Review: ‘Snake Eyes’

"Snake Eyes" is snakebit. After a razzle-dazzle opening, this hyperactive thriller about a corrupt cop's investigation of an assassination devolves into a mere excuse for a stylistic exercise by director Brian De Palma, one whose threads of dramatic plausibility and character involvement unravel completely by the time of the incredibly silly final reel.

“Snake Eyes” is snakebit. 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. This late-summer Paramount release will offer a true test of Nicolas Cage’s star status and ability to open a picture single-handedly; opening roll of the dice will likely be a winner, followed by a quick loss of luck.

Something of a companion piece to De Palma’s 1981 suspenser “Blow Out” in the way it pieces together recorded evidence of a politically inspired killing, as well as in its cynicism, new outing features a conceptual premise that affords De Palma and his game cinematographer Stephen H. Burum the opportunity to show how dexterously cinematic they can be. But even for buffs, this will be far from enough, as nearly every element in the picture is contrived and almost laughably superficial.

After a brief simulated TV newscast in which an announcer braves a hurricane-force storm in Atlantic City to set the stage for a heavy-weight title fight inside an adjacent arena-hotel-casino, the Steadicam gets 12 minutes to shine, as De Palma covers an enormous amount of ground and action in a single, apparently uninterrupted take.

With the image bursting dramatically into widescreen under the credits, the camera picks up local homicide Detective Rick Santoro (Cage) as he bounds through stadium hallways, hits on a between-rounds placard babe, stops at the dressing room of the champ (Stan Shaw), jumps an escalator to shake down a small-time hood for some gambling money, heads into the arena filled with thousands of expectant fans, chats on his cell phone with his wife and girlfriend, takes a ringside seat next to his boyhood friend, Navy Cmdr. Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), and watches the first round of the fight, which concludes with a knockout of the champ and the sniper shooting of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, who was sitting in the row behind Santoro.

While similar to some other shots De Palma has pulled off in the past, this one is an indisputably impressive tour de force on numerous levels, particularly in the choreography of movement and the fact that Cage is on the move and running his mouth to a wide assortment of characters virtually throughout the sequence. The dramatic compression obtained by the intense focus and concentration brought to bear on this introduction demonstrates not only what the camera is capable of technically, but inspires agreeably economical conveyance of expository information.

Goosed by the bustling, wiseguy energy with which Cage seizes his casually corrupt character, sequence creates hopes for at least a stylish, engaging potboiler. But it doesn’t take long for the film, which David Koepp wrote from a story he cooked up with the director, to flame out and fall into an ever-accelerating tailspin. A master pragmatist adept at handling situations as they crop up regardless of propriety and ethics, Santoro quickly instructs his upright military friend Dunne in a good cover story to explain why he abandoned his protective position of the defense chief, something he did when a busty redhead nearby attracted his attention.

Although Dunne has managed to nail the apparent assassin, an alleged Palestinian extremist, moments after the shooting, Santoro has the stadium doors locked in hopes of finding other suspects among the 14,000 fight fans. Prime among them is a blond-bewigged young woman who was talking to the secretary at the time he was hit and who was evidently injured herself.

His suspicions aroused when a videotape replay reveals that the champ went down after a phantom punch, Santoro begins listening to various witnesses’ accounts of the moments surrounding the sniper fire. De Palma elaborates this with visual versions that are moderately interesting for what they expose but, under analysis, often present material that would be impossible for the person telling the tale to know. The result is incidents that are increasingly difficult to swallow.

At the same time, Santoro finally tracks down the missing blonde, actually a brunette named Julia (Carla Gugino), a naive, do-gooder functionary whose revelations of top-to-bottom corruption touching upon Washington politicians, the military, defense contractors, gambling and real estate interests as well as fight world figures are far too rote and warmed-over to pack any punch. Confrontational denouement and a time-leaping coda are absurd, and wrap-up at barely past the 90-minute mark suggests great haste and lack of clear thinking about what the point of the whole thing is supposed to be.

Cage supplies beaucoup energy, but his highly compromised hustler cop character provides little else in which he can invest his talent. Sinise wears an increasingly grim demeanor in a part that comes to make no sense, and John Heard’s role as a local power broker gets lost in the shuffle.

Largely shot at the old Forum in Montreal, pic is technically outstanding and boasts a supportive, unobtrusive score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Snake Eyes


A Paramount (in U.S.)/Buena Vista International (foreign) release of a DeBart production. Produced, directed by Brian De Palma. Executive producer, Louis A. Stroller. Screenplay, David Koepp, story by De Palma, Koepp.


Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Stephen H. Burum; editor, Bill Pankow; music, Ryuichi Sakamoto; production designer, Anne Pritchard; art directors, James Fox, Isabelle Guay, Real Proulx, Terri Carriker-Thayer (Atlantic City); set decorator, Daniel Carpentier, Beth Rubino (Atlantic City); costume designer, Odette Gadoury; sound (Dolby digital/DTS/SDDS), Patrick Rousseau, James Sabat Sr. (Atlantic City); special visual effects, Industrial Light & Magic; visual effects supervisor, Eric Brevig; associate producers, Jeff Levine, Chris Soldo; assistant director, Soldo; second unit director, Eric Schwab; second unit camera, Alex Funke; casting, Mary Colquhoun. MPAA Rating: R. Reviewed at Paramount Studios, L.A., August 3, 1998. Running time: 99 min.


Rick Santoro - Nicolas Cage Kevin Dunne - Gary Sinise Gilbert Powell - John Heard Julia Costello - Carla Gugino Lincoln Tyler - Stan Shaw Lou Logan - Kevin Dunn Jimmy George - Michael Rispoli Charles Kirkland - Joel Fabiani Cyrus - Luis Guzman Ned Campbell - David Anthony Higgins Walt McGahn - Mike Starr Anthea - Tamara Tunie Mickey Alter - Chip Zien
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