Snake Eyes (1998)

Snake Eyes (1998)
  • Time: 98 min
  • Genre: Action | Crime | Drama
  • Director: Brian De Palma
  • Cast: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, John Heard


Ricky Santoro is a flamboyant and corrupt Atlantic City cop with a dream: become so well connected that he can become mayor. In lieu of that, he’ll settle for keeping his comfortable lifestyle. On the night of the heavyweight boxing championship, Rick becomes mixed up in the assassination of the Secretary of Defense, an assassination involving his best friend. Becoming the investigating officer in the case, Rick soon uncovers a conspiracy to kill the Secretary and a mysterious woman in white. The conspiracy was shocking, but not half as shocking as the identity of its mastermind.

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  • It begins with a promise and ends with a betrayal. Snake Eyes opens so brilliantly that it’s a genuine shame the remainder of the film is woefully pedestrian. Still, with actors like Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise and a director like Brian De Palma, Snake Eyes manages to hold your interest.

    De Palma has always loved paying homage to his cinematic idols. The majority of his oeuvre is a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock: Dressed to Kill mirrored Psycho while Body Double gave a bloody, pornographic spin on Rear Window’s nifty plot. He’s certainly capable of executing memorable sequences: the baby carriage teetering down the steps of a subway station as cops and crooks exchange gunfire in The Untouchables (a riff on the Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s landmark film, Battleship Potemkin); and Tom Cruise breaking into a top-security room, dangling by a wire, unable to make a sound in Mission: Impossible. As a film buff, I appreciate his love of cinema. However, his love of cinema undermines my esteem for him. De Palma is a talented director who can successfully recreate classic directorial styles. Yet he cannot create his own.

    Having said that, it is that love of cinema that nearly salvages Snake Eyes. The opening sequence, a continuous tracking shot of Cage as he snakes his way through the labyrinthine arena, may be a nod to Orson Welles’ bravura opening sequence in Touch of Evil, but it is no less miraculous a feat of technical bravado. De Palma has balls and he’s not afraid to use them. In other moments, the camera cranes over ceilings and peeks at the action below. De Palma also utilizes the split screen (or its effect), a technique that’s been inexplicably missing in action in today’s films, to further complicate perspectives.

    The plot of Snake Eyes is not as convoluted as Mission: Impossible but it is just as disposable. The Secretary of Defense is assassinated during a boxing match. Corrupt Atlantic City detective Rick Santoro (Cage) stumbles upon a conspiracy that involves the boxing champ (Stan Shaw), a drunk in the crowd and a mysterious redhead that lures Santoro’s best friend, Kevin Dunn (Sinise), from his security post. Then there’s that blond in white (Carla Gugino) talking to the Secretary before he was shot. A bullet grazed her and she’s splattered with his blood. The final revelation barely matters. It occurs quite abruptly and there’s a strange epilogue that all but buries the film. However, as I’ve stressed, De Palma throws in clever touches along the way.

    Of the supporting players, Shaw contributes the most as the champ forced to sacrifice that which he values most. Sinise appears downright Mephistophelian at times. As good as Sinise is, Cage is better. His performance is fantastically boisterous, all flash and razzmatazz. He struts through the film and emerges as its sole note of purity.

    Strangely, Sinise and Cage do not set off any adversarial sparks. The Negotiator, which has a similar formula, features great chemistry between Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey. Those actors sizzle the screen with their face-offs. There’s a distance between Cage and Sinise partly because their characters are never allowed to truly be on the same level. Either one has the upper hand or it’s too harmless a scene to matter.

    Take, for example, a pivotal scene where Santoro uncovers another member of the conspiracy. Dunn slithers behind him and tempts him to keep his mouth shut with an offer of one million dollars. Sinise makes like Iago, his tone insinuating, his demeanor too confident. Cage, meanwhile, has to have his character buckle, quite comically, under the pressure. The script never permits them the freedom to meet each other head on. In contrast, The Negotiator is brimming with such scenes, making it an immensely better ride. F. Gary Gray may not possess De Palma’s cinematic wizardry, but at least he lets Jackson and Spacey run full tilt boogie.

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