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Non-Review Review: Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes could have been a much better movie than it ultimately turned out be. Brian De Palma can be a frustratingly uneven filmmaker, but the basic premise of the movie isn’t sort of promise. A murder mystery and conspiracy thriller in a crowded auditorium, with the investigating officer a corrupt cop? That’s a fairly interesting hook right there, even before you add Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise to the mix. Unfortunately, the movie never seems entirely sure what it wants to be, ultimately serving as a random mish-mash of different elements that never add up to a conclusive whole.

In the Nic of time...

I think part of the problem is that De Palma’s film isn’t really the mystery that it attempts to establish itself as. We’re shown the murder of a US Senator in a crowded boxing arena, and hints that things don’t add up. However, the script doesn’t offer any real hints or foreshadowing as to where things are going. It seems that as soon as the film floats a particular idea, it’s already well on top of it. Elements aren’t so much developed over the movie’s slight runtime as they are randomly introduced whenever the film needs a jolt of energy. The movie’s music even suffers – with a ridiculously over-the-top score which feels like it belongs in an epic and sweeping drama or gothic horror. It’s not bad in its own right, but doesn’t work here. The movie doesn’t seem to know what it is.

For example, no sooner has our lead – Ricky Santoro – suggested a conspiracy (“five people make a conspiracy, right?”) than it’s clear that there is a conspiracy and everyone is in on it. There were thousands of people at the fight, but the movie doesn’t have any red herrings or dead-ends for the investigation to follow – it’s almost procedural, which is very disappointing. After all, the shooting suggests a mystery, and a conspiracy seems to suggest some measure of lost trust. However, the movie is pretty up-front about who is involved in what, so it actually seems like the most banal conspiracy ever.

He only gambles with his life...

More than that, though, De Palma’s film introduces a somewhat forced political angle as it reaches the finish line, with “the Norfolk test” only introduced shortly before the bad guys are revealed, and then serving as a rather blunt stick for the film to beat its audiences over the head with. The whole “military industrial complex” conspiracy might have worked better if it wasn’t a plot point that seemed inserted simply to eat up time, and if it wasn’t so heavy-handed. When a whistle-blower confronts Santoro with information he wasn’t expecting, he goes into denial about it, insisting, “I did not want to know!”

Given that the last half-hour of the movie is a story about government corruption, it seems a bit heavy-handed. Develop these ideas over the course of the film, rather than shoving them down our throats at the last minute. The film even turns its villain – who is ultimately quite predictable, based on typecasting and the fact the movie needs a twist – into a shallow ranting lunatic, despite the actor’s best efforts, as he accuses the assassinated Senator of “playing political games with real soldiers’ lives.”

Something Sinise-ter this way comes...

There’s a feeling that a lot of the movie was discarded on the cutting room floor, with the finished film feeling almost like a blue print for a thriller waiting to be fleshed out. I know that all the references to “the huge metal globe” thrown into the middle of the street by the “tropical storm” were intended to lead to an ending that was vetoed by a test audience, but it feels strange that most of the long, lingering camera shots were left in the film. Especially when one imagines that those seconds could have been better spent elsewhere.

It’s a shame, because the movie has one fascinating central attribute in its lead character and actor. Rick Santoro is a corrupt cop, and the movie has a great deal of fun with the idea, despite the fact that it’s fairly obvious how things will play out. “I give you the opportunity to pay for all the extra police work that you create,”is  great rationalisation of his corruption, and Cage actually does a great job with the character. As always in a film like this, there’s a moment where the compromised individual must make a moral choice – and we know how it must end. It’s Cage’s performance that sells the moment, creating the very slightest seed of doubt in the audience’s mind.

Wigging out...

In fact, the movie’s ending is one of its more intriguing attributes, as it continues past the point where most thrillers call it a day. It’s a sequence that dares to ponder what happens to a morally compromised lead character after the curtain goes down, and does a fairly decent job at subverting expectations ever-so-slightly. The problem is that it feels like the skeleton of an interesting idea, and it’s barely really there, to be entirely honest. It’s just sorta floated for the last ten minutes, before we’re given an ultimately cookie-cutter ending, one that really undermines the attempt to add nuance or depth to the film.

It’s a shame, because I’m certain there was a good film in here somewhere. It just feels like everybody involved rolled snake eyes.

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