Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.21: Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 56 (B-)

Snake Eyes is one frustrating movie. After the success of Mission: Impossible, Brian De Palma had a chance to do one of his classic thrillers on a big budget, and he didn’t waste a penny. For about an hour, Snake Eyes is one of the most exciting films of De Palma’s post-80s filmography, filled with dynamic filmmaking and fun performances. It’s a shame, then, when it all falls apart spectacularly in a third-act that drains energy, plausibility, and interest.

Ricky Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a corrupt Atlantic City police detective whose best friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), runs security detail for the Secretary of Defense. When the Secretary is assassinated during a boxing match for the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Dunne shoots the assassin, supposedly a Palestinian terrorist. But Ricky is convinced that there’s a deeper conspiracy that involves the champ (Stan Shaw), a handful of accomplices to the shooter, and a mysterious woman, Julia (Carla Gugino), who met with the Secretary shortly before his death. What he discovers turns him from a corrupt cop willing to look the other way to a crusader for the truth.

Every review of Snake Eyes, even the negative ones, begins with a discussion of the stunning opening, a 13-minute tracking shot that follows Ricky as he takes care of some shady business, acts like a live wire, enters the boxing arena, has a long conversation with Dunne during the fight, and witnesses the assassination. It’s as if De Palma saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights the year before, watched the complicated tracking shots, and said “I’ll fucking show you!”. De Palma immerses us in Ricky’s world- he’s an off-the-wall character in a wonderfully sleazy city, he deals with shady characters (Luis Guzman, Michael Rispoli, Kevin Dunn), and he’s got powerful connections. De Palma uses whip pans and deep focus to give clues as to how everything is going to go wrong- there’s a beautiful woman all by herself, a conspicuous drunk shouting something imperceptible, and Carla Gugino’s character in an obviously fake wig arguing with the Secretary about something. De Palma doesn’t show the fight or the assassination, but he shows the characters’ reactions, and that’s what’s most important to what happens next.

Snake Eyes never quite tops that opening shot- how could it?- but for the rest of the first two acts, De Palma uses seemingly every trick in his bag- long, complicated tracking and crane shots, split-screen and split-diopter, dragged out Hitchcockian suspense, strong command of great character actors, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s tense score. This isn’t De Palma’s first conspiracy movie- the film consciously echoes his masterpiece Blow Out- but De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp (his collaborator for Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible) do a terrific job of keeping the audience guessing. De Palma also makes great use of the seedy Atlantic City location as a stew of simmering sexuality and glorious gaudiness.

De Palma’s fascination with voyeurism and film are intertwined in Snake Eyes. Ricky’s use of security footage to look back on the events, check out other characters, and follow whoever he needs to aids his quest, but as with  Blow Out, the closer you look, the less clear everything becomes. De Palma consciously echoes Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Rashomon when Ricky interrogates various characters- we see events from multiple points of view, but it’s not entirely clear until the end who’s lying or leaving out important details. Voyeurism can clarify, but it can also obscure, confuse, and send someone off in the wrong director entirely. Best of all is a foot chase near the end of the second act, where De Palma toys with audience expectations and makes them helpless voyeurs just as he has his whole career.

Part of what makes Snake Eyes work so well (for a time, anyway) is the terrific cast. Cage was at the height of his powers in the 80s and 90s, and his utterly crazy performance is both entertaining and strangely apt for a character who clearly loves being the center of attention. Gugino, who hasn’t been nearly as good since, taps into Julia’s strong sense of morality and guilt- she’s the emotional center of a film filled with amoral and often nasty characters. Sinise might be most central to the film’s success. Within the first few minutes, it’s pretty clear that (SPOILER, I suppose) he’s the one behind it all, but the actor does a good job of A. playing a supposedly moral, dignified soldier, and B. playing a “John Lithgow in Blow Out” style cold-blooded assassin. Sinise, Koepp, and De Palma craft a character who represents the calculation and cold self-preservation tactics the government takes. Innocent lives don’t matter- it’s all part of a sick political game.

For the first two-thirds, Snake Eyes exhibits De Palma’s expert craftsmanship, left-wing cynicism, and gloriously over-the-top sensibilities. The film is so wracked with tension and fast-paced energy that I had knots in my stomach (no kidding, I was caught up). I was convinced I watching not just an underrated movie, but a possible classic. At the end of the second act, however, the thinness of Koepp’s script starts to show, and it grows increasingly clear that the plot is totally ridiculous. This matters less in De Palma’s horror movies, which largely toy with the idea that horror movie psychology is bogus, but in a conspiracy movie it’s important to have some sort of a through-line here. The filmmaking and acting is dynamic, however, and there’s a possibility around the corner that De Palma is intentionally toying with the idea that conspiracy movies are ridiculous. Then the third act starts.

The final thirty minutes of Snake Eyes aren’t just utterly ludicrous and idiotic. They’re boring. Totally, completely boring. John Heard is a fantastic actor, but when he turns to spouting ridiculous, heavy-handed speeches about why he helped mastermind the assassination, the film becomes frustratingly generic, the dialogue laughable. Sinise and Cage don’t fare any better- the former starts to go over-the-top, the latter grows mopey and uninteresting. By the end, it feels more like an imitation of a De Palma movie crossed with an idiotic action movie, complete with some totally absurd turns: the boxer is in on it, starts beating Cage up behind closed doors (no, really); the hurricane that’s been in the background of the film ends up saving the day (no, really). It’s easy to see why so many of the reviews for Snake Eyes were so scathing- the film’s last third is so bad that it makes it difficult to remember the better parts, or even makes it questionable how good those parts really were. I can’t deny how much I enjoyed the first two-thirds of Snake Eyes, however, even if it doesn’t amount to much in the end.

NOTE: This film is available on Netflix Instant.

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