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Snake Eyes

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Snake Eyes

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise
Director: Brian De Palma
Rated: R
RunTime: 99 Minutes
Release Date: August 1998
Genres: Suspense, Thriller

*Also starring: John Heard, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw, Kevin Dunn, Michael Rispoli, Joel Fabiani, Luis Guzman, Mike Starr

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Brian De Palma's new political thriller, "Snake Eyes," has just the sort of plot the ancient Greek tragedians would have loved. Its hero, played by Nicolas Cage, is a deeply flawed character who, you would expect to meet his comeuppance at the very moment that he is exalted. His antagonist, whose identity will not be revealed here, is a man who does evil but who does it not for selfish motives but to save the lives (or so he thinks) of the people he works with. Closer to home, "Snake Eyes" is just the sort of movie that could revive talk about Who Killed Kennedy, as it highlights a conspiracy to kill a high-level government official that leads the conspirators to erase all traces of evidence--including the accessories to the crime.

Brian De Palma, whose direction is anything but subtle, shoves his camera everywhere and anywhere, obliterating walls as though they were made of gossamer to zoom from hotel lobby to elaborate bed chambers. He encircles the boxing arena in an Atlantic City casino as though his camera were on the wings of an eagle. Reproached by film critic David Thomson as "the epitome of mindless style and excitement swamping taste or character," he nonetheless gives an audience eager to be electrified for an hour and a half a steady dose of adrenalin, having portrayed startling characters in films like "Carrie," "The Fury," "Body Double," and one of the great past potentates of mayhem and bloodletting, "Scarface."

His special technique this time around is to view a murder and its investigation virtually in real time. He begins by introducing an off-the-wall detective, Nick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), who establishes his character early on by shaking down a drug pusher, placing a $5,000 bet on a fight, and strutting about a boxing arena like a drunken sophomore at an untamed fraternity party. You'd think that a cop on the take would play low profile but in the one major directorial error, De Palma goes overboard in confusing Detective Santoro with Castor Troy or Cameron Poe. De Palma makes good on the tension once the assassination plot takes hold and maintains the tautness throughout, effortlessly making up for this strange introductory gaffe.

The setting is a casino in Atlantic City on a stormy evening. Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), heavyweight champ, is defending his title as a 10-1 favorite. When he apparently takes a dive, a shot rings out: the Secretary of Defense is hit in the throat, as his chief bodyguard, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) plunges into the investigation together with his best friend, Santoro. Just prior to the shooting, a 26-year-old woman, Julie Costello (Carla Gugino), had slipped the secretary an envelope containing a document questioning the reliability of a new weapons system. Spattered with blood, she tries to disappear into the adjacent casino and is pursued by those who need to silence her.

During the course of the story we learn much about casino security, particularly about the 1500 surveillance cameras which can hone in on individuals suspected of "counting" or engaging in other activities detrimental to the profits of the casino. The computerized TV surveillance can even survey the halls of the massive hotel, quickly identifying guests by picture and room numbers. The principal technique used by De Palma is a Rashomon-like series of flashbacks to the shooting from different angles and distinct points of view, each time teasing the audience with another piece of the puzzle.

David Koepp's screenplay is a complex one which takes time to sort out as he throws quite a few particulars into the story. We see the action from Santoro's point of view, that of a cop with ambitions to be the mayor of Atlantic City but with no higher goals than to be chief in a town he calls his sewer. We observe a boxer who is confronted with evidence of a fixed fight, and note that boxing is nothing if not a business. (The defeated heavyweight champ is attended by a lawyer.) We inspect the self-serving of various people in the media and government, not surprised that one TV reporter, Lou Logan (Kevin Dunn), offers Santoro $5,000 for exclusive rights to interview some of the 14,000 witnesses to the shooting. We observe the escalating fear and panic in the eyes of Julie Costello, a young woman who is so nearsighted that without her glasses all is a blur but who is otherwise the most farsighted character in the movie.

"Snake Eyes," which represents the single circle on the face of a pair of dice, is so named because "the house always wins." The picture is itself a winner in most respects, flawed only by an overly rambunctious characterization by Nicolas Cage. De Palma has successfully ventured back to his Hitchcock phase, which he borrowed while at the helm of "Sisters" in 1973, but still employs a style all his own with his bold and dazzling visual flair.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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