Snake Eyes Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

"Snake Eyes" is a taut political thriller that has a determined but flawed cop attempting to unravel a serpentine conspiracy, reminiscent of the suspense-filled creations of Hitchcock, only with Brian De Palma's pronounced visual style, in which an omnipresent camera seamless floats around the action. While this film cashes in on the conspiracy-chic prevalent in popular culture (witness the runaway success of "The X-Files", the re-release of the Zapruder film, and upcoming films, such as "Enemy of the State"), its trump card is its claustrophobic casino setting and unique narrative style. The exposition unfolds in a "Rashomon"-esque narrative that portrays a pivotal event from a number of perspectives, each one revealing a new fact or subtlety (similar to "Courage Under Fire").

Great idea... why don't you put a blinking light on his head.

It is a dark and stormy night in Atlantic City, and all eyes are focused on a boxing ring where heavyweight champ Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw) is defending his title. Attending this event are the Secretary of Defense, and the head of his security detail Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise of "Ransom"). Dunne has also invited an old friend of his, Homicide Detective Nick Santoro (Nicolas Cage of "City of Angels"), to sit beside him ringside. Unlike the decorated Dunne, the flamboyant Santoro is a despicable police officer who not only juggles himself between his wife and a mistress, but is also on the take. During the initial moments of the fight, Dunne catches sight of a mysterious woman in red nearby, and vacates his seat to investigate. However, when confronted, the woman in red runs off and Dunne gives chase. Meanwhile, Dunne's seat is taken by an alluring woman in white (Carla Gugino) who catches Santoro's eye. In the ensuing mayhem, Tyler is knocked out in the ring, the Secretary of Defense is shot in the throat, and the woman in white disappears into the panicked crowd.

We can't hold fourteen thousand people in those goddamn exit tunnels!

Wasting no time, Santoro and Dunne begin an investigation by locking in the fourteen thousand potential witnesses in the audience. However, the further they delve into the events surrounding the Secretary of Defense's assassination, it becomes readily apparent that there are a number of players in the conspiracy, including Tyler, who may have thrown the fight. Furthermore, they must race against the clock as the individuals behind the elaborate scheme begin destroying the evidence, which includes the murder of their co-conspirators.

I watched the tapes... it was a phantom punch!

This engaging and complex thriller is backed by some brilliant camera technique. The entire first act, the twenty minutes leading up to the assassination, is one long single shot which has the camera follow Santoro on his rounds through the crowded arena in real time. This opening sequence is a sight to behold, not only for its ability to provide the necessary exposition that provides the basis for Santoro's character, but because it must have been a logistical nightmare to coordinate, with thousands of extras and Santoro interacting with numerous characters. Once the Secretary of Defense is shot, the film reverts back to the more traditional 'cut to' narrative, but De Palma's bag of tricks is far from empty. Using footage from the 1500 surveillance cameras located throughout the casino and the arena, as well as differing points-of-view, the actual events of the assassination are pieced together, which is ingeniously realized in a stunning split-screen montage that melds these images together. Another example of how the visceral elements are ingrained in the plot, an epitome of the screenwriting aphorism 'show don't tell', is how the stakes are raised for the mysterious woman in white. During the assassination, her glasses are broken, and she must wander through the casino unable to see more than two feet in front of her. Of course, when the audience looks through her eyes, everything is blurred, further creating tension.

Whose side are you on?
My side!

If there is anything to complain about this film, it would be the odd characterization of its hero, Santoro. The arc of Cage's character is not smooth transition-- whereas Santoro is portrayed as a rambunctious lout with no redeeming qualities in the first act, he abruptly becomes very staid following the assassination. Had Santoro's over-the-top flamboyance been toned down, or a more gradual transformation been used, the sudden shift would not have been so glaring.

How much is it going to take to make you look the other way?

Whereas the summer season started off slow with a number of forgettable films (most notably "Godzilla"), the latter half of this important movie-going season has seen a bumper crop of good films (including "The Negotiator" and "Ever After"). "Snake Eyes" certainly continues this trend by grabbing your attention from the initial get-go and keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout. Even when the 'big reveal' is made, David Koepp's script and De Palma's direction maintain the tension until the very end. And even then, De Palma has more to reveal-- stick around for the closing credits to see what I mean. This one's a winner.

You got nothing. Snake eyes... the house always wins.

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