Snake Eyes (1998)
Director: Brian De Palma
Screenplay: David Koepp
Story: Brian De Palma & David Koepp
A shady police detective finds himself in the middle of a murder conspiracy at an important boxing match in an Atlantic City casino.
I bet no one expected to see this movie come up for review in 2021, did they? While it’s often been derided by critics and filmgoers alike (at least it was at the time it was released), I have always been a fan of this suspense-thriller from De Palma, a man who knows a thing or two about horror and suspense. It’s a movie that’s overlooked and mostly forgotten now, but I would encourage folks to give it another chance. It isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, but it gets so many things right that I look for in a movie that its faults are easily overlooked, at least for me.
Before I dive right into the review, let me say a few words about Nic Cage. I’m personally a huge fan, especially the more batshit he gets (think of his performances in MANDY, the 1993 remake, KISS OF DEATH, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, VAMPIRE’S KISS, and there are plenty more). He goes completely off the rails and over the top in some of his performances, but unlike most actors, he does it brilliantly. I know this is just my opinion, so fuck you. The man makes you really believe he’s out of his mind, and it may well be that he is, who knows? But he’s not only good at nuts. He’s good at smarmy, at humor, can play a complete slimeball or a loving family man, all with equal vigor and commitment. He pumps movies out constantly nowadays, to varying success, but one thing about Cage that sets him apart from most: he doesn’t need a good script or director to still be good in a movie. The movie can totally blow, but he still kills it. His latest movie as of this writing is PIG, which has a terrific script and direction, and an understated performance for Cage. It’s utterly brilliant and highly recommended. But I digress…
SNAKE EYES opens with one of the best long shots I’ve ever seen, with the camera focusing on some monitors as a storm rages outside of a boxing arena and casino in Atlantic City, showing us a frustrated news woman reporting on the big fight of the night as a government official is seen walking in with his entourage. Then the camera pans to another monitor where a reporter is getting ready to go onscreen inside the arena when Ricky Santoro (Nicolas Cage) shows up in loud clothes and a big, cocky grin as the camera then pans off the monitors and to the actors themselves. What follows for roughly fifteen minutes is us trailing Cage as he runs into a bookie, sees one of the fighters (turns out they went to the same school), catches a drug dealer whom he robs and then destroys all of his vials of drugs.
Did I mention Ricky Santoro is a cop?
In fact, he’s a homicide detective, and he immediately takes the money he steals from the dealer to the bookie to put money down on the match. We then follow him as he enters the arena and a hot blond that is going to carry the number 7 (his lucky number) sign around the ring and he gives her his number. Then his girlfriend calls him on his golden flip phone (he’s a flashy big fish in his small pond) and does some dirty talk, then his wife calls and there’s a hilarious moment where he argues with her as to what toppings are on a given pizza. The crowd is roaring and he quickly gets off and points to his best friend Kevin Dunn (Gary Sinise), a military man who is in charge of security for the government official for the night. Now, De Palma may have used some of Hitchcock’s tricks from the classic ROPE with some fast camera pans that were probably cuts, but you still have the illusion we’re still in that single, long opening shot. He sits down, has some banter with his pal. Ricky is king of his little world in his own mind, and he lets us know it.
Now, stay with me, there’s a reason I’m detailing this opening shot. The whole movie revolves around this shot going forward.
Sinise sees a stunning red haired woman who seems totally out of place in the front row. She’s not with anyone. Since he’s head of security, he goes to inspect. The fight has started, but we don’t see anything in the ring. We hear punches and see the crowd reactions, and when they all stand up at once, the woman takes off and Sinise follows. We pan back to Cage who tells a woman who sits next to him the seat’s taken, but when he notices how beautiful she is, he changes his tone. Then his phone rings again and it turns out to be his “Lucky Number 7”. He scans the crowd, finally seeing her across the way on the top row, waving her big Round 7 card. The woman next to him is leaning back, speaking to the government official. This is sort of in the background of the shot, and Cage starts to notice while on the phone. A man in the crowd stands up to scream, “Here comes the pain, baby! Here comes the pain!” and security is all over the guy.
Then Cage hears the woman (Carla Gugino) telling the government man, “It’s you who’s going to be sorry, Mr. Secretary.”
We finally cut away from the long opening shot as Lucky Number 7 screams and we see Cage’s confusion as he turns around to see the Secretary is shot in the throat, blood spraying out, and we enter one of De Palma’s beautiful slow motion sequences as absolute chaos ensues. The woman stands in shock and is shot in the arm, then Cage tackles her to the ground, pulling his gun and looking up across the way to see Sinise shooting an armed man who was hiding inside a advertising…closet…thing…just watch the movie.
And now, the movie takes off.
De Palma is a master of building suspense, and he’s set a taut stage. Cage takes over the investigation and has an hour and a half before the FBI will get involved. He starts interviewing suspects and we go back in time and see a lot of the same opening shot we just went through, but from other points of view and we start to get a clearer picture of what’s happening. Or, so we think, anyway.
With the entire stadium locked down with 14,000 eye witnesses, the hunt is on for the woman who was speaking with the Secretary, who vanished in the chaos. Cage and Sinise split up, and we follow Sinise now down to a basement where we see not only the red haired woman from before, but also the man from the crowd who had shouted, “Here comes the pain!”
“Someone made you both,” Sinise says, and things turn more sinister. There’s more going on than we thought, and we learn that there is a whole conspiracy surrounding the murder of the Secretary, having to do with a weapons system that was reporting perfect results, but were in fact doctored. Gugino had uncovered all of this and had been corresponding with the Secretary and was going to bring him the evidence at the fight, where they thought it would be safe being so public.
De Palma uses the camera and music in beautiful harmony as the movie goes on and Cage discovers his best friend is not only in on the conspiracy, but had deliberately used Cage as cover, thinking he would just take some money and be quiet. But something about this sits wrong even with a slimeball like Cage’s character, and we see that when he’s hidden the woman and is faced with giving her up and getting rich or getting the shit beaten out of him and then killed.
“I ain’t never killed nobody,” Cage says. Turns out, he does have a moral compass, even if it doesn’t point True North.
The storm outside has become a hurricane, and we watch the smarmy, big shot crooked cop with aspirations to become mayor become a hero, because killing people isn’t something he’s willing to get on board with. Sinise’s character, sinister as he is, doesn’t want to kill Cage. He has a moral compass, too, at least in as much that he doesn’t want to kill his friend…even though he’s still willing to do it.
The big finale comes with a boom and Sinise is exposed. He’s begging Cage to vouch for him, that the woman is a suspect. Cage, beaten and swollen and barely able to stand, tells him, “You got Snake Eyes.”
Sinise takes himself out and Ricky Santoro is a hero in the public eye. That lasts about five minutes, as the movie winds down and all of Santoro’s life is under scrutiny. It isn’t long before charges are brought against him and he’s set to go to jail. The movie ends with him and Gugino talking, and that he’ll give her a call in 12 to 18 months, which she looks forward to.
De Palma is a master of suspense, and no stranger to horror movies. No one would mistake this film for a horror flick, but some of the shots, the way he moves the camera to build tension, the flashes of lightning and the shadows of killers within them, all of this gives it a feel—at least in the final third of the film—of a horror movie. This works well with the suspense and Cage’s over the top performance after he’s been so badly beaten still works because, well, he’s fucking Nicolas Cage!
The movie has some plot holes, some things that don’t quite add up, but I didn’t care about any of that. The movie starts cranking up the tension from the first reel, ratcheting it tighter and tighter all the way to the end. Cage’s performance is delightfully over the top and a lot of fun to watch, and Sinise is as solid as ever. De Palma’s direction is the real winner here, though, because no one else does it quite like him. He can take a script with holes in it and deliver what I still think is a masterpiece of suspense.
A great cast, a unique setting and plot (holes and all), and a director who is often compared to Hitchcock all come together to deliver a chilling little film that is all but forgotten now. If you tried it out in ’98 or a long while back with a “meh” reaction, maybe it’s worth giving it a second look, especially if you take it for what it is: an exciting little suspense flick. It’s not quite a ‘turn your brain off popcorn movie’ (it isn’t an action film), but while you really want to pay attention to the details, especially in that amazing opening scene, the movie doesn’t require much from it’s viewers beyond that. If you’re anything like me, that’s perfectly fine so long as they manage to keep it taut and fun.
SNAKE EYES does both.
Chris Miller is a native Texan who began writing from an early age. In 2017 he began publishing, and since then has published several novels – including the Amazon bestselling Splatter Western Dust (nominated for the Splatterpunk Award) – a collection, Shattered Skies, and has also been inducted into many anthologies. Chris is 1/3 of the writing collective Cereberus, and likes to play guitar. He is first and foremost a family man and is happily married to the love of his life (and best friend) Aliana. They have three beautiful children and live in Winnsboro, TX.
Shattered Skies —
Taut as a guitar string. More relentless than time. Award-winning author Chris Miller offers up ten tales of terror and suspense to crank up your anxiety in the way only he can.
Desperation, panic, worlds on fire, and much more.
Featuring a foreword by Patrick C. Harrison III and a story co-authored with M. Ennenbach, SHATTERED SKIES will leave you breathless, white-knuckled, and wanting more.
The Master of Suspense is at your service.
Cereberus Rising —
(co-authored with Patrick C. Harrison III and M. Ennenbach, together Cereberus)
A poet, a master of horror, and a master of suspense join forces as Cerberus. With three prompts–Cabin Fever, Letters, and Chaos–the three-headed beast dishes out nine novelettes. Cerberus Rises with their unique styles to take you on a journey through nine different levels of Hell.