In the 1990s, filmmaker Brian De Palma struggled between making expensive, high profile failures like The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) and pushing through personal projects like Raising Cain (1992) and commercial triumphs like Mission: Impossible (1996). Fresh from the success of the latter film, he rounded out the decade with conspiracy thriller Snake Eyes (1998) starring Nicolas Cage. De Palma employed his trademark stylistic bag of tricks to deliver a never dull thriller that was ultimately marred by a weak ending (infamously changed from the original) leaving most critics cold. The film was a modest commercial success and summed up the filmmaker’s performance during the ‘90s as it attempted to balance his personal touches with a commercial sensibility with uneven results.
Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is a flashy, flamboyant, and very corrupt Atlantic City cop who attends a big-ticket prizefight where he meets Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a United States Navy Commander and his straight-laced best friend from childhood. Dunne is in charge of security for Secretary of Defense Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani). During the course of the fight Kirkland is subsequently shot and killed by an assassin with Santoro as a key witness to the incident.
As Santoro investigates the murder he begins to realize that there was a lot more going on during the fight than he initially thought. Who was the beautiful redhead (Jayne Heitmeyer) sitting by herself? What happened to the woman (Carla Gugino) dressed in white talking to Kirkland just before he was shot? Why did the supposedly invincible champ (Stan Shaw) lose the fight so easily? The rest of the film follows Santoro's attempts to answer these questions and piece everything together.
Nicolas Cage clearly relishes the role as it allows him to cut loose and have fun with the character. This performance sees him reverting back to his old manic self that you can see bouncing through films like Raising Arizona (1987) or Wild at Heart (1990). Cage seems to be gleefully going over the top in many of the early scenes and it suits his egotistical cop character. Rick’s personality is as ostentatious as his tacky attire. Cage also isn't afraid to play a character that, initially, isn't that nice of guy. He's a self-serving cop only out for himself. He's not your traditional hero. As Rick’s investigation continues, however, and he realizes that there is more going on, Cage modulates his performance as his character wises up and tones down the flash as Rick applies skills he hasn’t used in ages. Cage’s character becomes much more interesting as his life gets increasingly complicated.
Kevin is everything that Rick is not – restrained and responsible. We soon learn that this is all an elaborate façade while with Rick what you see is what you get. Gary Sinise is excellent as the intense Navy Commander that seems too good to be true. That’s because he is and the actor plays an unreliable witness very well. Initially, we don’t have any reason to doubt him but after Rick questions Kevin De Palma audaciously reveals his real agenda so that we now know more than Rick does and spend the rest of the film watching him trying to figure it out. The scenes between Cage and Sinise are a lot of fun to watch as we see two veteran actors play so well of each other, especially as more revelations come to light.
De Palma's choice in actresses with a captivating presence is readily evident in his casting of Carla Gugino as the alluring key figure in the mystery and the only voice of reason in the film – a whistleblower trying to do the right thing. Sadly, she’s largely wasted in a role that amounts to nothing more than relaying expositional dialogue and then reduced to a damsel in distress.
Snake Eyes is a great looking film. De Palma is in fine form and he's got longtime cinematographer Stephen H. Burum (The Untouchables) behind the camera. This makes for a visually interesting film as Burum employs De Palma’s entire bag of tricks: split screens, unusual P.O.V. shots, skewed angles, and starts things off with a bravura 10+minute-long take with no cuts that introduces all of the major characters and the world they inhabit. De Palma does it all while following Rick, which provides all kinds of insights into that man – what he does, his relationship to others and his larger than life personality. It gives Cage a chance to show off, which he does in typical flashy fashion. This long take also forces us to pay attention to not just the people Rick interacts with but also the background details. It is important to what happens later on. This opening sequence also establishes the most crucial relationship in the film – the one between Rick and Kevin, which is increasingly put to the test.
David Koepp’s screenplay presents the Kirkland assassination Rashomon-style as we see it repeatedly from the point-of-view of key figures so that we get more pieces of the puzzle, figuring it out as Rick does. It’s an interesting way to present a thriller of this kind and De Palma and Koepp keep things together for the most part, but one character delivers a monologue near the end of the film that seems like something a Bond villain would spout. For the most part, the director manages to keep us engaged after the show-stopping first ten minutes, but loses it at the film’s climax, which strains credulity.
Initially, Brian De Palma had Al Pacino in mind to play Rick Santoro with an older man-young man dynamic with the Kevin Dunne role. However, Pacino had just done that with Donnie Brasco (1997) and was hesitant to repeat himself. Then, Gary Sinise became available and De Palma went with him and Nicolas Cage, changing the dynamic to characters that were the same age. Sinise worked with De Palma, developing his character’s backstory and motivation for what he was doing while the director had Cage watch screwball comedies because he wanted the actor to say his dialogue at “that Howard Hawks-like speed.” Cage also came up with his character’s flashy attire.
De Palma decided to have the long take at the beginning of the film because he wanted to “show the whole universe that the Nick Cage character was in. I wanted to show HIS world, I wanted to show it really fast, and I wanted to show it whole, in an exciting venue.” He found shooting the actual sequence “akin to a high-wire act: you can get very exhilarated trying to pull it off. It’s also very energizing for the actors. There is a kind of excitement in their performance that you don’t get when you start shooting in master shots, then medium shots, then close-ups.” The opening tracking shot was actually compromised of four SteadiCam shots because 20-minute camera magazines did not exist.
Initially, De Palma had the idea that the ending was to involve Deus ex machine: “we were dealing with such a corrupt world that the only way to solve the problem is to have a hurricane come through and wipe it all away.” Test screening audiences did not like it and so De Palma shot another ending, “which I don’t think is as effective.” Screenwriter David Koepp remembers that in the original ending Rick saved Kevin but test audiences wanted the bad guy to get his comeuppance.
Snake Eyes received mostly mixed to negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave it out one out of four stars and wrote, “Then comes an ending so improbable it seems to have been fashioned as a film school exercise: Find the Mistakes in This Scene.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “If nothing else in Snake Eyes matches the opening sequence in adrenaline-pumping excitement, the movie never quite fizzles. It just gets sillier and more exaggerated in the self-parodying ways Mr. De Palma’s movies often do.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The camera choreography is exquisite, but De Palma is so entranced with staging his purplish voyeuristic set pieces that we can hardly believe a minute of what we’re seeing. He’s become the masturbator of suspense.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “Both Koepp’s script and De Palma’s directing style encourage the actors to be over-emphatic, and macho posturing is high on the list of the film’s weaknesses.” Finally, in his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “Mr. De Palma and his collaborators have told a comparatively simple story with a very rich and resourceful mise en scene. This sort of mastery has become so rare in today’s mainstream movies that I find myself more bewitched and beguiled than perhaps I should be.”
Ever the consummate professional, De Palma orchestrates key sequences for maximum impact as he ratchets up the tension by placing certain characters in dangerous situations that they narrowly escape. At times, Snake Eyes seems like a film of two minds. On one hand, it wants to have the stylistic flourishes of De Palma’s more personal work while fulfilling the generic conventions of a thriller. That being said, the film is pure eye candy thanks to Burum’s virtuoso camerawork, which does most of the heavy lifting as does Cage’s deliciously manic performance. Snake Eyes may lack the depth of other De Palma films, like Blow Out (1981), but he seems content to deliver an entertaining thriller utilizing every stylistic trick in his impressive arsenal with the skill of a master filmmaker. The film may lack any kind of real substance but it is wonderful visual eye candy. There’s something enjoyable about letting an expert craftsman like De Palma manipulate us because he does it so well.
Behar, Henri. “Brian De Palma on Snake Eyes.” Film Scouts. August 1998.
Jones, Wil. “David Koepp Interview: Mortdecai, Jurassic Park, Indy 4.” Den of Geek! January 23, 2015.
Taylor, Drew. “Brian De Palma Talks Passion, Digital vs. Film, Psychosexual Thrillers and the Abandoned Ending of Snake Eyes.” The Playlist. July 30, 2013.