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Days of De Palma (Part 14): Snake Eyes (1998)

September 30th, 2016
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A few years ago I decided to start watching all of the films directed by Brian De Palma.  He’d always struck me as a very interesting director, one who had helmed a variety of very different films, and about whom there seemed to be a strong split in critical opinion.  I knew that there were several De Palma films that I had seen and enjoyed, and many more that I had not seen but was curious about.  And so my “Days of De Palma” series began.  It’s taken me far longer than I’d expected to make my way through Mr. de Palma’s filmography, I kept getting distracted and moving onto other things, but I never gave up and I am happy to say that, as I write this, I have completed my viewing project.  Now all that remains is for me to write about this last stretch of films!  Let’s begin with Snake Eyes.

Snake Eyes

I believe that Mission: Impossible was the first Brian De Palma film that I ever saw in theatres, back in 1996.  I really liked that film, and so when Mr. De Palma’s follow-up film, Snake Eyes, was released, I remember being eager to see it.  The film was something of a critical dud, but my recollection of seeing it in a theater was being really blown away by it.  I hadn’t seen the film in the two decades since, and so as I was making my way through this “Days of De Palma” viewing project this was the film I was most eager to revisit.

Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a fast-talking Atlantic City police detective.  His best friend is US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinese).  Rick considers himself the master of his town, a mover and shaker who is buddy-buddy with everyone important and always knows the score, but that certainty is shattered when the Secretary of Defense is assassinated under Rick’s nose at a boxing max.  Rick struggles with increasing desperation to unravel the complicated mess that he has found himself smack in the middle of, but it’s possible he never had a chance.

I know this film doesn’t have a great reputation, but I don’t understand that at all.  Watching this film again I enjoyed it every bit as much as I had originally twenty years ago.

First of all, David Koepp’s script is terrific, a nice taut, twisty mystery.  I have commented before that I believe Mr. De Palma is at his best when working from a strong script (I think blame for most of Mr. De Palma’s stinkers can be laid at the feet of those films’ poor scripts) so it’s great to see Mr. De Palma working here on his third film in a row (after Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible) by David Koepp.

Nic Cage gives a marvelous performance as Rick Santoro.  This role is a great fit for Mr. Cage’s manic energy.  He creates in Rick a man full of bravado and bluster who we can see right away is all talk.  The movie quickly pulls the rug right out from under Rick’s feet, then asks whether he can ever find his footing again.  This is a familiar type of story arc, but Mr. Cage really sells it, captivating the audience’s attention with his depiction of this loud, flimsy man with feet of clay.

Gary Sinese is also great fun to watch as Rick’s much more successful best friend.  His Nick Dunne seems to have his act together whereas Rick, despite his big talk, is something of a mess.  The two men are oil and water and yet Mr. Sinese and Mr. Cage really sell their friendship.  I like watching the two men play off of one another.

Carla Gugino is great as the mysterious blonde who is somehow involved in the assassination plot.  Is she a damsel in distress or a black widow?  This is also a classic type of character to find in a mystery story, but the beautiful Ms. Gugino does a great job at filling in what could have been a flat role.  She’s able to play each scene with multiple levels of possible meaning.  It’s fun to watch.

Everything I have written about in the past few paragraphs is great, but I think the main reason I enjoy Snake Eyes so much is because the film gives Mr. De Palma an opportunity to cut loose.  Mission: Impossible felt fairly restrained for a De Palma film (as I noted in my review), but here in Snake Eyes Mr. De Palma joyously unleashes all of his favorite filmmaking tricks and stylistic devices.  But it doesn’t feel indulgent, all of these elements feel perfectly in service of a story that is all about deception and differing perceptions and viewpoints.

Mr. De Palma has often played with the idea of watching and being watched in his films, often through the specific lense of video and cameras.  Mission: Impossible opens with a sequence in which we see a spy operation being observed by other agents on a TV screen.  Similarly, Snake Eyes opens with a shot of a news reporter, to whom we then see Nic Cage’s character talking; we then see Cage’s Rick talking to another guy, Lou, and then we see Lou through another TV screen.  This focus on cameras and TV screens continues as the film progresses.  For instance, there is a key moment in the middle of the film in which Rick is re-watching a key moment from the boxing match over and over again, looking for evidence of a phantom punch.  Then, at the film’s end, a TV camera is critical in foiling the film’s bad guy… and even the film’s last line is Rick commenting: “At least I got to be on TV.”  For a film made twenty years ago, these ideas about the ways that our lives revolve around screens and the way that being watched is an inextricable part of our existence feels incredibly prescient.

Following those opening moments involving TV screens that I just mentioned, Mr. De Palma unleashes an extraordinary, absolutely jaw-dropping extended single-take sequence as we follow Nic Cage’s Rick all through the corridors of the arena and finally out into the packed auditorium where the fight is taking place.  This is a bravura sequence, staggering in its audacity and skill.  How many extras were involved in those shots of the packed arena??  My mind boggles.  This incredible single-take sequence reminds me a lot of the similar-style shot that Mr. De Palma used to open The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Except in that film it felt hugely random, just Mr. De Palma showing off.  But here this shot serves an important purpose, drawing us into the story and clearly setting up — in a fun and clever way — the precise geography of the arena and the characters, so that we can clearly understand exactly how everything goes down once things start going wrong.  These first fifteen or so minutes could be my favorite sequence from Mr. De Palma’s entire career.  I love it.

We get a ton of classic De Palma P.O.V. shots throughout the film.  For the most part, these shots are cleverly used in flashback sequences as different characters share their points of view on what has happened.  We first see this P.O.V. device used when the champ Lincoln Tyler (played by Stan Shaw) is explaining some of the backstory to Rick.  (I love how gracefully Mr. De Palma shifts out of the P.O.V. shot by showing us a shot of the champ’s face in the mirror, which transitions us out of that moment.)

We also get some wonderful De Palma split-focus shots, such as the moment with the champ in the foreground and the “here comes the pain!” guy in the background.   We get some classic De Palma split-screen shots, when Carla Gugino tells her story and then during some climactic moments towards the end of the film.  And I absolutely adore the crazy shot in which the camera gives us a god’s-eye view of the hotel, passing through walls and over ceilings, showing us room after room in the hotel.  These are all great De Palma devices, which keep the film moving and help build suspense and tension in addition to being incredible displays of cinematic mastery.

Snake Eyes is loud and colorful, which disguises the fact that this story is actually a noir!  It wasn’t until the end, when Rick is being taunted by the villain that he can never win, that I realized this and all the pieces fell into place.  The film has a suitably downbeat ending for a noir.  I can see why that didn’t sit well with some audiences but to me I can’t see any other way this film could have ended.  A happy ending would have been incredibly out of place.

The film’s only real weakness in my mind is that the business at the end about the hurricane and the huge rolling ball is rather silly.  It works OK, I guess, but that outlandish turn feels out of place in this movie.  (Interestingly, in the documentary De Palma, Mr. De Palma reveals that the original ending of the film was different, involving an enormous tidal wave demolishing the city, an act of God wiping out the corrupt town.  I’m not sure that would have worked any better than what we got, but the half-heartedness of the ending we have does shine through as something that was not the filmmakers’ original intention.)

Snake Eyes has an unusually good score for a De Palma film (whose films often suffer, in my opinion, under over-wrought scores).  Even the closing credits are cool!

This is a very underrated film.  I am glad that it’s just as good as I remembered.  If you’ve never seen Snake Eyes, I encourage you to give it a whirl.

Next up: Mr. De Palma’s foray into sci-fi with Mission to Mars!

Days of De Palma: Part 1 — Carrie (1976); Part 2 — The Fury (1978); Part 3 — Dressed to Kill (1980); Part 4 — Blow Out (1981); Part 5 – Scarface (1983); Part 6 – Body Double (1984); Part 7 – Wise Guys (1986); Part 8 — The Untouchables (1987); Part 9 — Casualties of War (1989); Part 10 — The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990); Part 11 — Raising Cain (1992); Part 12 — Carlito’s Way (1993); Part 13 — Mission: Impossible (1996).

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