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End of the World

[whitespace] Snake Eyes
Here Come the Bribes: Nicolas Cage as a bad cop gone good in 'Snake Eyes.'

Brian De Palma's gamble pays off in new thriller

By Richard von Busack

BRIAN DE PALMA sets the stage for catastrophe in his thrilling new film, Snake Eyes. Almost all of the action takes place inside an oceanfront hotel/casino/sports complex pounded by Hurricane Jezebel. The fictional Atlantic City Auditorium, part of the complex, is about to be bulldozed to make room for a hotel annex. De Palma makes the upcoming demolition a mini-apocalypse. A huge art deco globe decorating the rooftop of the old building topples over from the storm and rolls wildly down the boardwalk. The design for the hotel-to-be bristles with ornamental arrow-pointed missiles. The annexing hotel is named the Millennium, appropriately enough.

On this violent night the auditorium's final event takes place: a championship boxing match with local hero Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw), "the Atlantic City Executioner," defending his title. Flamboyant, bribe-taking plainclothes cop Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) has come to watch the show. Among the celebrities at the fight is the U.S. secretary of defense, along with his security chief, war hero Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a childhood friend of Santoro's. The fight is fixed. Immediately after Tyler takes his dive, the secretary is shot in the neck. Dunne kills the supposed assassin--a usual suspect, a Palestinian crank. Lost in the crowd, fleeing from the gunfight, is eyewitness Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), who was seated next to the secretary and was nicked with a bullet.

The story is retold from different points of view, and the crowded hotel/casino next door to the auditorium becomes more porous with each telling. Walls and ceilings open to the camera, and the building turns out to be honeycombed with monitoring devices. Scriptwriter David Koepp makes the story more complex than just a simple conflict between Santoro's Mediterranean morality and Dunne's WASP patriotism. Even the fascists here have a plausible argument. As usual, Cage is in terrific form, playing Santoro as an antic rooster, gold-plated cellular phone at his ear, who is sobered into heroism without a lurch. De Palma's films have been faulted for heartlessness; certainly the warm Cage gives De Palma as much heart as any director could want.

De Palma is known for being capable of anything, and Snake Eyes is viciously intense. Still, the director has checked his most extreme tendencies. Except for one brutal beating--which has a certain cruel justice to it--the threat of violence is worse than what actually happens. The technical tricks De Palma uses here aren't just eye candy. The split screen, the subjective camera, the thrilling 20-minute-long Steadicam sequence that opens the film, the blunt reverse-angle shots that turn the story inside out--none of these devices is flaunted. All are integral to the story. De Palma, who has also directed such landmarks as Carrie and The Untouchables, has one of the best vocabularies, cinematically speaking, of any director today. Snake Eyes makes for great entertainment, but it's even more fun for people who love to pore over a movie instead of just racing along its surface.

Snake Eyes (R), directed by Brian De Palma, written by David Koepp and starring Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise.

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From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro.

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