THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! ‘Snake Eyes’ is De Palma’s ‘Rashomon’

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Those who know are well aware that I’m a die-hard fan of Brain De Palma. More often than not, De Palma’s films are as thematically engaging as they are visually exciting. Sometimes De Palma overdoes it, like with Bonfire of the Vanities, and the resulting visual bravado doesn’t match what’s onscreen. The same could be said of the performances of Nicolas Cage, who has the unique ability to be the worst thing in a good movie or the best thing in a bad movie, sometimes at once. With each coming off some of the biggest commercial success of their careers, De Palma and Cage would work together on one film, 1998’s Snake Eyes. Divisive amongst critics and not exactly a hit or a flop, Snake Eyes is an unheralded film that has grown in relevance with the passing of time.

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In the midst of hurricane hitting the coast, a heavyweight boxing match for the title is about to take place in Atlantic City. Local police detective Rick Santoro (Cage), who is as flamboyant as he is corrupt, has been given ringside seats with his best friend Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a military big shot climbing the ladder in Washington. While Santoro prepares for the fight placing bets and taking payoffs, Dunne is coordinating security for the Secretary of Defense Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). Distracted by a suspicious spectator, Dunne leaves his post. His empty seat is briefly occupied by a mysterious woman (Carla Gugino). Just after the champ, Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), goes down muffled shots are fired, striking Secretary Kirkland. In the immediate aftermath, Santoro’s investigation yields its biggest clue – Lincoln Tyler took a dive. But the scope of the conspiracy is unknown to the palooka and Santoro must use all available resources to solve the crime that may unravel the lives of everyone involved.

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Snake Eyes is another entry in De Palma’s political thrillers, though his cynicism is somewhat tamer than before. De Palma’s distrust of power and authority is present in a number of his films – Blow Out, The Fury, Mission: Impossible, and others. What De Palma is doing with Snake Eyes is tying the conspiratorial assassination of Blow Out with the varying perspectives of Rashomon. The film opens with a number of shots with the edits hidden to make it look like one continuous shot, like Birdman but more disciplined. After establishing the characters and setting, the shots ring out. From this point forward, Santoro interrogates various actors involved, and through each of their stories we’re given their perspective on the events. With Snake Eyes we’re given the big picture first before it’s broken down into the little moments that fill in the whole image. It’s a film that demand the audience pay attention.

Beyond the political paranoia, a number De Palma trademarks find their way into Snake Eyes. He uses split diopter lenses, which present the illusion of deep focus, filling the frame with relevant information. There’s also the use of alternative recording devices – allowing us to view the action from a security or television camera’s perspective. Finally, there’s the use of the split screen, which De Palma has frequently used since his early experimental film Dionysus in ’69.

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Nicolas Cage gives one of the showier performances from his mid ‘90s run. He’s more manic in Snake Eyes than Face/Off, Con Air, or The Rock combined. His character of Rick Santoro also represents another angle in De Palma’s distrust of authority. He cheats on his wife, gambles, and takes bribes. But Santoro has one line he won’t cross – he doesn’t kill people to get ahead. With Santoro De Palma is saying that the good guys are flawed, there are things they won’t do; but the bad guys know no bounds. And Cage epitomizes this with his performance. Santoro is boisterous, arrogant, and wears gaudy suits. Even though he’s corrupt, he’s got the swagger of a man with nothing to hide.

The conspiracy at play here is one that involved an assassination in order to keep money flowing into a wasteful Department of Defense project. As we’ve repeatedly seen in recent years, there has always been billions poured into wasteful defense projects. And one little touch that adds a bit of flavor to the fictitious conspiracy is the terrorist framed for the assassination and his letter containing mentions of Palestine and Israel. Another touch is the noted corruption in boxing’s history. Santoro even goes as far to reference Sonny Liston’s second fight with Muhammad Ali, where Liston went down in the first round, a moment long speculated about whether or not it was a dive. But it’s that corruption which has rendered boxing the brutal sport of yesteryear, with MMA the popular sports of brutality nowadays. It’s almost as if Snake Eyes was just a tad too prescient for its own good. Had the film come out 4 years later, its subject matter might not have seen as far-fetched as it did in 1998.

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The ending of Snake Eyes is cynical, just not as harsh as the ending of Blow Out. Having solved the crime, Santoro briefly becomes a media celebrity. But the eye on Santoro quickly turns when allegations of his corruption come to light. Even though he’s solved a massive conspiracy that would’ve undermined American democracy, Santoro is a sacrificial lamb. The film ends with a look at construction happening in Atlantic City, as if the town is on the verge of a revival. It’s that little bit of optimism that hides beneath all the cynicism. However, if there’s one area to be cynical about, it’s Atlantic City.

Screenwriter David Koepp played in instrumental role in the mid ‘90s De Palma renaissance. Having written Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible for the director, their final collaboration would be Snake Eyes. While I wouldn’t say that Snake Eyes is on par with their other two collaborations, it’s still a smart political thriller overflowing with De Palma’s signature visual bravado. Sadly for both Cage and De Palma, Snake Eyes is the moment when their influence started to fade, though De Palma faded faster than Cage. But for that one collaboration, they made a very interesting film that didn’t register with the day’s audiences. It’s time to give Snake Eyes its much needed reevaluation.

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