Another tough-guy copper

Brian De Palma falls short yet again, cliché by cliché.

Action movie cops always have a bad reputation—be it from excessive fervor (Dirty Harry), "crazy" behavior (Lethal Weapon), or plain old bad attitude (Die Hard and a million others). But in the end they always redeem themselves through their heroism. The problem with this plot staple is that it's usually undermined by actors who want to be liked. The star constantly telegraphs that this supposedly "bad" cop isn't really so bad; heck, deep down he's a soulful, sensitive guy following a higher calling.

Snake Eyes

directed by Brian De Palma

starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise

now playing at Meridian 16, Redmond Town Center

Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, has not one qualm about making his character, Rick Santoro, completely crass. Corrupt cop, callous adulterer, and all-around loudmouthed jerk, the hero of Snake Eyes struts around an Atlantic City boxing arena like a peacock on Viagra.

The movie opens with a long continuous steadicam shot that follows Santoro up and down the stairwells of the arena where the next heavyweight championship match is gearing up. Santoro extorts money out of a pathetic petty crook, drools over a busty blonde, blathers excuses over a cell phone to both his wife and his girlfriend, and generally makes an ass of himself to everyone while on his way to joining straight-arrow best friend Navy Cmdr. Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) on the arena floor.

Dunne, who is protecting the secretary of defense, gets drawn away from his post. An instant later, a sniper shoots the secretary in the throat—and the sustained shot finally ends. The rest of the movie follows Santoro's investigation, in particular his pursuit of a mystery woman who is either an accomplice or another potential assassination target. None of this really matters, though, because Snake Eyes isn't about plot—it's about style and verve. The movie constantly slips in and out of different perspectives, from the fragmentary views of the casino's security cameras to the conflicting stories told by the people Santoro interrogates. At one point, the camera abandons a tense pursuit down hotel hallways to glide serenely above a series of hotel rooms, each its own little reality, until finally arriving at the room where the plot resumes.

These slick maneuvers are the stock-in-trade of director Brian De Palma, who's always at his best when his "personal concerns" take a back seat. While his hired-gun genre flicks (Carrie or The Untouchables) brim over with directorial invention, more personal movies (Body Double or Raising Cain) tend to founder in spiteful obsession. Body Double, for example, features a sadistic killer who murders women with an enormous power drill. De Palma claims he's not a misogynist, but images like that are hard to interpret otherwise.

Sometimes his nastier impulses creep into his mercenary flicks. One scene in Mission: Impossible! features Emmanuelle Beart huddled in a corner, wrapped in a blanket like a little girl. Tom Cruise stands over her, his crotch level with her face; Beart desperately kisses his hand. Admittedly, the plot of Mission: Impossible! was incomprehensible to begin with, but this scene had no relationship to anything but De Palma's own desires. De Palma still gets his kicks in Snake Eyes. There's plenty of cleavage on display, and the heavy use of surveillance cameras carries more than a hint of voyeurism. But overall, the movie steers clear of anything too lurid.

Instead, De Palma wisely focuses on Cage and Sinise. Sinise's tightly coiled acting nicely counterbalances Cage's manic energy. Sinise strides through the casino in full uniform, as relentless as the T-1000 in Terminator 2. The rest of the cast—Carla Gugino as the mystery woman, John Heard as a duplicitous developer, Stan Shaw as the boxing champion—do their part, but the movie is ultimately a two-person show. Cage and Sinise keep it sharp and crackling.

Yet Snake Eyes doesn't quite fulfill its promise. The dialogue is pretty cheesy, and the ending craves one final bravissimo flourish that De Palma fails to deliver (he introduces a giant metal ball, then doesn't use it). Most significantly, in the end, that hackneyed redemption formula resurfaces—and fails us once again. Cage is so entertaining as a creep that no one wants him to turn noble. De Palma tries to rescue matters by having Santoro brutally beaten when he decides to turn good, as if to underscore that virtue isn't as much fun as craven sinfulness. After that, Santoro staggers around in a bleary, swollen haze, and the movie similarly loses steam. If only Cage could have remained cocky and arrogant to the end, prancing in his bright yellow Hawaiian shirt, taking advantage of the helpless, and sneering at anyone who thinks he should care.

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