The Movie Defender: Snake Eyes (1998)

If Brian De Palma were as good at rewriting as he is at visual style, “Snake Eyes” might have been a heck of a movie. He isn’t, and it isn’t. It’s the worst kind of bad film: the kind that gets you all worked up and then lets you down, instead of just being lousy from the first shot. – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Has Brian De Palma finally lost his mind? Ever since Carrie (1976), his one true masterpiece, this director has evolved into a cinematic serial killer of common sense — a man so tone-deaf to practical priorities that he’d happily stage birth videos of his own children to look like Hitchcock climaxes, if only he could lay dolly tracks in the delivery room. It’s doubtful, though, that even De Palma has thrown rationality to the wind with quite the lurid exhibitionistic fervor he displays in Snake Eyes. – Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

After a razzle-dazzle opening, this hyperactive thriller about a corrupt cop’s investigation of a political assassination devolves into a mere excuse for a stylistic exercise by director Brian De Palma, one whose wispy threads of dramatic plausibility and character involvement unravel completely by the time of the incredibly silly final reel. – Todd McCarthy, Variety

Brian De Palma has always been at his best when the plots of his films are just as batshit crazy as the director’s love of split screens, complicated Steadicam shots, split-diopters, and operatic scores. While Dressed to Kill, Body Double, Raising Cain, Sisters, Carrie, Blow Out, Phantom of the Paradise, and Femme Fatale can all be cited as technical tour-de-forces, they are just as memorable for their over-the-top stories and performances. Simply put, De Palma seems most at home when his connection to reality is at its most tenuous.

But he is such a skilled craftsman he has been able to work in more mainstream films for the studios with mixed results. The Untouchables, Scarface, and Mission: Impossible are successful attempts to graft his overtly showy style with big budget studio stories and stars. But the list of misfires when De Palma gets his hands on a larger budget—and the limitations and studio interference that comes along with it—is well-known. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Mission to Mars, and The Black Dahlia all failed critically and commercially. While each of these films contains moments of the director’s signature technical virtuosity, they all have a compromised feel.

Then there are the major studio films in the director’s canon that exist in the odd space of simply being ignored. Films like Wise Guys, Carlito’s Way, and Snake Eyes. While Carlito’s Way was given a polite critical reception (and deserves to be rediscovered), Snake Eyes was skewered. Much of this could be seen as a result of several factors coming together: De Palma’s reputation for valuing visual technique over story or character, an overtly silly conspiracy plot that tried to take inspiration from Rashomon, and fatigue from audiences and critics with Nicolas Cage’s action movie persona.

Rick Santoro (Cage) is a crooked Atlantic City cop. Babbling a mile a minute in that way that only Cage seems capable of, Rick is introduced shaking down a criminal so he can place a bet on the heavyweight championship fight that he is attending that evening. Cage lays on the sleaze with a trowel, instantly making Rick an uncomfortable protagonist to follow.

It turns out Rick was able to snag his premium ringside seat because his best friend Kevin (Gary Sinise) is a big shot in the Navy and has been assigned to protect the Secretary of Defense (Joel Fabiani) as he attends the fight. But when Kevin is distracted by a suspicious woman during the fight, Julia (Carla Gugino) takes his seat and gets into a heated conversation with the Secretary. Despite paying close attention to the fight, Rick is still a cop and cannot help but take notice of the suspicious goings on around him. When the Secretary takes a bullet to the throat, it’s not immediately clear what has happened because it occurs just as the champion is knocked out in the ring. When a second shot is fired, clipping Julia in the arm, Rick springs into action, knocking her to the floor to protect her and scanning the auditorium for the shooter. Kevin just happens to be in the right place at the right time to shoot and kill the assassin while pandemonium breaks out as spectators rush for the doors.

As the Secretary is rushed to the hospital, Julia manages to disappear into the crowd. Kevin panics because he was out of position when the Secretary was shot and lets Rick take over the investigation with the promise that he will spin the story so that Kevin is the hero who killed the assassin. The only problem comes in when Rick finds elements of a conspiracy that taints nearly everyone he questions. Pursuing the various leads, lies, and suspects he comes across, Rick finds himself questioning everything he saw that evening and finds his conscience overcoming his corruption as he pieces together a deadly conspiracy.

Oh, and there is a hurricane bearing down on the convention center.

As with most of De Palma’s studio films, the plot is both overly busy and completely disposable. Snake Eyes exists solely to allow the director to indulge in his visual bag of tricks and thematic obsession with voyeurism while letting Cage go over-the-top in his own inimitable style. Whether or not that makes it a good movie is not the standard by which this film should be judged. The way it should be viewed and judged is as an exercise in style and visual storytelling. In that regard, it’s a surprisingly pure film.

De Palma opens the film with a Steadicam shot–courtesy of Steadicam operator Larry McConkey–that is probably at least five shots edited seamlessly together to hide the cut. This sequence lasts almost thirteen minutes and finds Cage’s manic personality front and center as he roams the behind the scenes catacombs of the arena, on a first name basis with seemingly everyone he meets. It’s a hell of a technically complicated sequence that goes down tunnels, around corners, through doors, and down escalators. Yes, it’s De Palma showing off, but it also captures the jittery, propulsive energy Cage brings to the film.

Coming off his work-for-hire job directing Mission: Impossible, the De Palma on display in Snake Eyes feels like a hyper child who has been cooped up inside through a long winter. Nearly every shot has a trick to it, whether it’s through the use of split screen, split-diopter, or just a canted angle, Snake Eyes is never a boring movie to look at, even as the script by David Koepp slowly rumbles along, hitting every expected beat of a half-heartedly plotted conspiracy story.

But De Palma takes the rote thriller clichés and turns Snake Eyes into a straight-faced send up of the kinds of high concept thrillers that were so popular at the time. Using Cage’s justifiably over-the-top performance as an unlikely anchor, De Palma is freed up to indulge in every stereotypical moment in the film to amusingly satirical affect. From the overt foreshadowing that precedes a reveal of one of Rick’s allies as a bad guy to the ever-strengthening hurricane bearing down on the arena to the blood-soaked one hundred dollar bill that symbolizes Rick’s decision to seek redemption, every ham-fisted, on-the-nose, up the stakes, textbook screenwriting 101 plot point is trotted out and exposed for the bullshit that it is.

Snake Eyes came out in the midst of a string of Nicolas Cage action and suspense films that seemed intent on one-upping the previous one in ridiculousness. But while The Rock, Face / Off, and Con Air somehow connected with audiences (in the case of Face / Off, also with critics)—despite how silly they were, Snake Eyes was unfairly treated as a critical punching bag and largely ignored by audiences.

I originally saw Snake Eyes at a drive-in theater upon its 1998 release. It was on a double-bill with The Avengers (not that one, the horrible one that Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery would like to forget). My initial impression of the film was favorable, but I have wondered in the intervening years if my positive response was a reaction to the absolute awfulness of the film that it followed.

What I found, when watching the movie again a few weeks ago, was a film that has aged incredibly well. De Palma’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of the thriller clichés feels more overtly comedic now than when the film was released and his direction, while showy, is a clean piece of visual storytelling. The characters in the film may lie, but the camera never does.

De Palma’s best films have always been the ones he also wrote. Like most directors with a strong visual style and thematic obsession, he works best with complete creative control. While only receiving a “story by” credit on Snake Eyes, his fingerprints are all over the script through the construction of a story that requires long, complicated shots and repeated visuals. Several critics called this self-indulgent on De Palma’s part. I look at this as simply a director playing to his strengths.

Like a lot of the films I’ve covered in The Movie Defender, Snake Eyes has largely been forgotten. If it is recalled at all, it’s mostly as part of the one-two punch of financial flops (with Mission to Mars) that sent De Palma to Europe to continue his career. I hate to see any good film reduced to nothing more than a box office tally. Make no mistake; Snake Eyes is a very good film. It may not reach the level of De Palma’s deranged masterpieces, but it’s an important reminder of what he is capable of when given the proper resources and freedom.

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