Snake Eyes (1998)

18 Jul

I don’t like vigilantes. I don’t like the way that they enact justice while simultaneously considering themselves immune from justice. I don’t like vigilantes like Patrick Drum who hunted down and killed two sex offenders so he could elevate himself from common criminal to hero. I don’t even like Travis Bickle. So, when Nic took on two vigilante roles in Trespass and Seeking Justice in 2011, I was dissatisfied with the man I love. When he had played vigilante super-hero Big Daddy in Kick Ass back in 2010, it was kind of cute… his performance as a man escaped from Hell seeking revenge in Drive Angry of the following year tickled me through its dunderheaded machismo. I was passably interested in the return of undead soul collector Ghost Rider last year. Basically though, Nic’s career had reached vigilante saturation point and I wanted out. During this barren period of departure, I took up meditation, fell in love and wrote two thirds of a graduate thesis. When my friend Tim drew my patriotic alter-ego Jingo-Force as a gift, I started to warm a little to the figure of the vigilante. But I still hadn’t forgiven Nic. What’s changed? I still refuse to watch Dexter and think that Death Note is of moral concern. However, I have not been uncharitable in observing Nic’s career. He ventured into voice-acting in a major motion picture with The Croods and this year is reunited once again with John Cusack in The Frozen Ground (a film in which Nic is not technically a vigilante because he’s a cop). More promising, has been the talk of Charlie Kaufman penning a musical about internet trolls in which a singing Cage might star. What has prompted this turn-around and return to ‘Cage Wisdom’ however has been two events. Firstly, my girlfriend Rachael and myself watched The Raven, in which John Cusack stars as Edgar Allen Poe. A diabolical killer is roaming the streets of Baltimore executing people through methods that recall the macabre tales of Edgar Allen. Unconstrained by a lack of police training, Poe joins the force when he realises that the love of his life (though, in a move that appeared cynically commercial, said love interest was *not* Poe’s adolescent cousin/ wife) is next to be targeted. Although The Raven lacked the inclusion of Poe’s greatest story ‘Hop-Frog’ about a dwarfish court jester who makes a flaming human chandelier via convincing several courtesans that eight people tied with rope covered with feathers resembles an orangutan, it was a daffy romp, but I couldn’t help thinking that Cusack was a little bit weedy, reserved and conventional in his portrayal of the great author… in short, he wasn’t Cage.

Secondly, I watched Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes and enjoyed it a good deal more than I expected.

In Snake Eyes, Nic plays the fast shooting, fast talking, blood money embezzling (indeed, there is a literal motif of blood-stained money in the film), organised fight enthusiast Ricky ‘Slicky’ Santoros. Ricky is a man who doesn’t do stop-and-chats. He’ll eat a burger while talking on the phone and won’t care. Sure, he works as a cop, but he’ll also commingle with racketeers. Ricky crosses between all the different spheres of Altantic City’s Boardwalk Hall’s casino and boxing arena where Snake Eyes is set – sitting alongside politicians and celebrities in the stalls; extorting a crook for money round the back; waltzing his way into a boxer’s dressing room to catch a word with the champ, always movin’, striking a pose, always gabblin’. Ricky goes through life like he’s the ball in the tie-in pinball machine of a better Brian De Palma film.


Ricky tends to assume that everyone knows him and whenever a television camera so much as catches his ear lobe in extreme long-shot, he’ll be up on his feet performing. In order words, he’s a bit of jerk and a doofus. Nic plays Ricky with a loose-limbed swagger that sits somewhere between gawkiness and cool. We sense that he tries a little too hard. He’s spreading himself too thin. Ricky’s hair acts as a telling metonym for this. Sure, it’s perfectly sculpted in a greasy back-curve, but it’s also receding, the sideburns stubby and the hair gel clearly not premium grade. Likewise, Ricky’s shirt has an attractive brown flower motif, but it is also the colour of urine. His jacket looks like it would collect cat hairs real easy. But at the same time, he has an expensive watch. Imagine a high-school ticket scalp in a suit and tie. The lager lout who only drinks imported Belgium beer. Ricky is a schmuck who has gotten lucky many, many times… but now he’s about to roll snake eyes.

As Navy commander and diminished Tom Hands look-a-like Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) says to Ricky about Atlantic City, “This isn’t a beach town any more… it’s a sewer.” In Atlantic City, one is never 10 feet away from some kind of foul crime (like Ricky’s shirt ~ ho ho), corruption or intricate political conspiracy. Even as shady men kill other shady but more innocent men, life goes on as normal. Old ladies whittle away their pensions on unforgiving slot machines. Awful people spray champaign over each other in hotel rooms. A paying public pretends that the boxing match they watch isn’t rigged. This community where money talks and everyone has a chip on their shoulder and more on the table, is insular and self-contained. The vast bulk of the film’s running time takes place within Boardwalk Hall. This results in some bravado tracking shots and long takes and also keeps the viewer reminded of the inter-connectivity of the film’s events. All the characters exist within a tight network. Actions have repercussions.

The film – and here I include a spoiler warning – is essentially about a boxing match that is thrown to enable a political assassination. In as much as the film has themes, it is primarily concerned with the limits of male friendship, the difficulty of resisting bribes when money is amazing and the inherently subjective nature of memory and truth. In this way, Snake Eyes is like Rashomon set in a casino or a straight-to-video Caché, in that it revisits a pivotal event from different perspectives in an attempt to reach a kind of truth. However, while Japanese Rashomon and French art-house Caché suggest that truth is essentially illusive and unknowable, the American blockbuster Snake Eyes knows that if you watch an event enough times from enough CCTV monitors, you’ll eventually work out what’s what. To enable this, the aforementioned ‘pivotal scene’ is replayed over and over again from different camera angles – most innovatively, in a split-screen sequence. As hinted, this is not really a mechanism for analysing the nature of truth, but rather a tool for drip-feeding the audience clues about a murder, that enables the film to be confined to a single location. Though the repetition was in danger of becoming tedious, I enjoyed the relatively tight plotting this allowed, plus the emphasis upon on viewing and surveillance – meta-cinematic concerns beloved by films more worthy than Snake Eyes.

In casting Nic as a corrupt yet charismatic cop, Snake Eyes also recalls (and pre-dates) Herzog’s 2009 remake of Bad Lieutenant. However, the similarity may also be that both are films in which middle-aged men shout a lot. I guess that is a lot of films. Both Snake Eyes and Bad Lieutenant involve a hyper-masculine role for Nic, though Nic’s performance in the later work is the most intensely grizzled and teeth gnashing. Ricky is a bit more soft and rubbery, however he leaves the viewer in no doubt that he is ‘a man’ through his adherence to that unfortunate Indiana Jones school of treating women like Link treats Princess Ruto in Ocarina of Time. (If that simile was a little ambitious, it basically means treating the woman as a mild annoyance and then leaving her somewhere while the man goes about his manly business, returning later for a kiss and praise.) Perhaps the big question that Snake Eyes raises, is who does Rick love, America or the girl? (Carla Gugino in a well-performed but underdeveloped role) To Brian De Palma’s credit, the film never really resolves that question.

Although Snake Eyes has about as much depth as a tadpole and altogether is a daffy, slightly pointless affair, I fundamentally enjoyed its limited setting, ambitious camera movements and performance by Cage as a charismatic but irritating man. More important for me though was the fact that the film provides a critique of unfeeling government and even – at a stretch – the silencing of minority voices. The ending shot, upon which the credits are over-laid, is somewhat cryptically of some manual workers quietly and capably rebuilding Boardwalk Hall after an explosive finale. I didn’t understand the shot, but after spending so much time with government agents, high-fliers and celebrities, I was glad that the film ended with some humans who weren’t all about dark shades, 1st-class flights and classified weapons of mass destruction. Also, in aligning itself against militaristic government and corruption and portraying working men and women sympathetically (if fleetingly) Snake Eyes felt a little less swaggeringly right-wing than some of Nic’s more recent fare and brought him home, once again, to my heart.

ImageImage taken from which provides an earnest and intelligent analysis/ celebration of the film.


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