Brian DePalma’s SNAKE EYES
Brian DePalma’s trademark visual extravagance is matched with an equally flashy lead performance by Nicolas Cage in the 1998 conspiracy thriller Snake Eyes.
Cage plays Rick Santoro, an Atlantic City police detective who lives life big and bold without any hinderances since “he IS the King”. The opening of the film features an extensive and ambitious DePalma-style tracking shot while we follow Rick around the floor of a popular boardwalk casino/arena as he gets ready to watch the big boxing match. On his route he chats with his wife and son on his cellphone, says hello to boxing champ Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw) and proceeds to shakedown a local criminal named Cyrus (Luis Guzman). We get to see through this twisting and turning introduction, the different sides of his personality. It’s obvious that while he is a cop, he doesn’t play by the normal rules if it means extra dough to keep him looking sharp in clothes and driving cool sportscars.
Santoro is meeting up with his best friend at the fight, Naval Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) who is in town acting as security for United States Defense Secretary Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). Kirkland has arrived after a trip to Norfolk, VA to get the results of the first test of a new missile guiding system called the AirGuard which happens to be strongly supported by Dunne. Meanwhile, Rick is busy being loud and staying in very high spirits for the fight. The boxer Lincoln Tyler happens to be a guy he went to high school with, although Tyler doesn’t seem to even know Santoro. This fact will be a running joke throughout the film.
The boxing match is suddenly turned into a chaotic scene when Kirkland is shot by a sniper from behind. Rick is in shock and left trying to figure out what is happening. Dunne reveals that he was out of his seat, (where he was supposed to be) because of a redheaded woman (Jane Heitmeyer) who he chased after. He lets Rick know he could be ruined because of the mistake. Rick assures him they’ll figure out how to handle the situation through lying (as he usually does). The FBI task force comes in to take over but Rick angrily tells them he has jurisdiction of the crime scene and holds the entire place (thousands of people) for questioning.
A mysterious woman who was sitting next to Kirkland, Julia Costello (Carla Gugino) has fled the scene leading Rick to believe she had something to do with the murder. He and Dunne then begin searching the casino for her using the many surveillance/security cameras. Julia poses as a prostitute and uses a man in the casino to help her hide out in his room until she can leave after the scene dies down. As Rick investigates further he begins to discover details that have him confused to who is really behind the death of Kirkland. Furthermore, he sees on the casino’s cameras that Tyler was hit with a “phantom punch” and faked out almost exactly when Kirkland got shot. Rick puts his showboating down and actually becomes a serious detective again. This ultimately leads him to places he didn’t want to know about. At this crossroads he can either sell out or uphold the law and do what is right.
Brian DePalma is at his very best here using his eye for intricate visual details, putting them on the screen like so many bread crumbs for us to figure out and follow, something he started practicing years earlier in films like Blow Out (1981). By employing techniques like split screen, flashbacks, POV shots and tracking shots the level of suspense is heightened to thrilling degrees and just keeps you right on the edge of your seat. Nicolas Cage is in top form as well giving Santoro that air of pomposity and flamboyance but as the stakes get higher and lives are in the balance, it fades away and he is in fact shown to be a human being that cares about what happens and won’t sell out even when he is tempted with millions in blood money. Gary Sinise’s Dunne is a very conflicted person, someone who was always the standup good guy, the one who would even steer Rick right, but after tragedies occurred in his life, he has changed. You can see that his reasons for what he’s doing are completely justified in his mind.
Snake Eyes is another lesson in expert filmmaking from Brian DePalma. There are no CGI FX being overused here, the movement/placement of the camera and the editing create all the excitement needed. DePalma knows that those essential cinematic tools when used creatively are enough to keep our minds invested in the story unfolding on the screen.