Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Snake Eyes



Snake Eyes (1998)
Starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, John Heard, Luis Guzman

In the wake of Carlito’s Way, De Palma was back on top and directed the very commercial Mission: Impossible. It was definitely a big break both for the director and in establishing Tom Cruise as an action star. It was also not very De Palma-esque, especially due to its globe trotting nature. Most De Palma films work because of their very small and local nature, so having character moving from Europe to Langley, Virginia between scenes was a bit jarring for those expecting a film more true to the director’s aesthetic. It was an enjoyable movie though, but it was Snake Eyes that was set to stand as a return to the paranoid thrillers De Palma made in the 1980s (Body Double, Blow Out).

Rick Santoro (Cage) is an Atlantic City cop who has embraced the corruption of his city. It’s fight night at the casino he frequents most and his old pal, Kevin Dunne (Sinise) is in attendance as the head of security for the attending Secretary of Defense. Rick gets a seat right next to Kevin’s, but the latter is pulled away due to a security issue leaving Rick front and center when a Palestinian terrorist assassinates the secretary. Rick is immediately thrown into the midst of a conspiracy involving a strange young woman who was talking to the secretary moments before he was killed. The investigation leads Rick into retracing the steps of all the major players presenting in the arena at the time of the conspiracy.

Snake Eyes is a colossal failure, due in part to an unrewarding second half, when all the big reveals are made. However, the first half the film is basically a masterclass in cinematography. No matter how terrible the plots and acting are in a De Palma film you can always rely on the camera to be a star (Bonfire of the Vanities being the exception). The first scene of the film is a series of about eight Steadicam shots spliced together to make one long introductory scene leading up to the moment of the assassination. From there, as Rick interviews suspects and witnesses, we are taken back in time where we see the events play out from their POV, the classic first person camera shot De Palma so often employs. There is also an elaborate shot where characters are hiding and pursuing each other on a floor of the casino’s hotel. The camera raises itself up to look down and begins panning over roofless rooms, allowing us to peek inside.

The conspiracy is incredibly predictable based on certain characters’ actions and comments, so when we learn the truth its a big of a yawn. There’s also a lot of plot points that stretch the film’s credibility beyond anything acceptable. The motivation for the conspiracy is also fairly weak. I was reminded of Three Days of the Condor and how, despite its low points in the middle, it delivers a believable reason for conspiracy that makes sense within both our world and the universe of the film. The conspiracy in Snake Eyes is rather too elaborate for what is trying to be covered up. This over the top turn of events causes the film to become a bore and by the end its hard to really care about where any of these bland characters end up.

Next: De Palma goes back to some deep Hitchcock roots with Femme Fatale.

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