Film: The Big Picture - It's my sewer, and I love it

The Big Picture

SNAKE EYES (15) DIRECTOR: BRIAN DE PALMA

STARRING: NICOLAS CAGE, GARY SINISE

99 MINS

Nicolas Cage's superheated exuberance almost melts the screen in the opening minutes of Snake Eyes. It's fight night in Atlantic City and Cage, playing high-roller Rick Santoro, struts through the pre-match melee in a fever of delight. Dressed like a Miami lounge lizard, with hairy chest foaming about his open-necked shirt, he places bets, pockets bribes, beats up a punk who owes him money and talks, first to his girlfriend, then to his wife, on his cellular phone - a golden cellular phone, if you please. "Everybody loves Rick Santoro!" he yells, to nobody in particular. This is a man absolutely tickled by his own corruption. And here's the best bit: when a security guard blocks his path, our hero triumphantly flashes a grin and then a badge. Rick Santoro, you see, is also a cop.

It's the first of many feints the director Brian De Palma throws at us in the course of the movie, which he sets up in one beautiful 20-minute take. De Palma, a virtuoso illusionist, shares Hitchcock's glee for sabotaging expectations, if not always Hitchcock's subtlety: the desperate muddle of Mission: Impossible can't be forgotten too quickly. Snake Eyes, however, returns to the dark political conspiracies of Blow Out (1981), and replays key De Palma motifs of deception and disguise - the blonde who turns out to be a fake; the good guy who turns out to be a fall guy; the dice that turn out to be loaded.

What De Palma does wonderfully here is conjure an atmosphere in which a hundred things seem to be happening at once, sound-tracked by the bloodthirsty yammering of 14,000 boxing fans in the arena: this crowd is being whipped into a frenzy. Dodging his way through the howling chaos, Santoro meets at the ringside his old friend Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a Navy commander who is as clean-cut and upright as Santoro is venal and sleazy. Dunne has been assigned to protect the Secretary of Defense, who's also ringside, but shortly after the fight begins he's distracted from his position; while he's gone a blonde slips into the vacant seat and begins an urgent discussion with the Secretary. De Palma plays games with sound here, making the thunk of boxers' punches sound like the report of a gun, so that when a gun is fired there's a fractional delay before anyone realises that the Secretary is spouting blood from a bullet in the throat.

From this point the film settles into a more conventional form, and you can't help feeling a slight deflation. As Saving Private Ryan recently demonstrated, the great drawback of staging a bravura opening is the near- impossibility of matching it at any subsequent point in the movie. De Palma still has one or two surprises up his sleeve, but the movie never recaptures the giddy momentum of the fight's build-up. Instead it becomes a study in how a fallen man redeems himself, which would suggest a very dreary movie indeed, if the man in question were not played by Nicolas Cage. Early on Santoro talks of Atlantic City as his domain - "It's my sewer, and I love it" - in much the same way as Burt Lancaster's vicious gossip columnist enthused about New York in Sweet Smell of Success - "I love this dirty town"; both thrive on the myth of their own invincibility. This is evident when Santoro, now the investigating officer in the assassination, barrels his way into the post-match quarters of the fight favourite Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw) and squares up to him in the presence of his Tyson-esque entourage of goons and bruisers. With magnificent impertinence he asks the boxer to sign an autograph for his son.

As it turns out, Cage is required to carry much of the movie by himself. De Palma isn't especially interested in character, preferring to apply himself to the technical challenges that film-making offers. It is well known that he works out all his films in advance, envisaging every set- up and camera angle before he starts shooting. This meticulousness cuts both ways: I can't think of another director who would essay the audacious elevated tracking-shot over a cross-section of hotel rooms at night, a homage to Rear Window that is distinctively De Palma's own. Conversely, what other director would indulge himself with the shot at such a tense point in the film, when the heroine (Carla Gugino) is desperately trying to hide from a man who wants to kill her? De Palma hardly seems to notice the suspense leaking away.

The indifference to character goes hand in hand with a tin ear for dialogue. The screenwriter, David Koepp, is fine when he deals with the scabrous banter of the ring and the casino, but in terms of moral drama his writing is over-explicit and saggy. Though Gary Sinise does a fine line in shiftiness - his corrupt cop was the only good thing about the Mel Gibson thriller Ransom - and knows the value of underplaying, he can't do much with a line like: "I don't even know who I am anymore." De Palma's symbolism tends towards the over-explicit, too.

When the villain finally shows his hand we watch him descend a staircase bathed in a blood-red light; all that's missing is a signpost pointing downwards to the "The Inferno". Later, as Santoro contemplates betraying someone for money, he happens to glance to the floor and sees a banknote - stained with blood.

The ending is a complete fizzle; it feels simultaneously hurried and lazy, as if De Palma had finished with the movie 10 minutes early, put his feet up and delegated someone to knock together a conclusion. He's a bit like the nerdy kid at school who finishes the exam before anyone else and spends the rest of the time absently doodling in the margin.

Snake Eyes is graced with the most enjoyable opening of any film I've seen this year, so let's enjoy that. The rest of the time you might just spend puzzling over a film maker in whom technical know-how and intellectual impoverishment have made a bizarre, but unique, truce.

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