Brian De Palma is a superb technician in search of a great film. Regrettably, "Snake Eyes" is not it, not even close.
A cartoonish entertainment about corruption, assassination and far-flung conspiracies, "Snake Eyes" exists purely as a vehicle for De Palma to show off the kind of wizardly camera work that is his passion.
Collaborating for the seventh time (including "Mission: Impossible," "The Untouchables" and the underrated "Casualties of War") with expert cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, De Palma, the consummate visual stylist, orchestrates wonderfully complex camera movements for "Snake Eyes," a symphony of visual pivots, swirls, feints and dodges.
Maybe technique is all De Palma cares about anymore as a director. Maybe working with a bombastic, disposable script by David Koepp (responsible for both "Jurassic Park" movies) allows him to focus completely on stylistic flourishes. Whatever the reason, the dramatic side of "Snake Eyes" is coarse and undernourished in a way no amount of legerdemain can make up for.
There is, however, no denying that all that pizazz, courtesy of camera operator Gordon Hayman and steadicam operator Larry McConkey, can be exciting to watch. This is especially so in the film's tour de force opening 20 minutes, shot as one continuous, fiendishly complex steadicam shot.
It's a near-hurricane night in Atlantic City, but inside the city's boxing arena, 14,000 jubilant fans are loudly anticipating the latest title defense by heavyweight champion Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), a local hero known as the Executioner.
No one is more excited than Det. Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), a flashy and by no means completely honest local cop who is partial to Hawaiian shirts and a lifestyle that includes keeping both a wife and a mistress happy.
Always for sale and easily bought, Santoro is the kind of policeman who doesn't get out of bed unless there's something in it for him. "This isn't a beach town," he says of Atlantic City, "it's a sewer," and no one knows better than he how to bend rules and cover tracks in this shady environment.
Santoro is especially excited to be at the fight because his great seat is a gift from his closest childhood friend. Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) is now a clean-cut Navy commander, assigned to head the security detail for a limelight-loving secretary of Defense who hates to miss a public event.
Then, in the midst of this screaming Jersey crowd and some furious action in the ring, Dunne gets distracted and shots are heard. The secretary is down, as is a mysterious woman in a blond wig (Carla Gugino) who had suddenly materialized at his side. Eager to help his friend, Santoro pulls rank and takes charge of the burgeoning investigation.
As the detective changes his Hawaiian number for a white shirt and tie, he almost miraculously becomes a more professional operative, attempting with Dunne's help to track down and interview witnesses, especially that elusive mystery woman. Wheels appear within wheels, and what looks simple and obvious turns out to be mistakes waiting to be corrected.
Anyone who doesn't quite catch everything that happens during those critical seconds when bullets are in the air doesn't have to worry. The structure of "Snake Eyes" dictates that we'll see those moments again and again, but each time from another point of view as different witnesses and different arena cameras reveal what they saw. It's the always viable "don't believe your eyes" stratagem reworked by De Palma and Koepp (who share story credit) and it brings a measure of dramatic interest to the proceedings.
Aside from that ploy, "Snake Eyes' " story gets increasingly less involving as more and more of it is revealed and the implausible motivations of characters are exposed. Both Koepp's script and De Palma's directing style encourage the actors to be over-emphatic, and macho posturing is high on the list of the film's weaknesses.
"Snake Eyes" has other bravura visual moments after that 20-minute opening, including using a mirror to change the camera's point of view and a traveling shot that floats over several connected hotel rooms from above the ceiling level. But even his usual inventiveness eventually deserts De Palma, and the climax of "Snake Eyes" finds him, like the audience, marking time till it's permissible to head for the door.
* MPAA rating: R, for some violence. Times guidelines: a particularly painful beating.
Nicolas Cage: Rick Santoro
Gary Sinise: Kevin Dunne
John Heard: Gilbert Powell
Carla Gugino: Julia Costello
Stan Shaw: Lincoln Tyler
Kevin Dunn: Lou Logan
A DeBart production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Brian De Palma. Producer Brian De Palma. Executive producer Louis A. Stroller. Screenplay David Koepp. Story by Brian De Palma and David Koepp. Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum. Editor Bill Pankow. Costumes Odette Gadoury. Music Ryuichi Sakamoto. Production design Anne Pritchard. Art directors James Fox, Isabelle Guay, Real Proulx. Set decorator Daniel Carpentier. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.