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A Punch Drunk 'Snake Eyes'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 1998

  Movie Critic

Snake Eyes
Nicolas Cage is over the top but under control as the Atlantic City police officer in "Snake Eyes." (Paramount)

Brian De Palma
Nicolas Cage;
Carla Cugino;
Gary Sinise;
John Heard;
Stan Shaw
Running Time:
1 hour, 38 minutes
For gore, gunfire, profanity and pugilism
Brian De Palma's "Snake Eyes" is an earthworm in snake's clothing-visually dazzling, with a complex, patterned, iridescent skin, but whose story is ultimately commonplace and lowly.

Ostensibly a thriller, "Snake Eyes" is a thicket of tense, adrenaline-juiced moments, but they are more a result of the film's dizzying, vertiginous look than its flawed narrative. The setup is this: At an Atlantic City boxing match, the celebrity guest of honor is Secretary of Defense Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). Head of Kirkland's security detail is Navy Cmdr. Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), who has arranged for old pal Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) to be his guest for fight night, front row center.

As straight-arrow as the uniformed Dunne is-or appears to be-Santoro is the opposite. Dressed in a shiny sharkskin suit and a loud shirt, Santoro is a corrupt but lovable Atlantic City beat cop who is cheating on his wife and is not above roughing up a low-life gambler (Luis Guzman) in a stairwell in order to relieve him of his cash. During the fight, when Dunne steps away from his post for a minute and the secretary is shot, Santoro steps in and takes charge of the investigation, not only to shield his buddy from charges of dereliction of duty, but to further his own political ambitions. (He dreams of running for mayor some day.)

But as Santoro begins to delve further into what seems an open and shut case-a Palestinian gunman is quickly identified-he discovers a "Rashomon"-like jigsaw puzzle of half-truths. In interviews with the boxer (Stan Shaw) who took a knock-out punch just before the hit and with a mystery woman (Carla Gugino) who was speaking with Kirkland moments earlier, Santoro begins to uncover what is all too often called a "vast conspiracy"-one of "X-Files" proportions whose implausible synchronization seems to suggest coordination by extraterrestrials.

Even if you believe the Vincent Foster conspiracy theorists, it's hard to accept that intrigue this Byzantine could ever be pulled off in the real world. Nevertheless, to "Snake Eyes'" credit, there is so much spectacular eye candy here that the storytelling imperfections seem less glaring.

De Palma, a director who knows his way around a camera lens, paints this lavish picture with masterful brush stokes, layering swirling 360-degree pans on top of claustrophobic close-ups, towering crane shots and intimate hand-held camera work that jogs alongside the manic Santoro. You don't just see but feel the pandemonium of a typical prize fight.

As Santoro, Cage is once again over the top but totally in control of his character, who swerves from moral confusion to blemished heroism. Sinise is perfectly steely as the hard-to-read Dunne.

Unfortunately, the sense of mystery in "Snake Eyes" evaporates all too quickly, as Santoro unravels the truth with the help of the arena's thousands of video cameras-technology that is used in much the same way that sound man Jack Terry (John Travolta) used audio tape in De Palma's more satisfying "Blow Out." As filmmaking, it's a bravura performance, but as a film, it falls flat. De Palma has put too much top-spin on his "Snake Eyes," rolling out a work that opens with a bang and ends with the whimper of a gambler who has run out of luck.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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