Film Scouts Reviews

"Snake Eyes"

by Henri Béhar

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ONE HELL OF A RIDE: Brian De Palma's New Thriller "Snake Eyes" is a trip into corruption, personal and societal, haunted by the specter of JFK's assassination

On first impact, Brian de Palma's latest opus is a gleeful smasher of a movie. One can imagine the director and his Mission-Impossible/Carlito's-Way accomplice David Koepp locking themselves up and cackling like brats as they pile up the challenges:

  - How about we do this movie, like, in real time, and it all happens in one place, the murder and the investigation?
  - Okay, then, how about a completely enclosed venue, like a sports arena or a casino?
  - What, we stay inside all the time? Okay... Except maybe one or two outdoors scenes...
  - At the beginning and the end...
  - Right. Like bookends.
  - Good idea, but then it should be raining outside; major hurricane.
  - Why not? Now about the murder inside. Can we find some interesting way...
  - A murder.
  - Make that an assassination.
  - In the midst of a heavyweight championship fight.
  - So we have 14,000 witnesses.
  - Plus TV cameras everywhere, so millions of viewers could be witnesses too!
  - Or accomplices.
  - A conspiracy? We're on to something here. And who's gonna be our hero, our lead in, the guy we identify with?
  - How about someone totally corrupt?
  - Start typing.

Mission impossible, yet accomplished. The first shot - all twenty minutes of it! - sweeps you into a whirl of intrigue as you follow corrupt Atlantic City detective Rick Santoro (Nicholas Cage) into a sports arena just before a heavyweight boxing match; going through corridors, up flights of stairs, down an escalator, shaking and skinning some shady characters along the way before joining old pal and fellow-Jersey-ite Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a Navy commander now working with the US Secretary of Defense. The fight begins. As Dunne follows a suspect redhead, the Secretary is assassinated, right in front of 14,000 fight fans who all become potential accomplices - at least witnesses. The arena is sealed, the murder investigation begins, it soon focuses on the mysterious redhead, the no-less mysterious (and definitely not blonde) woman who sat for a short while in front of the Defense Secretary seconds before he was killed, and the champion who may have thrown the game.

If you go to a movie just for the energy of it, "Snake Eyes" will pump up your adrenaline until it overflows and even then it will continue pumping, lead by a Nicholas Cage who moves and talks so fast he'll will leave Joe Pesci in the dust, with his rapid-fire dialogue and his loud mouth, though it is not quite as loud as the Hawaiian shirt he sports throughout the film. But the film has much more to offer: a stylistic high-wire act, it is also a reflection on today's society that is not devoid of cynicism.

As Rick Santoro reconstructs the events leading up to the assassination, as he puts the puzzle pieces together, Brian de Palma relies on the memories of witnesses (first-person narration). Shades of Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon" where four people involved in a rape-murder gave varying accounts of what had happened. But whereas in "Rashomon", the characters' tales were wildly different, here they complete each other as Brian de Palma withholds, then reveals the puzzle pieces meretriciously - the basics of suspense. "Hitchcock 101," as de Palma calls it.

Then there is the omnipresence of surveillance/TV cameras. And more puzzle pieces are revealed as Cage-Santoro plays and replays the various tapes - it's almost like watching seventeen Zapruder films, although, for some, we may have yet to see the last reel of that one.

There is no denying that the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and the search for "what really happened" that day permeates "Snake Eyes", as it did de Palma's first film, "Greetings" (1968), where a young Robert De Niro was so obsessed with the murder that he examined blown-up photographs of the grassy knoll, searching for a second gunman. As it did in "Blow Out" (1981), in which movie sound man John Travolta accidentally recorded a politician's death which, he discovered, was also the result of a conspiracy. There is no denying that That Day in Dallas was a turning point in our lives (certainly in De Palma's life, as well as that of many writers and directors), the day we stopped believing blindly in our leaders and rulers, the day that we became wary - nay, cynical - about authority. How many government figures in recent films can no longer be trusted to do the right thing? Worse, more often than not, are they not the ones waiting in the dark with their fingers on the trigger, waiting for their prey (us?) to innocently walk by?

Beyond that - or rather, beside that - Brian de Palma deals with voyeurism head-on, the multiple (and objective?) presence of surveillance/TV cameras attest to that (Travolta in "Blow Out" was but an audio-voyeur, so to speak). Truth, reality, fact, fiction are now but relative notions. It makes total sense for "Snake Eyes" to take place almost entirely within a casino. A totally fake world, deliberately made up to shut out reality.

And maybe at the end, after being properly lauded and medalled for cracking the conspiracy open, the Nicholas Cage character will get HIS comeuppance. And maybe - or maybe not - his corrupt past will catch up with him and he'll be punished and demoted. But if he is, De Palma seems to say, wanna bet he'll get a 4 million dollar book deal and do all the TV talk shows and become a celebrity?

SNAKE EYES, produced and directed by Brian de Palma, written by David Koepp, based on a story by De Palma and Koepp. Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum. Production design: Anne Pritchard. Editing: Bill Pankow. Starring: Nicholas Cage, Gary Sinise, John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw.

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