Snake Eyes is, in a bizarre way, the logical continuation of Brian De Palma's previous film, Mission Impossible. Mixing political thriller with questionable plays for De Palma's capacity to capture Romantic grief, Snake Eyes likewise feels like a safe bet for the director, but one he that allows him to push his luck. If it's one of the emptiest films of De Palma's corpus—a collection of work that houses more than a few technical exercises—at least the director gives us a story so ridiculous you almost don't mind when it collapses in the third act.
In a long career of intricate, arresting openings, the start of De Palma's Snake Eyes may be his finest. A 13-minute tracking shot that moves through the grimy politics behind a heavyweight championship fight, the opening moves from camera monitors through police corruption and finally ends with an assassination. I would couch that in a spoiler warning, but I want to avoid repetition and thus see no need to mention that this is a Brian De Palma movie a second time. It's the start of a shallow but merry and hysterically over-intricate journey into late-Clinton America, a time of economic success and almost-grating peace, of a country so well off it's now darkly quaint to think how badly everyone wanted something interesting to happen.
That opening shot serves not only to introduce principal players—chiefly crooked cop Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) and his best friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise)—but to serve as a smorgasbord of De Palma's pet themes and tricks. The initial focus on pre-newscast prep and pullback to a row of monitors starts the film with surveillance, while Rick's tour through the arena's underbelly, placing bets for the fight and chasing down hoods (Luis Guzman) who hang out with the defending champ, shows off corruption and the way some cops fit into the criminal underworld a little too well. De Palma's Steadicam careens around corners, tilts with anticipation, and when the action moves to the floor of the arena for the big match, De Palma uses the frenzy of the crowd (and a ludicrously oversized and ironic American flag) to instantly plunge into sensory overload. You're left waiting for something terrible to happen, a feeling made worse by De Palma strictly tethering the movement to Rick, always pivoting to look at suspicious people around him and Kevin sitting by the visiting Defense Secretary before returning to an oblivious and ostentatious Rick. At the height of the match, shots ring out, and Rick turns to see the Defense Secretary dying, the only clues amidst the pandemonium the previously established glimpses at surrounding characters. As is so often the case with De Palma, the style slowly reveals the substance.
It's a shame the rest of the film doesn't live up to this bravura opening, a perfectly timed escalation of comic overacting, art-for-art's-sake stylistic flourishes and gripping tension that introduces multiple stories and red herrings from the start. Once Rick, with his gaudy leather-brown jacket and leopard-color Hawaiian shirt, starts digging into a case that runs far deeper than he could ever comprehend, it soon becomes evident that he's too indifferent to justice and too invested in some of the suspects to pursue the truth with the conviction he displays.
Not that it isn't fun to watch Cage strut around yelling his head off at all those who cross him. In many ways, he's the ideal Hollywood star for a De Palma film, capable of powerhouse performances when matched with the right material but incapable of subtlety at all times. Cage is a bundle of wild eyes, a manic grin, and a base volume so high one would be forgiven for assuming Cage imagined himself in some strange variant of Speed where he couldn't drop beneath 55 decibels. The only time he looks in his element is when stands up in his front-row seat and declares himself king as the crowd roars. That is the single moment of the film Cage is sufficiently in his element; the rest of the time, the action takes place on Earth, a place Cage infrequently dwells.
Made to chase down various leads, Rick slowly uncovers a vast conspiracy that does not border on comical so much as merrily squeak a clown nose as it rides over the line on a unicycle. De Palma announces the twist early on, even framing it in blatant visual terms: red light bathes the double-crosser as the camera goes Dutch, and ominous music sets in because you can never have too many clues in a De Palma film. Taking a page from their work on Mission: Impossible, De Palma and writer David Koepp set their sights on a wounded military-industrial complex reacting to the end of the Cold War gravy train with pent-up masculine capitalist aggression. This curious, amusing mash-up of jingoistic greed and psychosexual feelings of impotence in the military machine when it cannot flex its muscles to impress people is grounds for merciless De Palma satire, but the director never truly explored the idea in either of these films.
But if Snake Eyes sacrifices potential depth of comedy (to say nothing of humanity), it at least proves a fun diversion that lets De Palma dance around coquettishly. He and Cage understand each other to the point that the two nearly ring tragedy out of the absurdity of the double-cross and Rick's steadfast refusal to accept it (to those always on-guard for De Palma's purported misogyny, the fact that he blames a woman to her face for the transgressions of a man edges uncomfortably into an abstract, allegorical form of slut-shaming, with money swapped out for sex). Sinise plays Dunne like Lieutenant Dan with more self-control but all of the frothing hatred roiling underneath; to hold back that tension, Sinise clenches his jaw, and it's entirely conceivable he turned in this performance after having his mouth wired shut from some kind of accident. His hissed lines make a jolly counterpoint to Cage's toothy yells. Carla Gugino steals the show as the mysterious woman whose role remains ambiguous for a chunk of the film as she alternates between the femme fatale, the brilliant professional and the damsel. Gugino handles these shifts so fluidly she emerges perhaps too talented a chameleon for the sort of person her character really is, but it's a delight watching her melt through various female types while not letting herself be defined by any of them.
But not even Gugino is as interesting as De Palma's camerawork. Though the film lacks the aesthetic or political bite to place it among the director's finer works, Snake Eyes boasts a few setpieces that display the best (and most gloriously tacky) of De Palma. Besides the stupendous short-film career-summary of the opening shot, De Palma outdoes himself with a drift over hotel rooms as evil forces close in on Cage and Gugino. With a camera pointed straight down, De Palma moves over gauche tableaux of Atlantic City oblivion, scanning over garishly colored rooms filled with reveling frat boys, lonely gamblers, gratified johns, even a businessman or two who clearly imagined themselves enjoying the kind of night we see in the other neon-smeared suites clinging to the '80s by the fake fingernails. As with the first shot, it's silly, tasteless, and oh so brilliant.