movie rather than a Snake movie,” di Bonaventura clarifies. “I don’t want to mislead anybody into thinking they have giant parts – they have solid parts where you get to intro those characters and it provides the way for the movie to, I’ll say, break out of being just a samurai movie. You see Cobra a bit, but through those characters. They enter the world of the samurai rather than us entering the world of the Joe.

“If you’re a fan of the Joe series/movies, you’ll like the characters. If you’re not a fan, it lets you into it. This is a movie about the Arashikage and Snake Eyes within it, and why the Arashikage is, in turn, in the world of Cobra and Joe. I’ve studied a lot of Steven Spielberg’s movies and I think one of the things he does that I love is what’s called an “ice cream cone movie.” It starts very narrow and as it gets bigger, it gets wider, the way a cone does. We’re starting with Snake and then in comes Storm and the Arashikage, and then the Joes come in. It’s expanding the world.”

Suit up!

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Despite the lack of major Joe/Cobra action, it surely wouldn’t be a Snake Eyes movie without him slipping into his iconic mask and suit at some point. And, as the trailer makes clear, that’s exactly what happens, though we’ll apparently have to wait to see what happens to his voice…

“Snake’s injury and his speech issue would be in the next movie, if we’re lucky enough to make it,” di Bonaventura explains. “But to make a movie with Snake Eyes in it and not have him in the costume? We would’ve gotten killed by the fans! The question was, how to have the most fun with it. This was the exploration of the human, not the guy in the suit, in a sense, so we hold back the suit until he’s earned it as a character.

“One of the things we love about Snake is how enigmatic he is. And it seems to be a moral code from the guy who doesn’t speak, but you don’t understand what it is other than experience it. Now you get a chance to see what the building blocks are, and hopefully that will make people want more Snake.”

Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins will arrive in US cinemas on 23 July and launches in the UK on 18 August.

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