So, you’ve heard about “Snake Eyes” and you think you’ve seen it all before. Well, you’re not psychic and you’re not crazy. You have seen it all before. Writer-director Brian DePalma has often in his films paid homage to past directors, notably Alfred Hitchcock, by copying some of their techniques. In “Snake Eyes” he copies himself. Maybe he meant this as a kind of self-aggrandizing tribute; maybe it was all he could think of to do. For the audience it means that everything is fairly predictable.
All of DePalma’s familiar touches are here: The conspiracy theory, the disguised identities, the mysterious woman in a wig, the disparity between appearances and reality, the odd camera angles, the time shifts and flashbacks. The result is decidedly not up to the effort. In the end, “Snake Eyes” comes up a colorful but routine murder mystery, with too little tension and too little suspense.
The setting for the story is an Atlantic City hotel and sports arena during and just after a heavyweight championship prizefight. Nicholas Cage plays an obnoxious, loudmouthed gambler who also happens to be an Atlantic City homicide detective. He’s at the fight as an observer, as is America’s Secretary of Defense, when shots ring out and the Secretary is killed. With the help of his friend, a naval officer in charge of security played by Gary Sinese, Cage goes to work to find the guilty party or parties. There were 14,000 people in the arena watching the fight, and every one of them is a suspect. Before long Cage is knee-deep in assassination plots, conspirators, suspicious characters, and a secret he doesn’t want to believe.
There are more annoyances in the film than pleasures; let me illustrate just a few. First, there is Cage himself in his action-hero mode. Only this time he’s no hero. He’s so unscrupulous from the outset, so corrupt, we wonder how he ever got a job on the police force, let alone kept it. His personality defects do insinuate themselves into the story line, but they don’t give the viewer much to cheer about. What kind of hero is it who doesn’t even rise to the level of anti-hero; who is such a miscreant we can’t possibly root for him; whose only redeeming quality is that he won’t murder someone?
Second, there’s DePalma’s unforgivable transgression of revealing the killer halfway through the story. I suppose he wanted to give us a whodunit in the first half of the film and a thriller in the second. What he succeeded in doing was to give us too little of either one.
Then, he uses flashy time switches and eccentric, overhead camera shots presumably to reveal new perspectives on some of the events, but which only seem gratuitous and serve to further muddle the issues. Finally, he comes up with an ending that is so preposterous as to defy all odds, all reason, all description. Not even Atlantic City would take bets on it.
Fortunately, Paramount do right by the movie by presenting it in excellent color and 2.35:1 widescreen. The tones are bright and vivid, adding to the gaudy, circus atmosphere of the events, and the wide screen captures all of the activity in detail. There are occasional flutters in closely spaced horizontal lines, nothing more.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, though, is curiously mundane. It never really opens out to all the speakers. There is a choice of Dolby Digital or Dolby Surround in the setup menu, but I did not find much noticeable difference between them. Not even in the big crowd scenes, where one would expect some action from the rear channels, was the sound particularly impressive. To its credit, however, it is clean and neutral in response and makes for clear, easy listening.
Beyond the film, Paramount offer little additional material: a scene selection menu and a trailer only.
I like Nicholas Cage, and he does what he can with his part. But it’s a thankless role, sleazy and pat. It’s DePalma who lets us down. He’s a director who has come up with a lot better in the past and from whom we expect a lot more now. Maybe it was my anticipation and letdown that spoiled the film for me. I wish you better luck.