Right at the beginning of Brian De Palma’s new thriller, Snake Eyes, Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), a joyously crooked cop, enters the Atlantic City Arena all jazzed up and ready to roll. It’s fight night, the heavyweight title is at stake, and as Rick strides in, his wife and mistress call him on his cell phone, his friends greet him with flattery and bribes, and he’s thrilled to be alive and feeling so gloriously dirty. Corruption runs in his veins; he’s a rat at home in the sewer. Rick rushes through the arena to his seat, ringside, where he greets an old friend, Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a rather severe-looking Navy officer assigned to protect the secretary of Defense, who is also attending the fight. The bout begins, Dunne gets up to check someone out, the heavyweight champ is knocked down, and the secretary, no longer protected, takes a bullet in the throat from the rifle of a hidden shooter on the other side of the arena.
All of this is conveyed in a single, enormously long-lasting shot, which De Palma and his great cameraman, Stephen H. Burum, have brought off with a Steady Cam and a group of actors attuned to continuous work in real time. The camera picks up pieces of conversation, moves to look at something else, returns to where it was, picks up the next piece of conversation, and so on. The shot itself is a kind of representation of the exhilaration and the connectedness that Rick feels. There’s nothing languorous or wandering about it: Everyone talks a mile a minute, the crowd is screaming, and De Palma creates, and records, the ambience of a big, violent, semi-coherent event. As we watch, amazed, we know that De Palma is trying to top the famous opening shots of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and Robert Altman’s The Player, that he’s piling on difficulties and complications so as to show off his virtuosity. The sequence runs along on sheer nerve and momentum, and as long as it lasts, it seems to offer everything that the cinema can offer in the way of simultaneity and excitement. But this astonishing opening sets up a peculiar problem. Nothing else that De Palma does in the movie can come anywhere close to it. When the shot runs out, the movie also seems to run out – that is, it devolves into a fairly familiar and depressingly unconvincing thriller about an assassination conspiracy and a corrupt man who has the chance to act, for once in his life, with honor. Without the continuous running shot connecting everything to everything, the clichés become obvious, and then overpowering. We remember past movies featuring assassinations, like The Parallax View, which was also centered in an arena, and we notice echoes of earlier De Palma movies (Blow Out, Body Double, and Mission: Impossible) in which evidence of a crime was revealed by one recording device or another. Here the device is video cameras stationed all over the arena and in an adjoining casino and hotel. A certain weariness settles into our response: The dense layering of imagery, we may suspect, now functions less as a commentary on our media-saturated society than as a convenient way for filmmakers to avoid the hard work of plot construction and character development.
Screenwriter David Koepp, who has worked with De Palma in the past, and also with Spielberg (on the Jurassic Park movies), isn’t discovering anything; he’s just making commercial movies – that is, providing story elements and characters that have no independent life or interest or plausibility but offer a workable frame for a director’s manipulations. And what Koepp provides turns out to be too straight for De Palma’s fluid technique and narrative circularity. When De Palma worked with sillier or more fantastic material in Carrie and Dressed to Kill, he was freer to play, and his own emotions and ambivalences burst through the excesses. Snake Eyes doesn’t display any emotion apart from a passion for the moving camera, and in one scene, De Palma hits rock bottom. Cage is beaten to a pulp and then staggers to his feet and tries to rescue a virtuous young woman. Sinise follows with gun drawn, and the sequence goes on forever, with repeated close-ups of Cage’s mashed and bloody face. I can’t think of another movie that starts so brilliantly and ends so miserably as this one.