'Snake Eyes' a losing toss Review: Despite the smoldering presence of Nicolas Cage and plenty of action, Brian De Palma's latest movie is strictly by the numbers, borrowing from films to which it refers.

August 07, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

As Rick Santoro, an Atlantic City police detective who has the city in his pocket and the world on a string, Nicolas Cage roams the town's biggest casino and sports arena like a Rick of another era.

Like another anti-hero of cinematic yore, Cage moves through his world with assurance and primal physical power, unencumbered by the demands of any guiding personal ethic. Bursting with the joie de vivre reserved for naifs and scoundrels, he belongs squarely in the latter camp. He's a reluctant hero who would rather give in to corruption than fight it.

Any resemblance to Rick Blaine of "Casablanca" is strictly intentional.

Balancing a wife and a lover on his gold-plated cell phone, a garish Hawaiian shirt peeking out from a seedy-looking jacket, -- Santoro glad-hands his way through an arena where a heavyweight championship is about to take place, screaming with adoration to the boxer he's betting on, roughing up a drug dealer to get needed cash for the bet, chatting up a television announcer.

But where Humphrey Bogart's Rick was as seasoned and smooth as his perfectly pressed tux, Cage leaps out of his skin, getting more jacked up as the fight draws nearer. Screaming along with 14,000 fellow fight fans, Santoro seems to absorb their energy and throw it back to them with ecstatic, almost demonic, abandon. The arena may belong to a powerful corporate magnate (John Heard), but it's clear who really owns the joint. Everybody comes to Nic's.

For a minute there, it looks like Cage's smoldering performance alone will be enough to make "Snake Eyes" watchable, but no such luck.

When a man sitting behind Santoro -- the secretary of defense, actually -- is assassinated, the arena and the casino-hotel next door are sealed off.

The man in command -- Naval officer Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), Santoro's best friend -- managed to kill the assassin, but the hit man's conspirators are still out there somewhere. And then there is the business of a mysterious young woman who was speaking to the secretary when he was shot, then disappeared wearing a blood-stained white satin suit.

The fact that a distraught girl covered in blood attracts no notice in a crowd crawling with law enforcement officials is but one implausibility filmgoers must overlook in "Snake Eyes," which, like De Palma's "Mission: Impossible," tries to disguise low stakes as high -- this time with histrionics, an admittedly arresting visual style and a reliable mixture of sex and violence. But, like the previous film (which should have been called "Mission: Probable"), "Snake Eyes" never musters more than perfunctory interest.

When the bad guy reveals himself it comes as no real surprise, and the cat-and-mouse game that the two lead players embark on has a by-the-numbers-feel to it. And so many potentially engaging elements are left by the wayside: a Peter Lorre-like TV announcer never comes into play, nor does the FBI, whose arrival in an hour and a half would seem to suggest a juicy `D exercise in real-time suspense.

There are things to admire in "Snake Eyes": Production designer Anne Pritchard has devised visually intriguing backdrops for otherwise boilerplate scenes; and Ryuichi Sakamoto has composed a wonderfully retro-elegant musical score. Always a stylist, De Palma engages in some clever flashbacking and moves his camera in and out of corners and doorways with cunning stealth; one overhead shot ingeniously eavesdrops on the tawdry inner life of an Atlantic City hotel.

In addition to the myriad "Casablanca" references, there are also nods to "On the Waterfront" (someone actually says, "It wasn't your night") and De Palma's own films -- most obviously a blond-wigged, short-skirted character who seems plucked directly from "Dressed to Kill."

If De Palma had worked harder on constructing a taut, tightly written story, his borrowing from the best would have looked like honest thievery. Instead, "Snake Eyes" looks like just another pickpocket.

'Snake Eyes'

Starring Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise

Directed by Brian De Palma

Released by Paramount Pictures

Rated R (some violence) Running time 98 minutes

Sun score * 1/2

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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