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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.

But this sort of connoisseurship has its decadent side. De Palma has such a fantastic grasp of film technique that at times he lets his fluency take the place of feeling. Emotionally, he's gone beyond the rococo whirligig of Snake Eyes, and he probably knows it; it's a very high-class piece of slumming.

This may sound harsh in describing a film that has Nicolas Cage in top form and is so much fun to take in. But it has been, after all, 17 years since De Palma made Blow Out, in which he gave his terrors a deep-souled resonance. Almost a decade ago he made Casualties of War, which brought the ghastliness of Vietnam throbbingly close to us. These two films are the high points of De Palma's career because they grounded his horrors and gave them a human weight -- which, of course, made them infinitely more horrific and moving.

This may be the only way for an artist of De Palma's penchants to keep going in today's Hollywood. His skills as a thriller maestro are highly marketable; less so is the emotional and psychological power he is also capable of packing into those thrills.

Because of Cage's performance, Snake Eyes goes beyond being just a virtuoso exercise. But what De Palma attempts to build around that performance is very hit-and-miss. At times he seems to be going for political allegory -- the American flag is used in that boxing arena practically as a piece of pop art, and the collusion on display between Washington military fanatics and munitions tycoons is a down-and-dirty conspiracy that might brighten Oliver Stone's day.

But this is mostly window dressing; the political element never builds to any kind of vision. De Palma is more successful here when he sets his ambitions lower. The film's noirish look and rapid-fire tough talk, particularly in the early spinning-top sequences with Rick, are like overripe renditions of Hollywood fight films from the '30s and '40s. And De Palma still has his dirty boy's passion for the illicit; when that conspiracy suspect hiding in the hotel passes herself off as a hooker and gets down to bra and panties, we're in a familiar hothouse. You've got to hand it to De Palma. After all these years, he still hasn't forgotten the fine flavor of sin. For him, the lure of the illicit is inextricably linked to the sensual possibilities of the film medium. Moviemaking is the ultimate turn-on. He can't get enough.

Snake Eyes.
Rated R.
Directed by Brian De Palma. With Nicholas Cage, Gary Sinise, Carla Gugino and Stan Shaw.

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