Kevin Dunn meet Kevin Dunne
It's a style that could belong to only one filmmaker, and we haven't seen it on-screen in over two years. But as the first minutes of Snake Eyes unfold, we start to realize just how much we've been missing.
Able to focus on a whirlpool of complex action, even as he probes the darkest side of human nature, Brian De Palma has been observing and interpreting our world for over three decades. What he always finds, with a mixture of cynicism and regret, is that evil lies waiting at every corner; yet some of us are open -- and even prone -- to being redeemed.
Case in point: Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), an Atlantic City cop whose life, as the story begins, is exactly the way he wants it. He knows just how to cheat on his wife so she'll never catch on, how to use the local media to boost his position in the neighborhood, and when necessary, how to shake down any small-time hood for a little easy cash. In the much talked-about opening shot, an exhilarating 13-minute tour-de-force, we see him putting each of these talents to use.
As a hurricane brews outside, Rick joins his boyhood friend, Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), to watch a heavyweight boxing match in an arena adjoining one of the city's largest hotel-casinos. Dunne is there to protect the U.S. Secretary of Defense, whose work with a local businessman to produce an advanced antimissile system is almost complete.
A crisis erupts, however, when just as the match is ending in an unexpected knock-out, an assassin guns down the Secretary. Dunne, having left his seat to talk to a suspicious-looking woman across the aisle, fires and kills the assassin. Yet another mysterious female (Carla Gugino), whom Rick sees talking to the Secretary, is slightly hurt in the shooting, then escapes into the crowd in the ensuing chaos.
Confused? Certainly, but rest assured that during the next few hours, Rick will find the wounded girl, discover the reasons behind the crime, and come to terms with not only his own corruption, but that of... well, that's all we'll give away.
De Palma buffs will note obvious similarities to his 1981 thriller, Blow Out. Both films deal with a political assassination, efforts that are made to erase and distort the facts surrounding it, and the struggle of a lone protagonist to uncover the truth. With its rapid pacing, Snake Eyes is in some ways structurally superior to its predecessor.
But ironically, this very aspect works a little against the film in the closing stages, when Rick's conscience is awakened so suddenly that this reviewer, for one, couldn't quite buy it. Though in keeping with De Palma's recent work (the lead character's moral redemption is a major factor in both Bonfire Of The Vanities and Carlito's Way), the notion that Rick could go from sleazeball to hero within an hour or two tests the limits of plausibility.
Nevertheless, even when not fully believable, the film is consistently entertaining. As with all six of their previous collaborations, Stephen H. Burum's cinematography complements each elaborate shot so beautifully that you hope De Palma will never again have to work without him. Credit too the brilliant editing by Bill Pankow, who pulls off the task of making the labyrinthine flashbacks in the story's midsection remarkably easy to follow.
Cage's dynamic performance is the perfect counterpoint to the director's flamboyant style, and it's backed up by a solid supporting cast. Stan Shaw is a particular standout as a dethroned champion boxer who, like Rick, has made compromises that he'll come to regret.
Finally, one has to address the question of the movie's ending. It's been widely reported in recent weeks that a spectacular (and expensive) climax involving a tidal wave was removed after test audiences voted it down. From the start, the storm outside the hotel plays a significant role in building suspense; so the cutting of this scene -- and its replacement with a more "low key" finale -- has left some audiences feeling a little betrayed.
But in the sense that it allows the characters themselves to resolve the plot, rather than letting the forces of nature do it for them (the term "deus ex machina" comes to mind), the current finale isn't entirely without merit.
Snake Eyes may be, as some have said, a case of De Palma working beneath his full potential, yet we'll take that over the best work of many another director. There's a uniqueness here that's hard not to find inspiring, especially in a summer overflowing with formula-bound entertainments.