Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, which screens at midnight tonight and tomorrow at the IFC Center’s Nicolas Cage series, is a conspiracy-driven police procedural about official corruption, friendship and fidelity, private and public moralityâŽ¯except not really. Mostly it’s a movie about movies, a film in which personal motivations and interpersonal relationships are subordinated to the structural imperatives of self-reflexive spectacle. De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible) start out with a real potboiler of a premise: the Secretary of Defense is assassinated during a heavyweight title match and a crooked Atlantic City cop (Cage) must lock down the entire arena and unmask the conspirators via the video surveillance systems and “14,000 eyewitnesses.” The plotâŽ¯as structurally overdetermined as an acrostic poem or a crossword puzzleâŽ¯is self-consciously “by-the-numbers”: “The redhead [who] you followed is the one who told Tyler to throw the fight. She’s One. The shooter’s Two. Tyler’s Three. The drunk who shouted the signal is Four. And whoever was on the other end of that radio is Five. Five people make a conspiracy!” As anyone familiar with the work of Brian De Palma (Blow Out, Body Double) might have guessed, this scenario is another launching point for the director’s pop-ontological investigation of cinema itself.
“Our eyes see very little and very badly,” the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov wrote in a 1926 manifesto to his “Kino-Eye” collaborators, a movement which Snake Eyes invokes in a jokingly literal-minded way. “And so man dreamed up… the movie camera to penetrate more deeply into the visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.” This meta-narrative of deconstruction/reconstruction is the real core of the film. If it lacks the philosophical resonance of, say, Rear Window, there’s still something undeniably artful about De Palma’s analytical precision in manipulating point of view and range of knowledge, from the film’s famous openingâŽ¯an elaborately choreographed and apparently (there are several well-hidden edits) uninterrupted twelve-minute Steadicam shotâŽ¯through the series of narrated flashbacks and video-feed replays (“Punch up camera three!…Rewind!…Zoom In!”).
During these sequences De Palma has style to burn. That opening shot, unfolding with the motorized precision and kinetic kick of a Rube Goldberg machine, is a self-consciously virtuosic setpiece meant to one-up similar camera moves in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Robert Altman’s The Player. A lot of critics have dismissed this kind of overt stylistic play as self-indulgent, even “masturbatory.” To which I can only respond: duh! When directors start fetishizing the length of their Steadicam sequences with the competitive pride of porn stars measuring their endowments, we are obviously in the realm of gratuitous exhibitionism. And what’s wrong with that? If you’re game for the kind of showboating set pieces, empty in-jokes and meta-cinematic mechanics that make people love-hate the whole “movie brat” generation, Snake Eyes offers forty (non-consecutive) minutes of eye-popping, button-pushing, ego-stroking playfulness.
The problem in Snake Eyes is that you have to sit through the rest of the film. As soon as that gunshot goes off it’s like De Palma blows his load—the levels of energy and interest abruptly drop—and he just takes too long to recuperate: laboriously maneuvering the characters into position for the next showstopper, plodding through some exceptionally tedious exposition, investigating the remarkably forgettable cast of supporting players. The film picks up again in the reconstructive flashbacks while never really recovering that frisson of the opening sequence. But where Snake Eyes founders in the second act, it just drowns in the last, awash in the bathos of an implausible moral redemption and an unearned romantic reunion, and capped with the worst end-credits song I’ve ever heard (“Sin City” by Meredith Brooks).
This is the kind of movie I can recommend in good faith only to preadolescent boys and postgraduate film students. Everyone else will probably find themselves checking their watches.