Snake Eyes (1998)

D: Brian De Palma
S: Nicholas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Guigno

Entertaining if extremely slight thriller from Brian De Palma following the popcorn muncher extraordinaire Mission Impossible. With the help of writer David Koepp, De Palma returns to Hitchcock pastiche, blending elements of Vertigo with more conventional film noir and conspiracy thriller stuff as cop Nicholas Cage finds himself at the centre of a murder investigation when he attends a boxing match in Atlantic city where the American Secretary of Defence is assassinated.

Split screen, roving steadicam, multiple viewpoints, shifting loyalties and identification: the stuff of the playful De Palma of the 1970s and early 1980s. A conspiracy film plot which evokes memories of the likes of The Parallax View and The Manchurian Candidate. Some major actors plying their trade under the gaze of Stephen H. Burum camerawork and the whole thing dressed up to the nines to make use of its glitzy, showy, excessive location: a casino hotel in the middle of a hurricane which the media insists on labelling a 'tropical storm'. Labels are in fact at the centre of the narrative, it being concerned with the disparity between an event and how it is perceived. Just when Cage thinks he's solved it, it turns out the problem was something he hadn't even realised was going on. The simple becomes increasingly complex and the obvious all the more obscure, leading him to the perennial heart of darkness characteristic of the genre and of this director.

Alas, there is something lacking at the heart of Snake Eyes. From the opening moments Cage's over the top characterisation repels rather than involves the viewer, and can't possibly be taken seriously. The macho persona which we are led to understand masks a character of at least some integrity (as is the norm for this type of thing: remember Sam Spade? "Don't be so sure I'm as crooked as I'm made out to be,") is frustratingly fickle and unconvincing, if not downright laughable (though perhaps that is the intention), leaving us no one to root for for the rest of the film. He is practically a parody of the corrupt antihero, and there are some funny scenes involving his extortion of money from various disreputable types in the early stages. But it is difficult to care very much about what happens given this, for even when the character suddenly switches on his professional side as the investigation gets underway, we feel little human sympathy for him. He's a cartoon character in a cartoonish universe defined by over the top decor and dizzying camerawork, unreal from the get go and never likely to become genuine. We merely have a curious interest in the way things will turn out after that. In the hands of Brian De Palma, this could be any way at all, and we are rewarded with plenty of twists and reversals and one or two stylish moments of pure cinematic self-indulgence which can't but raise a smile from the attuned.

Yet you feel that perhaps you should be taking this seriously. After all there's murder and a plot involving the heinous Military/Industrial complex that some thirty years ago would have been at the cutting edge of an angry, vocal and politically active American cinema. Perhaps this is the problem. In a blasé postmodern environment, there is little for Koepp and De Palma to do except go with the flow. Snake Eyes probably wouldn't have washed as a straight political melodrama in this day and age (not that it washes much as it is). Hence this is nothing more than a spectacle: a visual feast for those without a taste for substance, and no matter how hard you try, you can not begin to react to it as a serious text on the state of American society. You follow the bouncing ball as the (sort of) innocent dupe blunders his way through the forest of nefarious plotting which surrounds him and cheer and laugh on cue as he 'rescues' the damsel in distress (Carla Gugino). But you don't for a minute feel actual fear or pity. Heaven forbid that genuine emotion might be generated by postmodern cinema. We're much too sophisticated for that!

It is not surprising either then that the film resolves itself without the downbeat frissons of the New Hollywood era which De Palma is himself a veteran of. Many reviewers have commented on the falsity of the ending, but to my mind at least, it is a natural resolution to the film as it has been set up from the beginning. The entire thing is false from its opening twelve-minute take (with a couple of 'people or objects passing in front of the camera' moments which remind you of Rope) and Cage's performance. It is brash, excessive and broadly comic, ultimately not something which was ever about to become thoughtful and provocative. Why then should it not end with a happy grin and a final punchline which only those who bother to sit through the credits will get?

This is meant to be big, dumb fun, just as Mission Impossible was. Unfortunately despite its general slickness, it lacks the bravura moments of its predecessor, and which De Palma has delivered in many of his previous films including Carrie, Dressed to Kill, The Untouchables and Raising Cain. Your dominant memories of Snake Eyes will be momentary flashes of moving cameras and Nick Cage in a bad shirt with a golden mobile phone. Howard Hawks once observed that a good movie was three good scenes and no bad ones. You'd be hard pushed to recall three scenes at all from this movie, good or bad. It's not so much composed of set pieces or even built around them as it is one big set piece concerned with the gymnastics of the camera. It becomes one endless tour de force which brings to mind Stanley Kubrick wandering the corridors of The Shining.

For those with a taste for the outrageous and some sense of the fun to be had from style for style's sake, this will provide ample amusement. There are some good moments and one or two good gags. It's not about the story, or even what the story implies about life. It's about the camera for the camera's sake and playing games with movement and composition. To a point this is justification enough for the expenditure of time and money required to see it. But if you're looking for a thriller which generates tension or excitement, forget it. This is a spectacle; pure and simple. Maybe we deserve more than that. But if so, then we ought to get serious in real life and stop pretending that nothing matters or has meaning anymore. How can movies reflect our concerns if we insist on not having any?

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.