(SPOILERS) The best De Palma movies offer a synthesis of plot and aesthetic, such that the director’s meticulously crafted shots and set pieces are underpinned by a solid foundation. That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a sheer pleasure to be had from the simple act of observing, from De Palma movies where there isn’t really a whole lot more than the seduction of sound, image and movement. Snake Eyes has the intention to be both scrupulously written and beautifully composed, coming after a decade when the director was – mostly – exploring his oeuvre more commercially than before, which most often meant working from others’ material. If it ultimately collapses in upon itself, then, it nevertheless delivers a ream of positives in both departments along the way.
Ricky: Everybody loves Rick Santoro.
With De Palma generally, and Snake Eyes specifically, it isn’t so much about the thematic lesson – although perspective reveals can also be found in the likes of his previous Mission: Impossible, the twist reveals of Dressed to Kill, and the piecing together of evidence in Blow Out – the way it is for Christopher Nolan. But then, they are poles apart formally. De Palma is a master of the frame, for whom presentation is everything; it would be more accurate to suggest narrative themes arise from his approach to presentation (lingering voyeurism, for example). Nolan, contrastingly, has a strictly limited visual-technical imagination and grasp, such that there’s always something missing from his attempts to express his puzzles, no matter how grand his design and lavish his elements.
Julia: Well, are you a cop or aren’t you?
Snake Eyes opens with De Palma at full wattage, with the kind of resources readily at his disposal only a massive hit in Mission: Impossible can command. So naturally, there’s a deliriously confident, uninterrupted twenty-minute shot (well, actually, for about twelve of its duration is) as we’re introduced to Nic Cage’s deliriously confident Ricky Santoro and his generally irrepressible dodginess as he attempts to place a bet on the night’s Atlantic City boxing match, to the presence of old pal Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), now a Department of Defence naval commander looking after the Defence Secretary (Joel Fabiani), to Ricky’s encounters with low-life drug dealer Cyrus (Luis Guzman) and… to the reveal that Ricky’s a no-good, on-the-take cop. His carefree joie de vivre soon takes a turn, however, when the Defence Secretary is assassinated. Pal Kevin looks as if he messed up (he wasn’t on the scene when it happened), and there’s a host of clues for Ricky to sort through, including a mysterious missing blonde (Carla Gugino) seen chatting to the Defence Secretary just before he died.
Julia: What are you mad at me for?
Ricky: Because I didn’t have to know!
The premise, from a David Koepp screenplay (based on a story he and De Palma cooked up) is the familiar one of the not-so-great guy forced to do the right thing. First, he’s just trying to help out Dunne. Then, when it turns out helping out Dunne will be doing the wrong thing, he’s left with no choice but to get in touch with his noble core. This inevitably means the wild and wacky Cage – turned up to eleven, and thus the through line between Wild at Heart to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – is front loaded, with even his incredibly exotic shirt disappearing after the first half hour. It’s still a commanding Cage perf, though, even as Ricky struggles with knowing a truth he rather wouldn’t (“Does it feel important now? Did it feel important when the bullets hit?”)
Cage can only do so much during the extended climax, however, where, having been beaten up by the so-so-bad guys, Ricky struggles to return to the location he has secreted Julia (Gugino), little suspecting he is also leading them to her. De Palma had shot a much grander finale than the one we get (wherein Dunne shoots himself):
The whole idea at the end of “Snake Eyes” was deus ex machina—we were dealing with such a corrupt world that the only way to solve the problem is to have a hurricane come through and wipe it all away. That was my initial idea. And the problem is that people don’t believe in that [laughing]. They don’t believe in God looking down from above and saying, “The only way to deal with this is a flood. There’s so much corruption here, let’s wipe it all away and get an ark out and start from scratch.” But it didn’t work in the previews so we did this other ending which I don’t think is as effective. We did shoot this big wave that swept through the casino but we ultimately cut it out.
See what I mean about the thematic lesson? Koepp was more diplomatic in interviews (“… I’m trying to remember what the original ending was… [Gary Sinise’s character] didn’t die, Nic Cage’s character saved him at the end. It’s not uncommon to change things. It didn’t end up that much different…”) He also makes it sound as if the nixing of the flood was less about the audience tests than the limits of the ILM work: "That was strictly financial, but that would have been a nice opening to see. It started with this great image of the blackjack tables and the chips and cards floating in super-slow motion, and then you go, How do they come to this point? You catch up to that in the climax of the movie. But it was just too hard to do. It was at the dawn of CG, and it would have had to been CG to make it work, and it was just too massive".
Whether the loss of the ending (CGI for which can be seen here) was the difference between a great De Palma movie and one that doesn’t quite work is debatable (I suspect it needed more proactivity on Ricky’s part than simply getting the stuffing nobly knocked out of him). I’m broadly with De Palma on criticisms that the reveal of Dunne came too soon, though: "Well the problem is that it isn't about who did it. It's a mystery about a relationship, two people, and how finding that out affects their relationship... Those kind of procedural movies are extremely boring..."
Kevin: Don’t give me that wounded look. You haven’t got the face for it.
Since Cage seems such an obviously bent cop and Sinise seems so suspiciously straight, De Palma was right to opt for the early reveal; there’s not enough juice there to milk it as a mystery (you need other suspects, for a start). Even someone coming to the movie cold, not knowing Sinise from the numerous bad guys he’s played, will be thinking there’s something fishy about him, long before the director tells us as much halfway through. The real problem is, that we have one interesting character (Ricky), and one villain played by Sinise again. It’s been suggested the part was written for Will Smith (and that he made Enemy of the State instead), and also that Harrison Ford was also in the frame. That idea of playing against expectations of the bad guy would surely have helped the dynamic De Palma was looking for. As it is, though, the Sinise side is a little flat (and not because he isn’t a good actor, but simply because he’s done it all before).
Ricky: Five people make a conspiracy, right?
His motivation takes a bit of swallowing too. On the one hand, a movie in which a top-level conspiracy has been hatched within the military industrial complex in order to further the interests of global aggression, with the patsy an Arab terrorist (“It’s clear he was ready to die for his cause… ‘I fly into the arms of Allah’”) wouldn’t have “flown” three years later. Indeed, the “deadly conspiracy” is announced as such in a news report (so this is a world where conspiracies do exist officially).
Kevin: You ever listen to a man drowning? They don’t die quietly.
On the other, Dunne as a patriot fiercely loyal to his men, trying to bundle through the deal for the new anti-missile defence system Norfolk Test and justifying himself with an example of the lives lost to an Iraqi missile and how it might have been prevented. This, in the full knowledge that the test results were fixed, doesn’t really wash; how will his argument stand up if the time needed to get the system right following the deal doesn’t pan out? If it leads to more men’s loss of lives (the alternative of course, is that this is just bluster and he’s not really convinced of the moral imperative. Rather, he’s just in it for what he can make).
Ricky: What would I arrest you for? Getting up too quick?
The juggling of elements in De Palma’s opening section is dazzling, something that brings up short all those one-take pretenders (I’m looking at you, so-called Sam Mendes). This is the next step on from The Bonfire of the Vanities indulgent, extended take folly, as Rashomon-style, Ricky is then required to reconsider and interrogate all he has seen through different perspectives as the movie progresses. He’s caught up in the excitement of the boxing match, so the details his cop’s eye takes in at the time have the sheen of ambivalence. There’s Gugino’s Julia, ultimately winged by a bullet, a fake Vertigo blonde with a tumbling wig and lost glasses making her myopic. There’s fighter Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), whose rousing from a “KO” when a bullet rings out rouses Ricky’s realisation something crooked is afoot. There’s the redhead, very iconographically De Palma, there to “distract” Dunne. During Tropical Storm Jezebel.
Ned Campbell: What do you think this is? A bus stop?!
And Snake Eyes has zip as Ricky follows the clues, hearing (and seeing, via De Palma POV flashbacks) the testimony of Tyler, Dunne and Julia. As the action progresses, the director conjures several impressive suspense sequences, notably as both Ricky and Dunne are on the hunt for Julia, Ryiuchi Sakamoto’s driving score propelling the parallel missions. The director utilises some enviably assured bird’s-eye views of the activity in adjoining hotel rooms (a rowdy kegger going on next door to David Anthony Higgins, who mistakenly thinks he has scored with Julia). It’s the kind of bravura Spielberg likely referred to when devising the similar set up in Minority Report.
Ricky: Oh, what the hell. At least I got to be on TV.
De Palma throws in one of his disposably dreadful epilogues, so dumb you charitably tend to think it must be intentional (see also Dressed to Kill); we’re guided through Ricky being feted, falling from grace and being sent to prison, but with the sweetener of Julia waiting when he comes out. Such over-enunciation of his fate isn’t why Snake Eyes ultimately doesn’t quite hit the mark, though. It’s a positive that the movie is brief, but it might have worked more effectively if there were more red herrings, tangled webs to dip in and out of, and clues to sift through (Julia is left locked in a room for about half an hour). As a piece of intrigue, it’s the director sipping from the same pool as Blow Out, just not quite as dazzling (and in both cases unable to stick the landing).