The train station scene in The Untouchables. The heist sequence in Mission: Impossible. The Cannes Film Festival scene in Femme Fatale. The feverish climax of Blow Out. The museum sequence in Dressed to Kill. If you've seen those movies, you'll have little trouble remembering the details of those scenes. Director Brian De Palma has long demonstrated a knack for creating stylish, show-stopping setpieces, and his 1998 thriller Snake Eyes begins with a sequence that absolutely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned scenes. Alas, that sequence is followed a dull, dumb murder mystery that somehow manages to get less interesting with each act.
Let's start with the good stuff. That opening sequence is a lengthy tracking shot following corrupt Atlantic City cop Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage, The Rock) as he prepares to enjoy a boxing match at Atlantic City Arena. We watch as Rick jokes around with a TV producer (Kevin Dunn, Transformers), makes pleas with his bookie (Michael Rispoli, The Sopranos), extorts a beleaguered criminal (Luis Guzman, Carlito's Way), flirts with various women and talks shop with Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (played by Gary Sinise, Ransom – not by actor Kevin Dunn, who has a scene in which he addresses Sinise's character by name). It's a terrific showcase for Cage's explosive brand of acting; a giddily unhinged companion piece to the actor's work in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. “This is fight night and I am the king!” he crows. It's also a terrific showcase for De Palma's sense of showmanship, as the camera glides across the arena capturing one elegantly-staged moment after another with surgical precision.
The sequence builds to the assassination of Defense Secretary Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani, Department S), who made the mistake of publicizing his presence at the event. We know that a middle eastern terrorist was the one who murdered Kirkland, that the terrorist was subsequently shot and killed by Commander Dunne and that Commander Dunne was only in a position to kill the shooter because he had temporarily left Kirkland's side. Dunne begins to panic, fearing that his brief lapse in judgment will make him a suspect. It just so happens that Santoro is one of Dunne's oldest friends, and is eager to provide the unfortunate Commander with a handy alibi. Initially, the case seems pretty open-and-shut, and Santoro basks in the glow of what is surely a career-boosting assignment. However, once he looks a little closer, Santoro begins to suspect that a larger conspiracy may be afoot.
Alas, the conspiracy is so contrived (and so underwhelming) that you feel your eyes glazing over with each new exposition-heavy scene. The film surprises us by revealing the true villain before the halfway point, but it has no surprises left to offer after that point. Instead, we're left with the villain merely explaining himself in endless detail. You sense the life draining from the movie as it trudges along to the inevitable finish line, and that increasing sense of tedium is most evident in Cage's performance. Though the actor begins on a note of feverish intensity, he turns blandly morose as his character begins to develop a conscience. It's a transition fans of John Woo's Face/Off will recognize, as Cage shifts from unhinged scoundrel to brooding John Travolta imitator.
Around the halfway mark, the film threatens to spring to life again. Cage and the villain are both in pursuit of the same woman (Carla Gugino, Sin City) – the former attempting to interrogate her, the latter attempting to eliminate her - and De Palma suddenly kicks into gear again and turns in a thrilling piece of suspense. Too bad it's merely another false alarm: once the scene is over, we return to dreary neo-noir territory. It's a little alarming to see the way the film ping-pongs between spectacularly good scenes and spectacularly terrible ones – observe the painfully clunky moment in which Cage berates Gugino for forcing him to make a difficult moral decision. Don't even get me started on the two groan-inducing scenes in which major characters utter the film's title.
Perhaps Snake Eyes wouldn't be quite so frustrating if it were merely mediocre the whole way through, but the fact that it features two extended bursts of greatness somehow manages to make the whole affair even more aggravating. It reminds you of just how good De Palma and Cage can be, then forces you to spend most of the movie watching them succumb to bad material.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 1998