The career of director Brian De Palma provides an object lesson in the vagaries of the film
industry. Scarface (1983) was protested, critically reviled
and a box office disappointment, but
today it is considered a gangster classic and is among the films for which De Palma will be
remembered. The success of The Untouchables
(1987) got De Palma the clout to bring his long-planned passion project, Casualties of War (1989), to the screen, but the film was little seen and
remains one of his least known (though one of his best). And as a reward for suffering through
exhausting battles with producer and star Tom Cruise to craft the first (and still the best)
Mission: Impossible film, Paramount funded
Snake Eyes, nominally a conspiracy thriller, with a
screenplay by Mission: Impossible co-scribe David Koepp from a story by Koepp and De Palma.
Under the thriller surface, though, De Palma was more interested in something else, just as he'd
pursued other interests in horror-themed films like Carrie and
Dressed to Kill. In Snake Eyes, De
Palma placed the viewer into a surveilled environment, Atlantic City, where everyone knows
they're being watched, and he followed a protagonist, a local cop, who thinks he has the place
under control. Then De Palma systematically deconstructed both the surveillance and the cop's
certainty, taking his camera into places where the eye can't normally see, distorting perspective
and ripping apart all the cop's certainties. The result, though not to every viewer's taste, draws a
stark contrast with the usual Hollywood formula. As he routinely has done throughout his career,
De Palma tried to make cinema interesting, starting with Snake Eyes' attention-grabbing opening
shot that lasts an unbroken thirteen-plus minutes. (In fact, it contains multiple edits, but they're
The film's reception was less than friendly. Many viewers complained that the trailer gave away
too much. Others carped that the film gave away too much by revealing the villain too early (to
which De Palma promptly replied, in vain, that the villain's identity wasn't the point). Few saw
the film as a stylized tale of a flawed hero's journey to redemption, and even fewer remained
through the entire end credit scroll to catch the wit of the closing shot.
Snake Eyes might have gained in reputation since its theatrical release, if it had ever been given a
decent video presentation, because it's a film where the widescreen visuals are so essential that
any compromise deprives the film of its impact. But both Paramount's laserdisc and its DVD
(which used the same transfer) were virtually unwatchable symphonies of edge enhancement,
aliasing and video noise. The new Blu-ray released by Warner changes the game.
Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as Atlantic City police detective Rick Santoro, a corrupt but
fundamentally decent Good Time Charlie with a wife, a mistress, a bookie and a nose for
cocaine. Rick loves the spotlight, likes to party and believes that everyone should come to
Atlantic City and have a good time. Someday he might even run for mayor.
Tonight Rick is in top form attending the heavyweight title match between champion Lincoln
Tyler (Stan Shaw) and challenger Jose Pacifico Ruiz (Adam C. Flores). The fight is being held in
the Atlantic City Arena, part of a casino and hotel complex owned by tycoon Gilbert Powell
(John Heard). The event is a sort of farewell to the Arena, which is being torn down to make way
for a bigger, better resort center that Powell intends to out-glitz everything in town.
As Rick bounds up and down the aisles of the Arena, fending off calls from both his wife and his
mistress, chatting with his bookie, waving to the champ (with whom he went to high school),
you'd hardly know he was a cop on duty—but that's the Santoro style. Rick's childhood friend,
U.S. Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), is also attending, because he's in charge of
security for a major dignitary, Secretary of Defense Charles Kirkland (David Fabiani), who tells
the news cameras he's just there to see the fight. In fact, Kirkland is mixing business with
pleasure, because casino owner Powell is also a major defense contractor, and Kirkland has just
come from the test of a new missile defense system, the AirGuard.
As the fight begins, Rick and Dunne sit together in the first row, just in front of Secretary
Kirkland, when Dunne's attention is caught by a redheaded woman (Jayne Heitmeyer) who looks
"wrong". When Dunne asks to see her ticket, she runs and Dunne chases her, but then his empty
seat is taken by another woman in a platinum blonde wig. We will later come to know her as
Julia Costello (Carla Gugino), and she turns to speak to the Secretary. Suddenly—and I'm
leaving out a few more events that are better seen than described—shots ring out and the
Secretary falls to the ground. Julia Costello disappears into the panicking crowd. Dunne, who has
now traversed the arena in pursuit of the redhead, zeroes in on the source of the shots and fires
into a utility closet, killing the shooter. He will later be identified as a Palestinian extremist.
Now, for all his faults, Rick Santoro is neither stupid nor incompetent. Even while the crowd is
panicking around him, he's already spotted other oddities besides Dunne's mysterious redhead.
As the senior cop on the scene, he insists on taking charge until federal authorities arrive, which
might take some time, because there's a tropical storm raging outside that's threatening to
intensify to hurricane force. (Tamara Tunie has some entertaining moments as a TV reporter
forced to brave the winds to file her story.) But the further Rick digs, the more he discovers that
he's violating expectations. He's supposed to live down to his reputation as a corrupt cop who
doesn't ask questions and lets things slide, but Rick discovers, to his great frustration, that he
can't do it. In one of the film's key exchanges, an innocent caught up in the deadly games asks
Rick why he's so angry, and he barks back:
Because I didn't have to know! You decided to have this problem, not me! My world would've gone
on turning just fine, but now, either way I look, I have to do something that I don't wanna do.
Much of Snake Eyes is about Rick Santoro's world being torn apart: spiritually, by what he
discovers about the people around him; visually, as De Palma's camera literally disassembles the
sports and casino complex by moving through it in ways that are physically impossible; and
narratively, as he replays key sequences you've already seen from a different point of view. In the
original version of Snake Eyes, the building itself was to have been torn apart by a tidal wave
created by Industrial Light and Magic, but the sequence was deleted after a preview.
In the film's final cut, the building survives the storm, only to be torn down and rebuilt
afterwards. The construction crews are working as the credits roll, and a montage of news
footage has shown us the price that Rick Santoro paid for trying to do the right thing. De Palma
has long been fascinated by the terrible toll exacted from those who try to behave honorably.
It's a dominant theme in Casualties of War, and it runs through both The Untouchables and
Carlito's Way. In Snake Eyes, one could
fairly say that the lesson is written in stone.
A scene occurs about thirty-seven minutes into Snake Eyes that perfectly exemplifies everything
wrong with the prior video transfer created by Paramount for laserdisc and then recycled onto
DVD. Rick Santoro and Kevin Dunne sits across the table from each other in a gaudy conference
room, so that Rick can explain how he's uncovered a conspiracy in the shooting of the Defense
Secretary. But on the DVD or LD, viewers often had trouble concentrating on the dialogue,
because they were so distracted by the dancing pixels on the walls, conference table and the
model of the planned new complex at the back of the room. The entire scene was alive with
aliasing and video noise, and I have always wondered how any self-respecting telecine colorist
could have allowed it to leave his or her workstation.
Well, at long last that scene is watchable, along with everything else on the new transfer
presented on Paramount/Warner's 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray. Stephen H. Burum, the ace
cinematographer who so fluidly followed Al Pacino through Grand Central Station in Carlito's
Way, lit and photographed the insanely complicated tracking shots of which Snake Eyes is largely
composed, and the Blu-ray reveals depth and detail in his work that haven't been visible since the
film played in theaters. The blacks are deep, the colors are vivid and saturated, and the image
pops with intensity at all the right moments (usually when something bad is about to happen; in
De Palma's world, evil always looks great). Fine detail in faces, clothing and decor is readily
apparent, even when the action speeds up.
The average bitrate of 22.96 is on the low side, but I assume that's the result of an efficient
compressionist trading off savings from scenes where De Palma slows down the action in order
to have more bits for demanding moments like the "whip pans" that conceal the edits in long
takes. In any case, unless one counts Rick Santoro's questionable wardrobe, artifacts were not an
Snake Eyes's elaborately mixed soundtrack is presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1, and it's full
of subtle cues and shifts in perspective that follow De Palma's camera as it criss-crosses the
Arena, the casino and the hotel complex. The crowd scenes during the boxing match and the roar
of the intensifying storm—heard both from inside and, in a few key scenes, outside the
buildings—are obvious showcases, but quieter detail emerges on repeat viewings. Listen, for
example, to the individual environments as the camera passes overhead from one hotel room to
another looking for Julia Costello and the conventioneer in whose room she's taken refuge. Each
room has a distinct sonic character, and they ease from one to another so smoothly that the
transitions are seamless instead of gimmicky.
The dialogue remains clear regardless of the surrounding din, and the score by Ryûichi Sakamoto
(an Oscar winner for The Last Emperor) has been
carefully balanced to coordinate with the
environment (unlike the Pino Donnagio scores in De Palma's early films, which sometimes took
over the soundtrack altogether).
For anyone new to Snake Eyes, I recommend it, as long as you don't approach the film as a "who
done it" or even a "why did they do it". It's a film about a flawed hero who has to make a choice,
and it presents his problem with a visual flair unlike anything you're likely to encounter in other
movies. Whether the style will be to your taste is something I can't promise, but at least now you
can see it for the first time in fifteen years. Highly recommended.
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