SNAKE EYES - A VISION OF TOTAL ILLUMINATION
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De Palma’s incredible one-take intro to Santoro and his sleazy existence shows us arounds corridors, up and down escalators down to ringside. It’s dialog-heavy, incredibly complicated in its staging and so exciting to watch.
One of Santoro’s best friends, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) sits alongside him on ringside seats. When a shot rings out and a powerful figure sitting near Santoro is now dead, the event erupts into anarchy.
Santoro and Dunne immediately sweep the area and round up the suspects. Who took the shot, why did they do it and is there one person responsible for the public assassination? How do you solve a murder that takes place in plain sight with “14,000 eyewitnesses?”
Because it’s De Palma, the expected Hitchcock visuals and themes are present. However, even with those aspects in place, there are more neo-noir themes on hand, as well as De Palma doing Robert Altman taking on “Rashomon.”
There’s a McGuffin about Air Guard Missile Tests but the core of the film is Santoro’s belatedly finding a moral center in a corrupt world.
De Palma is once again exploring media manipulation and distraction through large-scale diversion. It could be interpreted as political satire as just flat out American social commentary.
De Palma is dipping his toe into the “Blow Out” (1981) pool once more. “Snake Eyes” is a smaller film than De Palma’s anti-commercial, challenging tour de force of the original “Mission: Impossible” (1996) but still made with a bravado showmanship to match the work of his leading man.
“Snake Eyes” isn’t an action movie but a thrillingly staged mystery, which made it an odd attraction during the summer of 1998. Coming off of his back-to-back blockbusters of “Con Air” and “Face/Off” and the surprise hit of “City of Angels” earlier in the year, Cage was on a roll that lasted for years.
Playing Santoro, Cage is on fire from his first entrance. The character simmers down as the discoveries of the investigation become increasingly grave. Cage is not being over the top but playing a brash, inhibition-free jerk whose lack of a moral center changes drastically in a single evening.
There is no convincing naysayers who loathe any period of Cage’s work, whether it’s his early post-“Peggy Sue” choices, his commercial breakthrough after winning the Oscar, or the on-again-off-again era of wild creative peaks and valleys he’s currently in.
Cage always takes big swings and is rarely (if ever) accused of being subtle.
Nevertheless, the actor’s willingness to give nearly every project he takes on an above and beyond approach, giving it his all when the movie itself may not need or deserve it, has made him one of my favorites.
Alongside his incredible turn in Werner Herzog’s off-the-wall “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009), this is my favorite of his “big” performances.
In both cases, the initial bravado of the characters masks the moral rot beneath, as both characters find a form of redemption but, in the end, haven’t entirely reformed their wicked ways.
The shot of a bloodied bill and the final, painful look Santoro gives it, says everything about the character and how far he’s come. It’s the film’s most important shot and solidifies the film’s neo-noir identity.
Dark times for John Wick: a dark palette that begins in teal and vertigris explores the expressive limits of widescreen frames and settings where decor is peeled away, a neutral backdrop where sumptuous settings are replaced by foreground frenzy. With unapologetic formalism, here’s a plenitude of bumptious bodily dispatch, geometric spatter and roseate headshots.
It’s heavy stuff: Keanu’s killer smile was left many killer confrontations ago. Wick’s weary and Reeves excels at the syllabification of single syllables, or sepulchral intonations sufficing as line readings. One of the longest lines almost requires fresh forms of annotation to capture the nuance Reeves can wreak from near-nonsense, “I’m, going, to, kill, them all.” (And the richly inhabited single-word sentences: “Pistols,” he says.)
Grace lies in the assembled teams’ assurance: the team onscreen and the team behind the camera. Hot lead, honor and haberdashery: style burns.
There is a passage a couple of hours in where the movie slows ever so slightly—dare it become boring?—but it is only in preparation for a set of deliriously extended long takes, drawing from the University of De Palma. Inside a dark, dirty chateau in some dark, dirty stretch of Paris, the camera observes from on high the first floor of the building, and goes berserk, at first suggestive of De Palma’s stately, deliberate speed of a God’s-eye shot in so many of his movies, such as “Snake Eyes” and “Femme Fatale,” but with the glib glide of a robot, as if from the flick of a wrist from a mechanical controller.
Yet almost immediately, its amok rapidity betrays a wry human hand with the explosive doings beneath the camera’s eye: concussive, incendiary detonations from a brute shotgun light up Wick’s ranks of featureless adversaries, furniture and wallpaper and devils burst into flame. The crane glides, sprawls, measures the space for what seems minutes on end, another stuntman detonates, the camera’s angel gaze charts another room, another, another functionary dispatched. The cumulative man-hours to realize this result must measure in the thousands.
There’s a sequence that is basically conceived as one take where it’s an overhead shot of John Wick going from room to room shooting people.
We shot it in a studio we built in Germany. It’s shot as one take with all the light coming from outside the set. It was one of those sequences where Chad said what he wanted to do and everyone said it was impossible. We did a spider cam shot and the visual effects department helped. It’s one crane shot and one spider cam shot where we are starting on the stairs and flying around.
How many tries did it take you?
We did eight or ten takes. The light must be outside the set. We see the whole set. That’s the challenge when your shots are wide and the entire set is in view.
One movie that doesn’t quite get the love it deserves in this regard is Snake Eyes, in which Cage goes fully wacky for the legendary director Brian De Palma. Ask your average film-lover what their favorite De Palma movie happens to be, and we doubt very many people would say Snake Eyes. You’re more likely to get an intersection of answers that encompasses one or more of the following: Carrie, Scarface, The Untouchables, etc. While we would never claim Snake Eyes to be Top 5 De Palma, watching the movie against the backdrop of today’s weightlessly anemic mainstream thrillers makes it much easier to appreciate Snake Eyes’ formal inventiveness, the heedless zeal of its filmmaking style, and Cage’s hellacious, go-for-broke lead performance.
The fact that Snake Eyes doesn’t labor under the pretense of being high art, ironically, is ultimately made it easier for critics to attack it. In his slam of a review, Roger Ebert called Snake Eyes “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.” Elsewhere, Kenneth Turan, writing for the Los Angeles Times, labeled the movie “coarse and undernourished” as an exercise in drama.
Of course, reviews are meant to be taken within the context of the time in which they were published. We have seen many instances of poorly-reviewed films that would go on to be reappraised as good or even great in the years/decades following their release (Richard Kelly’s infamously maligned Southland Tales is only one of a few examples of this). Snake Eyes isn’t a reinvention of the wheel, or even of De Palma’s usual playbook: as usual, he is doing Hitchcock one better, reveling in the suspense and skeeziness and explosive visual fireworks that this genre affords its practitioners.
Like the John Travolta-starring Blow Out — arguably De Palma’s masterpiece, at least in this writer’s opinion — the plot of Snake Eyes orbits around an instance of suspicious malfeasance that then spiderwebs into a veritable conspiracy of corruption. Cage struts up a storm, holding every inch of our attention as spectacularly flashy Atlantic City cop Rick Santoro. Rick is introduced in the film’s bravura opening sequence: a long, and we do mean long Steadicam take that follows Rick throughout every inch of a cacophonous boxing arena before that evening's big event. Cage reads his lines in an operatic, knowingly ludicrous register — the unbroken virtuosity of the camerawork seems to be communicating the sentiment that this is merely Rick Santoro’s world, and we’re just lucky to be living in. Though multiple viewings reveal that, by detailing every nook and cranny of his only real principal location, De Palma is laying out narrative clues in plain sight.
The crowd is fired up, the place is alive with bloodlust... sounds like a nice night for an assassination with a side dish of collusion, no? Cover-ups and double-crosses become the name of the game in Snake Eyes after an unseen gunman proceeds to shoot and kill the U.S. Defense Secretary amidst the high-stakes throes of the boxing match. Already, the setup for a thriller of this sort is delicious, but De Palma has more than one surprise up his sleeve.
Several other key figures factor into the ensuing mystery: a shadowy Naval official (Gary Sinise) whose intentions are not what they seem, a femme fatale (Carla Gugino) who witnessed the attack, and Truck Turner actor Stan Shaw as a heavyweight fighter with a face straight out of a '40s noir. Much of Snake Eyes, particularly with its labyrinth of a plot and the world-weary cynicism of Cage’s seen-it-all antihero, feels like De Palma’s fevered version of a contemporary film noir, though the Obsession director ultimately made a more traditional noir exercise with his undervalued, admittedly quite sordid 2006 vehicle, The Black Dahlia. The craft on display in Snake Eyes is nothing less than arresting: deftly sophisticated visual storytelling like the kind De Palma provides in even his lesser-praised work is virtually nonexistent in our current movie-going climate, which make the retrospective pleasures of something like this slept-on thriller all the easier to appreciate.
Hollywood Records has released a digital version of the soundtrack album for the 1998 thriller Snake Eyes directed by Brian De Palma and starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, John Heard, Joel Fabiani, Kevin Dunn and Luis Guzmán. The album features the original score from the Paramount Pictures and Touchstone Pictures production composed by Academy Award winner Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor, The Revenant, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, Little Buddha, Femme Fatale). Also included is the song Sin City written and performed by Meredith Brooks. Visit Amazon or any other major digital music services to stream/download the soundtrack. The label has previously released a CD version (which also features an additional song, The Freaky Things by LaKiesha Berri) when the movie opened in theaters in 1998. Snake Eyes is now available on VOD, Blu-ray and DVD.
Thompson: 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of Snake Eyes. You get asked about sequels to a handful of your movies but have you ever thought about returning to Rick Santoro post-jail?"NO-NET PRODUCTIONS"
Cage: Heck, man. I didn't know that. Thank you for reminding me. I don't usually watch my old movies, but I might watch that one because there was a lot there that has not been uncovered yet that could be rediscovered. To answer your question, Yeah. I would work with Brian De Palma again on a sequel to that in a heartbeat. I think it was a good character. Brian's one of our great geniuses in cinema; I'd love to make a movie with him.
Thompson: It could also work as a limited series.
Cage: You could do that too. My 17-year-old has got me watching immersive television, and he got me into Breaking Bad. Oh my God, they are so good in that show. Immersive television is a unique genre because you have so much more time to play out scenes. You're not boxed into a timeline. You can have these scenes be half the episode if you want. It's quite something.
We're running out of time, but I wanted to say one of my very favorite performances of yours is in "Snake Eyes" with Brian De Palma. You guys had such great chemistry together as filmmaker and star. How do you remember that going, and was there ever a possibility ... is there a possibility you might hook back up?
You know something? I've been trying to work with Brian ever since I made that movie. We had a great script about Howard Hughes that David Koepp wrote. I'd like to revisit that. But I just found out that it's the 23rd anniversary of "Snake Eyes." I don't watch my old movies, but I'm compelled to watch that one again because I had a great time working with Brian, because of his guts and his ability to do these huge takes. We had, like, five-minute cans of film that would swish pan, and we had to act it all out and rehearse it all day. And if you missed one line or flubbed up with a prop or anything, you had to go back to the beginning and do it all over again. He called it "no-net productions," and it was stimulating. There was an adrenaline to that. I would love to do a sequel to "Snake Eyes," and with Brian De Palma. He's one of my favorite directors.
Yeah, the tracking shot is unreal.
You enjoyed that as an actor?
Well, yeah. I mean, it's scary. It's daunting. But yeah, I mean, you want to prep and get ready for the challenge. We're all trying to get that opening that Orson Welles had in "Touch of Evil," and I think Brian was trying to throw his hat in the ring with that. We all want to homage what we love, and he's genuinely passionate about Hitchcock and Welles.
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