MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Rick Santoro), Gary Sinise (Kevin Dunne), John Heard (Gilbert Powell), Carla Gugino (Julia Costello), Stan Shaw (Lincoln Tyler), Kevin Dunn (Lou Logan), Michael Rispoli (Jimmy George), Joel Fabiani (Charles Kirkland), Luis Guzmán (Cyrus)
When crafting a murder-mystery, it takes a lot of gumption for the director to disclose who the murderer is half-way through the movie and expect to retain the audience for the last forty-five minutes. Few directors have worked with stories strong enough to support this kind of structure. The first and most obvious example is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "Vertigo" (1958), and the reason that worked is because, by solving the mystery at the midway point, Hitchcock made us realize that the mystery was not what the film was really about. It was mischievous and a bit maddening, but it worked.
The same cannot be said for "Snake Eyes." The director, Brian De Palma (who is one of the few contemporary directors to consciously walk in Hitch's footsteps), attempts something similar, but to disastrous results. It's not that the whole movie is bad--in fact, parts of it are excellent, especially in a visual sense. However, De Palma makes the mistake of revealing the mastermind behind an assassination conspiracy before the movie is half over, thus leaving himself with nothing to work with. He attempts to tack on a sort of bitter, ironic twist ending, but by that point he has lost what was left of the audience.
The movie stars Nicolas Cage as Rick Santoro, a garish, loud-mouthed, bribe-taking Atlantic City homicide detective who gets caught in a tangled web when the Secretary of Defense, who is seated behind him at a huge, pay-per-view heavyweight prize fight, is assassinated. At first, it looks like the blame will fall on Santoro's best friend, Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a Navy officer who is in charge of security when the assassination takes place. Santoro, driven equally by his desire to boost his career and his desire to protect his friend's credibility, goes on an intense hunt to find out what really happened. At his disposal are 1,500 cameras in the boxing arena and the adjoining casino, and 14,000 eyewitnesses.
Some of the movie's best scenes involve Santoro piecing together what happened using the video surveillance cameras. In these moments, "Snake Eyes" evokes films like "Blowup" (1966), "The Conversation" (1974), and De Palma's own, infinitely superior "Blow Out" (1981). Sometimes, a different camera angle can make all the difference, as when Santoro sees an eagle-eye view of the fight, and realizes that the heavyweight champion, a 10-to-1 bet for victory, went down on a phantom punch seconds before the assassination.
There are other people possibly involved, including a luscious red-head who seems to lure Dunne away from his post, and a young woman named Julia (Carla Gugino), who is talking to the Secretary when he gets shot. The movie is filled with red herrings and false leads, but amazingly enough, once De Palma unmasks the person behind the assassination, everything suddenly seems uncomfortably simple. Instead of the "Rashomon"-style multiple viewpoints enhancing the complexity of the plot, they are revealed to be nothing more than window dressing. In fact, without the multiple viewpoints, back-tracking, and flashbacks, "Snake Eyes" would be downright simplistic.
The movie has numerous other problems, as well. There are several logic gaps, including the one where Julia, in a stark white dress spattered all over with the Secretary's blood, is not noticed by anyone or detained by the police. I can imagine her slipping by in the crowd of 14,000 panicked people, but at one point she actively tries to push her way past a security guard who still fails to notice her gory appearance.
And then there's that ending, with Cage beaten up and mumbling in a way that makes him resemble Quasimodo from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," facing the killer in the middle of a hurricane that has no narrative purpose whatsoever. Did De Palma and his co-scenarist David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Carlito's Way") decide that the story had lost so much momentum by that point that they had to include a major weather disaster to heighten the intensity?
If there's anything to cheer in "Snake Eyes" it's the camerawork of cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, who has worked consistently with De Palma since 1984's "Body Double." De Palma and Burum put together several stunning setpieces, including an unbroken opening shot that is sustained for at least ten minutes, and a fine use of split-screen to show how the same even is being perceived from two points of view. However, because the story is so weak and ultimately self-destructive, all that powerful camerawork ends up looking more like a cheap means to distract the audience away from the story's flaws, instead of being an integral part of the narrative process.
©1998 James Kendrick