Justin Stewart on Snake Eyes
Considering that Brian De Palma’s oeuvre is so crammed with bravura set pieces and “Mind if I rewind that?” spectacle, the fact that Snake Eyes (1998) contains so many of his most thrilling moments alone qualifies it for something higher than the lower-tier lumping it generally receives. Even if we can’t all agree on the sturdiness of the logic and general quality of the film’s final third (not great, but not Hollow Man bad!), the virtuosity of everything else (not just the 13-minute opening shot) is enough to excite exaggerated condemnations on the level of Charles Taylor and Armond White’s notorious Mission to Mars critical backlashes to anyone who would so blithely dismiss the whole. Snake Eyes’ shortcomings are so obvious, and stand in such contrasted relief to its successes, that one looks almost fussy to even consider them when grading the film. “What a dud of a climax!” can then act as a cozy loosening from the boa constrictor grip the movie held you in for the greater duration.
De Palma’s showmanship in Snake Eyes, so flamboyant and supercharged, crushes abstract elements like “heart” (whatever that really means) into silence, or so detractors have charged. The sin of this complaint seems primarily one of greed, as if one movie must or even could contain an emotional wallop on equal level with some of Snake Eyes’ jolting pleasures. Blow Out achieves such a balance, but its thrills are also more muted, less cutthroat. Another problem with the all-style-no-substance gripe (common to De Palma, needless to say, but especially repeated in this case) is a bit more subjective–there is heart. In fact, for an approximately real time 98-minute thriller about the assassination of the U.S. Defense Secretary that’s set almost entirely in a boxing arena/casino complex, Snake Eyes can be startlingly affecting.
Forget about romance. It’s true that Nicolas Cage’s conflicted cop Rick Santoro does swap panic-fueled affections with defense systems whistleblower Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), but it’s in crises of friendship, loyalty, and pride (among men, as it happens) that Snake Eyes locates its tragedy. Where a lesser screenwriter could have slopped down any arbitrary themes to add meat to the thrills, David Koepp (who’s collaborated with the director three times) threads his concerns throughout with the measured skill of his Carlito’s Way and War of the Worlds. Santoro’s best friend, Navy commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), is in on the assassination conspiracy, and he uses his friend, and lies to him, to help pull it off. Santoro might be corrupt and buyable (he gives another friend exclusive press access to the events in exchange for several grand), but the slowness with which he finally accepts Dunne’s guilt resonates, and Cage pinpoints it with the disbelief in his voice (“You pulled a gun on me.”) Maybe it’s the near-incessant screaming of lines that dulls the emotional impact for some, but it’s the same high pitch, split-second drama you get from good sports, and any Red Sox, Bills, et al. fan can tell you just how real that feels. It’s sporting pride that torments boxer Lincoln Tyler, who takes a paid fall and causes the confusion necessary to carry off the shooting. As Tyler, Stan Shaw’s hurt, loud admissions of cowardice to Santoro are the film’s most cutting inquiries into the sad truth of pride only up to a certain price.
It’s on this level, akin with a classic white-knuckle baseball game or boxing match, that Snake Eyes is best appreciated. That it might have the highest fireworks-per-minute rate of any De Palma film is a statistic that can’t be sniffed at. The cliché “pulling out all the stops” could not be more exciting than when applied to De Palma, and he does it here. The opening “unbroken” take (there are a handful of subtle edits), warmed up in Bonfire of the Vanities and originally descended most clearly from Rope and Touch of Evil, is breathtaking as it bombards you with characters at the forefront and scraps of detail often stuffed into corners of the screen. The chilling apex of the scene is the moment Santoro locks eyes with Tyler, who looks surprisingly lucid for a guy who’s just been KO’d. There’s eeriness to the moment; I don’t know if it’s the oasis of sudden silence amidst the chaos or the open panic writ across Shaw’s brow, but it has the unsettling quality of Janet Leigh seeing her boss cross the street in Psycho. Much of the rest of the movie revisits these 13 minutes from the perspective of different characters, who can’t be easily trusted, and different cameras, which also can’t be trusted. This dishonesty of the image is a true De Palma theme straight out of Body Double, Casualties of War, and elsewhere. One of Santoro’s first eureka moments is watching the KO from varying angles to determine if it’s a ghost punch, a first cousin to Jack Terry’s patient rewind-and-play in Blow Out. The sheer number of cameras that trick out this particular sports arena almost require that De Palma get as much playful mileage he can from the photographic possibilities. A person can lie. A camera can lie. But a hundred cameras will add up to the truth more surely than a hundred fallible eyewitness accounts.
The camera that finally does Dunne in is a surreptitious eye-in-the-sky blimp cam that he hadn’t banked on. Later in the hotel, as Santoro and Dunne both seek out Costello, who’s lost her glasses (her blurry POV is another key visual device), De Palma casts a Godlike eye on people in private bedrooms. Aiming straight down, as in the Taxi Driver crime scene shot, his camera suggests the paranoia of being constantly monitored. Naturally, there’s also some split-screen, but as with the rest of Snake Eyes, De Palma takes it next-level, mixing past and present between frames and even (why the hell not?) throwing binocular-vision on one half.
When he is introduced to the sellout crowd, the Secretary of Defense receives a chorus of applause. An amusing relic of the Clinton years, perhaps, but it’s just about the only thing dated in Snake Eyes. A filmmaker like De Palma simply “flexing his technical muscle” shouldn’t be cause for disappointment, but elation. And while the ending (a tidal wave flooding was cut out last minute) is awkward and rushed, it’s unfortunate that the rapture of the film’s thrills seems to have dulled critics to De Palma and Koepp’s penetrating inquiries into the gradations of loyalty, best expressed in the defensive speeches of Dunne, who honestly feels that his machinations will save military lives. Further aided by Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score, menacingly ambient and frugal with its melodramatics, Snake Eyes delivers well beyond its “full throttle intensity” billing, and could stand to garner some more respect within the filmography.