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The Boston Phoenix Snake Bit

De Palma's latest is a feast for the eyes only

By Peter Keough

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Everyone acknowledges that Brian De Palma is one of the most prodigiously gifted technical directors around, yet he persists in setting up shots resembling Rube Goldberg devices to call attention to his ability. And in most cases these showstopping tours-de-force only call attention to the weakness of the whole. Take the bravura sequence in his last potboiler, Mission Impossible, in which Tom Cruise lowers himself into CIA headquarters -- neat, certainly, but it just makes the messiness of the rest that much more obvious.

In Mission, it is true, De Palma was at the mercy of two warring writers and a superstar who was also a producer. But what of his deluded 1992 brainchild Raising Cain, with the no-holds-barred finale that epitomized its lunacy? He was the auteur behind that debacle, as he is with Snake Eyes. His new film, however, is that rare anomaly, an intellectual entertainment that almost succeeds in wedding, à la his mentor Hitchcock, sardonic thrills with an icily subversive subtext.

Almost but not quite. At the heart of the picture is a seeming one-take, 20-minute sequence (Snake Eyes, with Saving Private Ryan, appears part of a new trend of films one can walk out of after the first half-hour assured of having seen the best part) that establishes every major element -- characters, setting, plot, themes. Exhilarating and challenging, it's a beginning that's never quite fulfilled. In a scene initiating a motif of overlapping screens and conflicting points of view revealed with seamless tracks, tilts, and pans, detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) regales the camera with a typically obnoxious rant. "I'm on TV!" he beams, and as the camera draws back, so he is, standing next to a monitor showing a live "Powell Pay-Per-View" broadcast of a prizefight at the Atlantic City Boxing Arena. Santoro becomes our guide through the bowels of the blowzy labyrinth, from the rowdy dressing room of defending champ Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw, who makes George Foreman look like a flyweight), where he places a bet and shakes down a drug dealer for a payoff, to the ringside seats where his old friend Navy commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) has enlisted him to help out with security for the Secretary of Defense, who's attending the fight. As the bout gets under way, Dunne leaves his seat to question a suspicious redhead, a white-clad blonde accosts the Secretary, shots ring out, and the Secretary goes down.

What happened? The opening continual loop is full of suggestions, clues, and misdirections that beg close attention but don't all pay off. As the arena is sealed off and Dunne bemoans his mistake, Santoro pursues his own investigation. He browbeats Tyler, who was none-too-convincingly KO'd moments before the shooting, into telling his story -- the first of three flashbacks to the event De Palma unreels in an unsteady first-person point of view, à la The Lady in the Lake. Realizing that all is not as it seems, Santoro sets out to track down the mysterious woman in white (a feisty Carla Gugino).

As in De Palma's far more accomplished Blow Out, what starts out as a simple mystery becomes a critique of perception, of the validity of our own senses and memory and the devices we create to enhance them. De Palma's visuals find him at the top of his witty form -- one scene in which Santoro and an arena security chief pore over a bank of surveillance monitors, only to be repeatedly distracted by trivia, is a compendium of The Medium Is the Message and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

When it comes to plot and character, however, Snake Eyes comes up empty. Such ominous foreshadowings as a giant globe awash on the arena roof at the mercy of an approaching killer hurricane promise a clarification that never comes. The mystery that actually is revealed is both implausible and anticlimactic. Not to mention incomplete -- apparently an entire scene involving a flood was eliminated because it didn't work out.

Such lapses would be forgivable had the film exploited the talents of its cast. Instead, De Palma's emphasis on artifice brings out the artificiality that sometimes plagues Cage's performances. His Santoro is as loud and tasteless as his suit coat and as superficial; when it comes time for him to face a moral crisis, he hams it up like a kid in a high-school play. Sinise seems crabbed and uncomfortable; only Gugino shows any spontaneity, though she falls victim to De Palma's penchant for putting his heroines in the position of a prostitute. In the end, when floodlights white-out the scene and the TV cameras roll and the truth is revealed, Snake Eyes lives up to its name.


Re-Mission

LOS ANGELES -- Still chafing, perhaps, from criticism that his last Mission was more incomprehensible than Impossible, Brian De Palma opens an interview with a step-by-step recounting of the plot and creative processes behind his latest thriller, Snake Eyes.

"You can think about it scene by scene in your head and then you might get lost," he begins, seeming to get lost in thought himself. "There's the assassination . . . and then there's that scene with Dunne and then he goes to talk to the fighter and then there's the flashback where you see the fight and then after that there's this press conference and you see Carla sort of wandering around . . . "

Any questions? Actually, it's this kind of literalism that De Palma disdains.

"Having followed Hitchcock's career," he says, referring to the master to whom he's compared, for good and ill, "you see how he used to be reviewed until he was discovered by the French in Psycho. You're considered an entertainer and never taken too seriously. I think visual storytelling is the most exciting thing, but critics don't really write about it. They write about what the actors are doing or what the text is about.

"It's really hard to find the perceptive critic who sees what I'm doing. Other directors see what you're doing. Kids come up to me on the street. But I'd say for mainstream criticism you're basically some kind of . . . entertainer! Let's hope! I've got a standard review on Mission Impossible. They acknowledged that there was some kind of thought processes going on with those sequences. Then they said it didn't make any sense and who cared anyway."

De Palma is confident that Snake Eyes will not only make sense but that people will care. Mostly because its tale of corruption and moral responsibility is socially relevant and dramatically resonant. But also because the film confronts the issues of perception, memory, and truth in an age of high-tech media overload in its story of a political assassination revisited from different points of view.

"Basically it's a matter of withholding information. In the beginning you have the camera pointing in at Rick [the main character, a corrupt cop played by Nicolas Cage]. And then you want to see what he saw, but you don't really show them until you go back and see what he remembers. Hitchcock was a master of this, of holding back information."

The film begs comparison to other works on the same theme: Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up, De Palma's own Blow Out, and the granddaddy of them all, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.

"Everybody brings up Rashomon. I haven't seen it since college. All I know is that it's basically the retelling of a rape from multiple points of view. I remember a lot of stylization in the different versions -- even the actors were acting differently from sequence to sequence. This isn't exactly like Rashomon. For me the question was how to make it interesting, because when you do flashbacks, they tend to stop the dramatic action. I was trying to make them look the same but completely different."

So, it's back to the bottom line of being an entertainer. And a businessman. When it comes to the film's budget and production schedule, De Palma is at his most lucid.

"Sixty-eight million dollars," he says. "I was the producer: we budgeted at $72 million and we shot it at $68, and we were 12 days under schedule."


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