De Palma Plays It Cage-y

Nicolas Cage has never seemed more dazzling than he does in Brian De Palma's new thriller, Snake Eyes. Playing Rick Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City cop who likes to think he's "everybody's friend," Cage boogies to his own inner beat for almost two continuous hours. It's like watching a great jazz musician play a fantastically extended riff. The entire film takes its cue from Cage's spritzes and jags; it's a delirious performance in a delirious landscape.

The delirium begins with the first sequence, an uninterrupted 20-minute tracking shot that follows Santoro's sinuous glide through the Atlantic City Arena on the night of the heavyweight title fight. It's a showoff-y scene, but Cage and De Palma have a lot to show off. As Santoro moves up and down escalators and staircases, placing bets, rousting petty hoods, glad-handing the champ's entourage, we are presented his entire character in microcosm. He's a man for whom the gravies of power and corruption are a sweet sauce.

Santoro isn't bigtime; his gold chains and Hawaiian shirt tell you that. At least he knows he's small potatoes. He understands his limitations, though he fancies running for mayor of Atlantic City. (That's small potatoes, too.) Still, within his own corrupt little fiefdom, Santoro is a real rooster. He likes being a part of the charged-up action at a boxing championship because it boosts him into a frenzy. Making his rounds, he's almost ecstatically alive.

De Palma has worked with great actors before -- John Travolta and Michael Caine, for example -- but he's never had a performer as attuned to his highflying filmmaking flourishes as Cage. For De Palma, Cage is like the embodiment of his own rampant id. He's a wiggy harlequin; the fervor of the director's style completes him. Cage gives his character a wayward, complex emotionality. When Santoro finds himself drawn into a murder investigation -- the Secretary of Defense is assassinated during the boxing match, and the Arena, with its thousands of suspects, is sealed off -- he changes before our eyes. Refusing at first to believe his best friend, Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), might be implicated, Santoro startles himself by becoming a man of scruples. We're set up to watch a two-bit hustler, and we end up with a first-class hero.

When Santoro is grilling the stony ex-champ (Stan Shaw) in his dressing room after the fight he clearly threw before the assassin's shots rang out, he puts it to him: "What did you get yourself into?" Santoro here is still in his wheedling, high-on-the-hog mode; he enjoys lording it over the boxer. But later in the movie, the same question comes back on Santoro himself. Santoro is a man who believes, with some justification, that he's got the whole town wired. When the wiring breaks down, he's more than confused -- he's bereft. A murder conspirator taunts him by saying, "Don't give me that wounded look. You don't have the face for it." But, truth is, Santoro does have the face for it. His goony wolfishness is spiritualized by pain -- and by the desire to do the right thing.

Santoro's counterpart, Dunne, is almost infernally implacable. Hired during the championship fight to guard the Secretary, he's a military man closed off from the usual human sympathies. His tautness gives him a lizardly look, with slitted eyes and a wide, flat mouth. Sinise's security officer has the perfect countenance -- his face is secured even from himself. He's all barricade.

When this asp slithers through the pink and fuchsia hallways of an adjoining hotel in pursuit of a renegade suspect (Carla Gugino), De Palma is in his most fragrant element. Santoro, unaware that Dunne is shadowing him, is also in pursuit, and for a while we seem to be watching a great big peekaboo hallucination. The visual game plan of Snake Eyes is voyeuristic, but with a twist: The flashbacks to the events surrounding the assassination are replayed from three different people's viewpoints, and none of them connect. We're spies in a game in which we are being hoodwinked. It's not only the flashbacks that seem suspect. Everything that we clap eyes on has a heightened illusory quality.

De Palma has played these now-you-see-it/now-you-don't games many times before, and he still manages to make them electrifying. He is horrified (and mesmerized) by the element of betrayal in the movie image. For De Palma the film medium is at its highest pitch when it's inducing paranoia. We're never sure what we're looking at in one of his thrillers, because the mesmerism runs deep; we might be dreaming it all up, and the dream is invariably a bad one. Lined up in a row, De Palma's fantasias are like recurring nightmares. They may vary in quality -- Snake Eyes ranks, I think, in the middle -- but, in their deep-down dread, they are all of a piece. The frights, the jabs of violence, and the carnality come at you like the sped-up, inevitable terrors in a hallucination.

The disappointment in Snake Eyes is that, with Cage and everything else it has going for it, its fervor finally dissipates in a muddled, seemingly tossed-off denouement. De Palma has the ability to draw you so deeply into his netherworlds that ordinarily you don't mind the glitches and lapses -- the kinds of things that might bother you in more conventional thrillers. It was possible, for example, to enjoy his most recent film, Mission: Impossible (1996), even when it wasn't making a lick of sense; the set pieces were that good.

But this sort of connoisseurship has its decadent side. De Palma has such a fantastic grasp of film technique that at times he lets his fluency take the place of feeling. Emotionally he's gone beyond the rococo whirligig of Snake Eyes, and he probably knows it; it's a very high-class piece of slumming.

This may sound harsh in describing a film that has Cage in top form and is so much fun to watch. But it has been, after all, 17 years since De Palma made Blow Out, in which he gave his terrors a deep-souled resonance. Almost a decade ago he made Casualties of War, which brought the ghastliness of Vietnam throbbingly close to us. These two films are the high points of De Palma's career, because they grounded his horrors and gave them a human weight -- which, of course, made them infinitely more horrific and moving.

It may be that the colossal, and colossally publicized, failure of his Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) -- combined with the megasuccess of a piece of work-for-hire such as Mission: Impossible -- gave De Palma, the artist, the shivers. He's become a director of bravura sequences and bravura performances. (His Carlito's Way, made in 1993, is best remembered for Sean Penn's high-wire work and the grand-scale shootout at the end. Like Snake Eyes, that film was scripted by David Koepp.) This may be the only way for an artist such as De Palma to keep going in today's Hollywood. His skills as a thriller maestro are highly marketable; less so is the emotional and psychological power he is also capable of packing into those thrills.

Because of Cage's performance, Snake Eyes goes beyond being just a virtuoso exercise. But what De Palma attempts to build around that performance is very hit-and-miss. At times he seems to be going for political allegory. The American flag is used in the boxing arena practically as a piece of pop art, and the collusion on display between Washington military fanatics and munitions tycoons is a down-and-dirty conspiracy that might brighten Oliver Stone's day.

But this is mostly window-dressing; the political element never builds to any kind of vision. De Palma is more successful here when he sets his ambitions lower. The film's noir-ish look and machine-gun tough talk, particularly in the early spinning-top sequences with Santoro, are like overripe renditions of Hollywood fight films from the '30s and '40s. And De Palma still has his dirty boy's passion for the illicit; when that conspiracy suspect hiding in the hotel passes herself off as a hooker and gets down to bra and panties, we're in a familiar hothouse. You've got to hand it to De Palma. After all these years he still hasn't forgotten the fine flavor of sin. For him the lure of the illicit is inextricably linked to the sensual possibilities of the film medium. Moviemaking is the ultimate turn-on. He can't get enough.

Snake Eyes.
Directed by Brian De Palma. Written by David Koepp. Starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, and Stan Shaw.

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