De Palma Plays It Cage-y

Nicolas Cage has never seemed more dazzling than he does in Brian De Palma's new thriller Snake Eyes. Playing Rick Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City cop who likes to think he's "everybody's friend," Cage boogies to his own inner beat for almost two continuous hours. It's like watching a great jazz musician play 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 twenty-minute tracking shot that follows Santoro's sinuous glide through the Atlantic City Arena on the night of the heavyweight title fight. It's a showoffy scene, but Cage and De Palma have a lot to show off. As Santoro moves up and down escalators and staircases, placing bets, rousting petty hoods, glad-handing the champ's entourage, we are presented his entire character in microcosm. He's a man for whom the gravies of power and corruption are a sweet sauce.

Santoro 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, Santoro is a real rooster. He likes being a part of the charged-up action at a boxing championship because it jolts 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 filmmaking 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 Santoro finds himself drawn into a murder investigation -- the secretary of defense is assassinated during the boxing match, and the Arena, with its thousands of suspects, is sealed off -- he changes before our eyes. Refusing at first to believe that his best friend, navy commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), might be implicated, Santoro 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 Santoro 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?" Santoro here is still in his wheedling, high-on-the-hog mode; he enjoys lording it over the boxer. But later in the movie the same question comes back to him. Santoro 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 truth is, Santoro does have the face for it. His goony wolfishness is spiritualized by pain -- and by the desire to do the right thing.

Santoro's counterpart, 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. Sinise's security officer 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. Santoro, unaware that Dunne 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 connects. We're spies in a game in which we are being hoodwinked. It's not only the flashbacks that seem suspect; everything we clap eyes on has a heightened illusory quality.

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 is 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 middle -- but in their deep-down dread they are all of a piece. The frights, the jabs of violence, and the carnality come at you like the speeded-up, inevitable terrors in a hallucination.

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 (1996), even when it wasn't making a lick of sense; the set pieces were that good.

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