If Brian De Palma were as good at rewriting as he is at visual
style, “Snake Eyes” might have been a heck of a movie. He isn't, and it isn't.
It's the worst kind of bad film: the kind that gets you all worked up and then
lets you down, instead of just being lousy from the first shot.
Now about that first shot. It's wonderful. It's a Steadicam take
that runs on and on, seemingly forever. Nicolas Cage is onscreen for almost
every second of it, as a corrupt Atlantic City, N.J., cop who scuttles
backstage and ringside at a heavyweight championship fight. He shakes down a
creep, he places a bet, he has a chat with his old friend who is in charge of
security, he talks on the phone with his wife and kid, he shmoozes with a sexy
blond who sits down next to him, and he's sitting right in front of the U.S.
Secretary of Defense when the man is assassinated.
I'd have to look at the film very carefully to be sure how long
this uninterrupted single shot is; it's possible that De Palma has hidden a
couple of cuts in the middle of swish-pans. No matter; he steals the crown here
from the famous long takes by Martin Scorsese in “GoodFellas” and Paul Thomas
Anderson in “Boogie Nights,” and it's virtuoso work, as the camera follows Cage
up and down stairs and he never quits talking.
Cage is wonderful, all the extras and supporting actors hit
their marks right on time, the camera work (by Stephen H. Burum) is perfectly
coordinated, the energy level is high, there's great excitement and I'm
scribbling “terrific opening!” in my notes.
Alas, slowly at first and then with stunning rapidity, the movie
falls apart. It has the elements for a good thriller, and De Palma still has
some surprises up his sleeve, but it's a downhill slog.
The other key characters are played by Gary Sinise, as a Navy
officer who has taken over command of the security at the prize fight; Carla
Gugino, as a woman with secret information she wants to deliver to the
Secretary of Defense and Stan Shaw as the defending champion.
It's a small cast, in a story using a structure De Palma has had
fun with in the past, in films like “Blow Out” (1981). He shows an action and
then repeats it from various points of view, adding information until a jigsaw
puzzle of information falls into place. Occasionally we'll see a moment that
doesn't seem to fit, and then it will be explained later, and eventually the
outlines of a conspiracy become clear.
There are nice ideas here, as when the Gugino character loses
her glasses and has to flee from the bad guys without being able to see
anything other than a blur. And moments when De Palma brutally rips up
everything we thought we knew and makes us start all over again. But there are
also moments of dreadful implausibility. How likely is it, for example, inside
a coliseum crawling with law enforcement, where thousands of fans have been
forcibly detained, that no one would notice the heavyweight champ beating up a
cop? De Palma supplies one more fine shot, looking straight down through the
ceilings of a series of hotel rooms until he finds the one he's looking for.
But he's not on guard against lame dialogue, and at one point the desperate
Gugino, looking for a place to hide and trying to persuade a guy to take her
upstairs to his room, actually says, “If you don't ... I'll bet ... somebody
else will!” Then comes an ending so improbable it seems to have been fashioned
as a film school exercise: Find the Mistakes in This Scene. I can't describe it
in detail without giving away too much of the plot, but imagine a grand climax
in which a hurricane strikes Atlantic City and all of the key players find
themselves standing outdoors in the middle of it, on live TV.
David Koepp, the writer, has been associated with some
successful movies (“The Paper,” “Jurassic Park,” De Palma's “Carlito's Way” and
“Mission: Impossible”). What happened while he was writing this one? I would
genuinely be curious to know how a professional screenwriter and an important
director could both agree that “Snake Eyes” has a last act they're willing to
sign their names to.