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Snakes Alive

De Palma and Cage craft a creepy thriller

Nicolas Cage has never seemed more dazzling than he does in the new Brian De Palma thriller Snake Eyes. Playing Rick Santoro, a corrupt Atlantic City cop who likes to think he's "everybody's friend," Cage for almost two continuous hours is boogying to his own inner beat. 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 20-minute tracking shot that follows Rick's sinuous glide through the Atlantic City Arena on the night of a heavyweight title fight. It's a showoffy scene, but Cage and De Palma have a lot to show off. As Rick moves up and down escalators and staircases, placing bets, rousting petty hoods, glad-handing the champ's entourage, we get his entire character in microcosm. He's a man for whom the gravies of power and corruption are a sweet sauce.

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

Rick's counterpart, Kevin, 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. As a security officer, Kevin has the perfect countenance -- his face is secure 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. Rick, unaware that Kevin 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 connect. We're spies in a game in which we, too, are being hoodwinked. It's not only the flashbacks that seem suspect. Everything that we set eyes on has a heightened illusoriness.

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. 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 mid-range -- but in their deep-down dread they are all of a piece. The frights, the jabs of violence and carnality come at you like the sped-up, inevitable terrors in a delirium.

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, even when it wasn't making a lick of sense, the set pieces were so good.

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