At his best, Brian De Palma is one of the most flamboyant, talented, technically audacious and psychologically fascinating directors currently working in America. From the visceral, terrifying delights of Carrie through the spare, clinical paranoia of Blow Out and lush melodrama of The Untouchables, he has delivered some of the most memorable, controversial films in modern movie history. Even the patchy shocks in The Fury, the occasional incoherence of Body Double and the stylistic disaster that was The Bonfire Of The Vanities couldn't mask a genuinely original talent. Snake Eyes fits between the two extremes, neither as misjudged as Bonfire nor as perfectly wrought as Carlito's Way: it's an entertaining though flawed thriller replete with trademark De Palma moments.
Rick Santoro (Cage) is a cop on the take, Kevin Dunne (Sinise) is his best mate - a decorated, totally uncorruptable navy commander - in charge of security at a heavyweight boxing match which happens to have an equally heavyweight politico present. When said politico is offed, Dunne is guilt-stricken over his apparent security lapse, the arena is locked off while 14,000 eye-witnesses are identified and Santoro proceeds to investigate and hooks up with Julia Costello (Gugino), a mysterious character who was trying to sneak the politician some equally mysterious documents.
What follows, plotwise, is a pretty standard thriller gumbo. It's packed with the usual double-crosses, mysterious blondes, political corruption and constant rain plus fixed boxing matches and dodgy missile defence systems.
But if the ingredients are standard pulp fare, the lead performances are way over the top. Cage delivers what is rapidly becoming his cliched screaming, tic-ridden schtick, finally calming down in the second half after a beating which actually comes as a blessed relief. Sinise, who can usually be counted on to underplay, has ratcheted his performance up to 11, possibly to avoid looking comatose next to Cage or pehaps to match De Palma's trademark visual pyrotechnics.
And it's the pyrotechnics which enthral. Among the virtuoso sequences that fans have come to demand from De Palma are an uninterrupted 20 minute (you read that right) opening Steadicam sequence, numerous wildly unconventional camera angles as well as one "straight into the top five" shot in which the director elevates the camera and delivers a masterful drift across a variety of hotel rooms looking down at the contrasting activities being acted out within them.
Unfortunately, even De Palma and cinematographer Stephen H. Burum firing on all style cylinders, can't mask the fact that plot- and tension-wise, the movie hurtles wildly off the rails in the third act. A vastly expensive tidal wave sequence which was designed by Industrial Light And Magic was dropped at the last minute and what replaces it is flaccid and seemingly hurried. Equally, De Palma's constant in-joke referencing of other films - look out for Battleship Potemkin and Citizen Kane - will either enthral or irritate. But then enthralling and irritating is what De Palma's been doing for nearly three decades now. And finally, a word to the wise, Snake Eyes keeps a nifty little gag for the very, very end.