by Mike McGranaghan

It has been said that Brian DePalma makes movies about other peoples' movies. The director seems to spend so much time emulating his heroes (usually Hitchcock) that his films often come out seeming artificial. Although he has a few good pictures (Carlito's Way, Casualties of War) on his resume, I generally agree with this assessment. Dressed to Kill was nothing if not a blatant rip-off of Psycho - and a shameless one at that. Raising Cain is another one that blatantly rips off the master (and the one that started John Lithgow on his continuing streak of overacting). Now we get Snake Eyes, which is yet another typically overwrought DePalma movie that tries to manufacture Hitchcockian moments of high suspense. It's a mess, although you can still see some impressive glimpses of what might have been.

Nicolas Cage plays Rick Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City cop. One evening, he heads to a big boxing match where he meets up with his best friend Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise). Dunne is a Navy Commander assigned to protect the Defense Secretary, who is also attending the match. The two men talk, trade stories, and express their loyalty to one another. The fight begins. Dunne leaves his seat for a moment. A mysterious woman fills it. Seconds later, the Defense Secretary is assassinated. The mystery woman disappears. Santoro offers to help Dunne formulate an excuse for his irresponsible action.

DePalma uses camera and editing tricks to make the first 15 minutes of Snake Eyes appear as though they were filmed in one continuous, unbroken shot. Several clues to the mystery are planted in this opening scene. There's a drunk guy who shouts at the boxers. And a redhead who appears out of nowhere, only to disappear again. And that mystery woman who - despite being covered with blood - is not stopped by any of the security guards in the arena.

Once all the clues have been planted, the movie temporarily comes to life. The arena is sealed off with everyone locked inside until they can be questioned (several thousand takes a while). As Santoro tries to put the pieces together, DePalma starts to play with the time frame. We go back and see familiar scenes replayed from other perspectives. A spilt screen is used to show two different views of the same event. This is, by far, the most interesting part of the film. It's obvious that the director has some impressive tricks up his sleeve to build suspense and mystery. For a brief time, it works.

It's the rest of Snake Eyes that doesn't work. The beginning is too stylish to be engrossing; the audience is always aware of the unbroken camera movement. And the ending...well, it falls apart altogether in one of the most pathetic bits of "action" cinema in recent memory. You get one really solid half-hour sandwiched between two lousy ones.

Another major flaw is with the mystery itself. I can't accurately cite the problem without spoiling a few plot points, so if you don't want to know, skip the next paragraph.

A big part of what bothered me is that Snake Eyes thinks the audience is dumb. We know early on that the Defense Secretary is killed. This happens a lot in the movies. And if the Defense Secretary is killed, it must have something to do with weapons. And if it has something to do with weapons, the person behind it must be a high ranking military official. Get the idea? Of course you do, but Snake Eyes thinks you'll be stunned to learn who is behind the assassination and why - even though this plot has been used lots of times before. Lets face it: Defense Secretaries in movies don't get killed because of gambling debts.

I think the blame for all this rests with David Koepp, who wrote the predictable screenplay, and DePalma, who shoots the movie in his usual bombastic style. (It takes a lot of hard work to get Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise to deliver bad performances) Snake Eyes really could have been something special based on that middle half-hour. It crackles with suspense while everything before and after just sits there limply. It doesn't even make good camp. During the conclusion (set against a tropical storm), the giant globe that sits atop the arena falls to the ground. I was waiting patiently for it to roll over the bad guy, squashing him like a bug. It never does. How can a movie be so ridiculous, then cheat the audience out of the one piece of ridiculousness we really want to see?

( out of four)

Snake Eyes is rated R for profanity and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.

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