**/**** Image B+ Sound A
starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino, Stan Shaw
screenplay by David Koepp
directed by Brian De Palma
by Bill Chambers The setting: an Atlantic City hotel casino. Homicide detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) excitedly attends a big heavyweight showdown with his best bud, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a Washington yes-man assigned to protect Kirkland, the Secretary of Defense (Joel Fabiani), who has a seat in the second row. As a buxom blonde (Carla Gugino) quietly converses with Kirkland, the fighter (Stan Shaw) is knocked down for the first time in his career. Simultaneously, sniper shots are fired into the crowd. An assassin is immediately caught, though not before Kirkland has expired and his mystery woman (farsighted and bereft of her specs) has escaped in the ensuing stampede. Santoro launches an impromptu investigation, his detective skills consisting mainly of screaming at people until they yield. He is the verbal correlative to the boxer in the picture.
Don't let the picture's Rashomon-style structure fool you: this is a routine police procedural straight out of '70s television. Although Snake Eyes reveals its baddies early on, flashbacks and long-winded exposition continue throughout; we're shown the solution to the puzzle and then asked to suffer through the reconstruction of it. Start at the conclusion of Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes and work backwards and the result is pretty much the same: a film with a convoluted but ultimately hollow structure, like a 50-step card trick that amounts to the magician guessing you were holding a queen. Virtually every character parallels the hurricane brewing outside the casino doors, all sound and fury, signifying nothing. I loved David Koepp's previous screenplays for De Palma (Carlito's Way and Mission: Impossible), but even the dialogue in Snake Eyes is spinning its wheels. ("You're a number-cruncher; just crunch the goddamn numbers!" Cage barks at one point.)
In his book If They Move, Kill 'Em: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah, biographer David Weddle grappled with the issue of style versus imitation. Endless praise was heaped upon Peckinpah for his groundbreaking, in-your-face editing and powerful use of symbolic imagery in The Wild Bunch. Weddle theorizes that in his later films, as his mind and body deteriorated, Peckinpah merely repeated what worked before whether or not it was organic to the story. Indeed, when Billy the Kid strikes a Christ pose for his arresting officers in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, it is a memorable image but feels--unlike, say, the bloody Angel pleading for mercy in The Wild Bunch--shoehorned in.
Brian De Palma, too, has a distinct style sometimes indistinguishable from self-parody. Watching Snake Eyes a second time on DVD, I very carefully considered the director's by-now-patented approach, his obvious nods to Hitchcock aside. The extended tracking shot that opens Snake Eyes (after a brief mock-news report) is impressive, but is it really that much cooler than the introductory sequence of his infamous The Bonfire of the Vanities? (Apropos of nothing, at home, one is able to more easily detect the hidden cuts in this would-be bravura long take.) A split-screen sequence is also terrific--and similar to the prom anarchy of Carrie, or Blow Out's title sequence. Likewise, the gooey music cues that sound up whenever our Snake Eyes heroine appears on screen, courtesy of the great Ryuichi Sakamoto, are straight out of Blow Out, arguably still De Palma's masterpiece. Come to think of it, the casino pursuit in Snake Eyes follows in lockstep with Blow Out's climactic subway chase, while Gugino's shifting identity is straight out of Body Double.
None of this would matter if, like the movie's non-linear storytelling, it didn't feel like smoke and mirrors. De Palma applies his best techniques to a rickety corruption thriller, setting expectations for a bigger payoff. Peckinpah wasn't always going through the motions when he quoted himself--sometimes, as in the case of the misbegotten Convoy, he was trying his damnedest to give the people what they want, having reached that point where his name was the selling point. Maybe that's what De Palma is doing here, and Snake Eyes certainly has style to burn and a lot of sex appeal in the form of Gugino. It will no doubt be warmly received by his apologists, who are legion. But the film's auteurist flourishes play like cosmetic surgery on an aging starlet, fooling no one and making things worse.
Paramount continues to impress with their DVDs. This digital transfer is almost as nice to stare at as The Truman Show's. Presented letterboxed at 2.35:1 (alas, not 16x9 enhanced--though I received a press release today indicating that many future Paramount discs will be), the image is colour-perfect and incredibly clear. Some have said that Snake Eyes looks edge-enhanced, leaving thin white outlines on characters and objects in certain scenes. This was not particularly noticeable on my 32", Video Essentials-calibrated television, and I suspect turning down your monitor's sharpness setting will at least greatly reduce this problem. However, because I was so closely inspecting the screen for "ringing," I caught some artifacts on Tyler the champ's blue bathrobe: the terrycloth material must have been hell for the compression artists, since it appears to freeze in place at times. There are also a few minor cases of shimmer, especially on the boardroom table during a hush-hush conversation between Dunne and Santoro.
The accompanying soundtrack is flawless. Presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 (with 2.0 being the default), the mix is as active as Stephen H. Burum's camerawork. The film sincerely deserved an Oscar nomination for its multi-layered sound design, which comes through loud and clear. Even the quietest effects, like a ringing cell phone, can be discerned during the boxing match. The rear channels kick in frequently, most dazzlingly when we're seeing the action from a character's POV (point of view) and his/her voice emanates from behind us. The rolling thunder of the storm rumbles deep, reaching impressively low frequencies. The theatrical trailer is the only extra. Note that the menus are not animated and that the studio has been thrifty with the number of chapter stops.
98 minutes; R; 2.35:1; English DD 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround; CC; DVD-5; Region One; Paramount