Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, John Heard, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, Luis Guzman, Tamara Tunie
Written by: David Koepp, from a story by Brian De Palma, David Koepp
Directed by: Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating: R for some violence
Running Time: 99
Date: 07/30/1998

Snake Eyes (1998)

3 Stars (out of 4)

In a Fix

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The first 20 minutes of Brian De Palma's new movie Snake Eyes are among the most imaginative and energetic minutes of film I've seen in awhile. Nicolas Cage plays Rick Santoro, a dirty cop in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Gary Sinise plays his best friend, Major Kevin Dunne. It's Fight Night (as Cage heartily declares many times). Cage is there to watch the fight, and Sinese is there to keep an eye on the United States Secretary of Defense, who is also attending the fight. The first several minutes of Snake Eyes is all done in one long shot, which is one of De Palma's many trademarks. The camera travels all over the place, up and down staircases, around the arena. I was going to time it for you, but the truth is, I got so wrapped up in the action, I wasn't paying attention when the first cut occurred.

Of course the Secretary is shot during the fight's climax. A sexy woman in a white suit and blonde wig is also shot at but gets away. Cage and Sinise order the entire fight arena sealed off. "We've got 14,000 witnesses," Cage says. From there, Cage and Sinise try to piece together what happened through an elaborate series of flashbacks -- only someone's not telling the truth. Cage finally catches up with the sexy blonde, now a brunette (Carla Gugino), who had been trying to inform the Secretary of a military cover-up. Her story is told in a split-screen flashback, comparing it side-by-side with Cage's story.

I think I'll stop there and not ruin any of the film's surprises or discoveries. I will say that the film's ending (perhaps the last 10 or 15 minutes) seems sloppy and patchwork, especially for two experts. Brian De Palma and his screenwriter David Koepp (who wrote Carlito's Way and Mission: Impossible for De Palma) seem to have run out of either time or interest in their story, and after 80 minutes of brilliant, crackling filmmaking, the ending drops over a cliff. I'm still recommending the movie on a mathematical ratio. It's worth your price of admission to see the 80 good minutes.

It's also worth it to see Nicolas Cage. Cage continues to develop as an actor, and Snake Eyes is among his greatest treats. He dances and bristles with energy. He's like a delirious whirlwind. As the story breaks open, and Cage is forced to reckon with forces he hadn't foreseen, he becomes slowly deflated, and the fireworks are replaced by confusion and hurt. It's a mighty performance. Gary Sinise, another great actor, keeps a steely reserve, and marches around grimly like Robert Patrick's character in Terminator 2, but within the context of Snake Eyes, it works.

Brian De Palma is an extraordinarily primal filmmaker. After more than 20 films, he is still fascinated with and excited by the medium itself, and the ways with which you can move it and cut it. He is the most obvious of voyeurs. He doesn't get very deep into characters very often, but he loves to watch them in their private moments. He continues to invent new styles while paying less attention to his stories.

De Palma has been strongly defended by veteran New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, while other critics have both demolished his work and admitted to having guilty pleasures among his films. He is at his best with dark suspense, horror, and crime where demons are flying about as in Sisters (1973), Carrie (1976), Obsession (1976), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), and Scarface (1983). Somewhere along the line Hollywood decided he would be good at action, and he energized the tired and dull scripts for The Untouchables (1987), and Mission: Impossible (1996). But his masterpiece may have been Casualties of War (1989), where he got interested for the first time in human beings who committed secret unspeakable acts. I think he scares most people by the way he strips cinema down to its vicious roots, but he is a great artist.

That said, Snake Eyes falls somewhere in the middle of De Palma's work, but it's an incredible body of work. Spotty, maybe, but full of personal demons and exorcisms. May De Palma's soul never be clean enough to stop him from making movies.

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