A knockout

De Palma gets down and dirty with the jagged, funky Snake Eyes

Nicolas Cage has never seemed more dazzling than he does in the new Brian De Palma thriller Snake Eyes. Playing Rick Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City cop who likes to think he's "everybody's friend," Cage for almost two continuous hours is boogying to his own inner beat. It's like watching a great jazz musician give a fantastically extended riff. The entire film takes its cue from Cage's spritzes and jags; it's a delirious performance in a delirious landscape.

The delirium begins with the first sequence--an uninterrupted 20-minute tracking shot that follows Rick's sinuous glide through the Atlantic City Arena on the night of the heavyweight title fight. It's a show-offy scene, but Cage and De Palma have a lot to show off. As Rick moves up and down escalators and staircases, placing bets, rousting petty hoods, glad-handling the champ's entourage, we get his entire character in microcosm. He's a man for whom the gravies of power and corruption are a sweet sauce.

Rick isn't big-time; his gold chains and Hawaiian shirt tell you that. At least he knows he's small potatoes. He understands his limitations--though he fancies running for mayor of Atlantic City. (That's small potatoes too.) Still, within his own corrupt little fiefdom, Rick is a real rooster. He likes being a part of the charged-up action at a boxing championship because it boosts him into a frenzy. Making his rounds, he's almost ecstatically alive.

De Palma has worked with great actors before--John Travolta and Michael Caine, for example--but he's never had a performer as attuned to his high-flying flourishes as Cage. For De Palma, Cage is like the embodiment of his own rampant id. He's a wiggy harlequin; the fervor of the director's style completes him. Cage gives his character a wayward, complex emotionality. When Rick finds himself drawn into a murder investigation--the visiting secretary of defense is assassinated during the fight, and the arena, with its thousands of suspects, is sealed off--he changes before our eyes. Refusing at first to believe his best friend, Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), might be implicated, Rick startles himself by becoming a man of scruples. We're set up to watch a two-bit hustler, and we end up with a first-class hero.

When Rick is grilling the stony ex-champ (Stan Shaw) in his dressing room after the fight he clearly threw before the assassin's shots rang out, he puts it to him: "What did you get yourself into?" Rick here is still in his wheedling, high-on-the-hog mode; he enjoys rousting a champion. But later in the movie, the same question comes back on himself. Rick is a man who believes, with some justification, that he's got the whole town wired. When the wiring breaks down, he's more than confused--he's bereft. A murder conspirator taunts him by saying, "Don't give me that wounded look; you don't have the face for it," but the truth is, Rick does have the face for it. His goony wolfishness is spiritualized by pain--and by the desire to do the right thing.

Rick's counterpart, Kevin Dunne, is almost infernally implacable. Hired during the championship fight to guard the secretary, he's a military man closed off from the usual human sympathies. His tautness gives him a lizardly look, with slitted eyes and a wide, flat mouth. As a security officer Kevin has the perfect countenance--his face is secured even from himself. He's all barricade.

When this asp slithers through the pink and fuchsia hallways of an adjoining hotel in pursuit of a renegade suspect (Carla Gugino), De Palma is in his most fragrant element. Rick, unaware that Kevin is shadowing him, is also in pursuit, and for a while we seem to be watching a great big peekaboo hallucination. The visual game plan of Snake Eyes is voyeuristic but with a twist: The flashbacks to the events surrounding the assassination are replayed from three different people's viewpoints, and none of them connect. We're spies in a game in which we, too, are being hoodwinked. It's not only the flashbacks that seem suspect. Everything that we clap eyes on has a heightened illusoriness.

De Palma has played these now-you-see-it-now-you-don't games many times before, and he still manages to make them electrifying. He's horrified--and mesmerized--by the element of betrayal in the movie image. For De Palma, the film medium is at its highest pitch when it's inducing paranoia. We're never sure what we're looking at in one of his thrillers because the mesmerism runs deep; we might be dreaming it all up, and the dream is invariably a bad one. Lined up in a row, De Palma's fantasias are like recurring nightmares; they may vary in quality--Snake Eyes ranks, I think, in the mid-range--but in their deep-down dread they are all of a piece. The frights, the jabs of violence and carnality come at you like the speeded-up, inevitable terrors in a delirium.

The disappointment in Snake Eyes is that, with Cage and everything else it has going for it, its fervor finally dissipates in a muddled, seemingly tossed-off denouement. De Palma has the ability to draw you so deeply into his netherworlds that ordinarily you don't mind the glitches and lapses--the kinds of things that might bother you in more conventional thrillers. It was possible, for example, to enjoy his most recent film, Mission Impossible, even when it wasn't making a lick of sense; the set pieces were that good.

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