With all the many moments in Nicolas Cage’s career that have become memes or some sort of gif/social media sensation, it’s somewhat strange that his utterance of the line “I am the King” has never caught on in the manner of “how did it burn?” or “not the bees”.
Released in US cinemas in August of 1998 but not making it to the UK until November of that year, Snake Eyes was met with a mixed reviews and middling box office that might have come as something of a disappointment to director Brian De Palma, who had gained good notices and a very high box office for his previous movie, Mission: Impossible.
In many respects though, Snake Eyes is more of a De Palma movie than the Tom Cruise vehicle. While the first installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise boasted many a bravura set piece that we have come to expect from the controversial auteur, Snake Eyes feels more in line with what one would expect from De Palma’s output.
While Mission: Impossible came with a PG rating, Snake Eyes is a darker concoction that initially comes on like it’s going to be somewhat typical De Palma fare; there are long takes (more on which shortly), a mystery, a conspiracy, characters with shady motives, split screen and what might be perceived more as a male gaze when it comes to its female characters, particularly Carla Gugino’s character Julia.
For the first half the film plays its cards incredibly well and is arguably De Palma on fine form; the plot centers around the assassination of the Secretary of Defence at a high-profile boxing match in Atlantic City attended by a charismatic and somewhat corrupt detective Rick Santoro (Cage on boisterous form), with security being handled by his best friend and current US Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise).
Opening with a twenty-minute tracking shot (but in reality made of up several edits, with the longest take within it coming in at a still impressive thirteen minutes and two seconds) that follows Santoro around the casino and hotel that the fight is taking place in, the film opens with such bravado that it sets the film and the viewer up for what looks as is going to De Palma on fine form, and for at least half the running time (the film runs for a surprisingly short and sprightly ninety-eight minutes), Snake Eyes delivers on that opening.
There is a claustrophobic feel to proceedings even though the film’s casino set is expansive and large, while the constant mentioning of an incoming storm seems to be setting the film up for a spectacular climax that sadly never comes in the final released cut, with a tidal wave crashing into the casino sequence being left on the cutting room floor after test screenings, footage of which made it into the superb Noah Baumbach/Jake Paltrow documentary of De Palma.
There is also the film favouring in having a much more complex lead character than normal for a mainstream Hollywood thriller. Cage’s Santoro is seen extorting money and being a generally unscrupulous character during that opening tracking shot. Make no mistakes, Santoro is a very corrupt character who we’re meant to root for when it comes to solving the mystery, coupled with Cage turning the performance to eleven in a way that is nowhere near as silly as it has gotten in recent years.
The film even works as a reminder of a time when he was a genuine mainstream movie star who could do very little wrong in the eyes of an audience and was capable of opening movies on his name alone; Snake Eyes was one of two movies bearing Cage’s name as the main star that year, with City of Angels having been released earlier in the year, a massive difference to the more cult flavour that litters his work and output as seen recently in Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans and Mandy
With a screenplay by David Koepp, who had collaborated with De Palma before on the incredibly underrated Al Pacino vehicle Carlito’s Way and was one of the credited screenwriters on Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes features many of the concerns, stylistic flourishes, and themes that we have come to associate with De Palma; there is a reliance on surveillance footage that sometimes feels as if it’s tipping it thematic hat to voyeurism; the use of a political conspiracy feels like an extension from Blow Out; while the revelation of who the orchestrator of the conspiracy is revealed through a split screen filled flashback.
Unfortunately, after great work for the first half, the film somewhat comes undone after the reveal that Santoro’s friend Kevin (Sinise) is the one responsible. De Palma and Koepp’s are clearly more interested in the central friendship and its break down as a result of Santoro finding out his best friend is even more corrupt than him, but it, unfortunately, means the film stalls somewhat and limps to a conclusion, the effectively running out of steam with the tidal wave sequence not even there to save it since it was cut after those test screenings.
The perception of Snake Eyes is that it’s lesser De Palma. The film’s box office was a $103 million gross against a $70 million budget and reviews were incredibly mixed, but it does make it easy to overlook that a good chunk of Snake Eyes is actually really, really good and only loses points due to it losing focus after the reveal of the killer.
What a reveal it is though, helped even more by the casting of Sinise who had built up an audience perception of playing decent American heroic characters in Forrest Gump and Apollo 13.
Technically, this is De Palma doing what he does best, although since Carlo Gugino is filmed in her underwear a lot, complete with bloodstained cleavage it also means it falls into the trap of De Palma doing what he’s frequently, and correctly, criticized for also, but at least she doesn’t get killed off in the grisly manner that befell Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill or Deborah Shelton in Body Double, and she is still alive come the end credits.
Far from being a disaster in the realm of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Snake Eyes is more of a middle of the road film from the controversial auteur, with lots to recommend, but with caveats that prove to the detriment of the film as a whole. It scores points for having an engaging conspiracy at the centre, but loses it for deciding to put its focus on a central friendship between two men who are hard to care for when we realise how corrupt they are. That almost should make it more interesting, but alas the film rolls the dice in a way it can’t win on.
Ironically, it ends up with snake eyes of its own.
Did you catch Snake Eyes? Let us know what you think of it.