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FW Weekly Excessive Cage

Both the leading man and the movie, Snake Eyes, are way too obvious.

By Joe Leydon

AUGUST 10, 1998:  Maybe it has something to do with the clothes. Back in David Lynch's mondo-bizzaro Wild at Heart, Nicolas Cage played a flamboyantly manic fugitive (and die-hard Elvis fan) who wore an outrageously eye-grabbing snakeskin jacket that he lovingly described as "a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom." Or something like that. Eight years later, Cage is dressed to thrill once again in Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes, a thriller that calls for the Oscar-winning actor to wear a spectacularly garish suit - a taste-free, brownish-orange commingling of shiny rayon and silk - in almost every scene.

And once again, Cage has risen to the challenge of giving a performance that's even louder, or at least showier, than his wardrobe. The big difference is, in Snake Eyes, the effort is much too evident.

Cage plays Rick Santoro, a cheerfully corrupt Atlantic City cop who finances his flashy lifestyle by shaking down bookies and soliciting bribes. When we first see him, Santoro is glad-handing friends and strangers at a sports arena before a heavyweight boxing match, juggling cell-phone calls from his nagging wife and demanding mistress as he strides toward his ringside seat. Eventually, Rick connects with his childhood friend, Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a department of Defense staffer who's been assigned to protect another fight fan, the U.S. secretary of defense. Unfortunately, Dunne doesn't offer quite enough protection - seconds after the heavyweight champ is felled by a knockout punch, the defense secretary is shot by an assassin.

Just about everything leading up to the murder is contained in one continuous steadicam shot, the first sign that De Palma - the director of Carrie, Mission: Impossible and Dressed to Kill - wants to overwhelm the audience with his trademark brand of visual hyperbole. To give De Palma credit, the nearly 20-minute sequence is indeed a crafty merging of style and substance, vividly conveying Santoro's nervously energetic sass and brass while establishing the barely contained chaos of a high-stakes sporting event.

But after the shots ring out, style begins to dominate substance in Snake Eyes, as the movie lurches into confusing and formulaic melodrama. To the surprise of absolutely no one but the characters on screen, Santoro quickly recognizes that the shooting isn't the work of a lone gunman. And while Santoro may be a seriously tarnished cop, he's still compelled to solve the case - even if that means sealing off the arena and identifying 14,000 witnesses while a tropical storm rages forebodingly outside. Yes, you guessed it: After years of wallowing in moral squalor, Santoro wants a shot at redemption. Uncovering an assassination conspiracy may be just what he needs to regain his self-respect.

Except for a brief, heavy-handedly ironic epilogue, the rest of Snake Eyes unfolds more or less in real time, as Santoro and Dunne chase a possible co-conspirator (a blonde-bewigged Carla Gugino) from the sports arena to an adjoining casino and back again. As he has so often in his moviemaking career, De Palma tries to evoke the race-against-time, odds-against-tomorrow suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock classic. But the plot he constructed with screenwriter David Koepp has too many gaping holes, and leads to a contrived climax that must be seen to be fully disbelieved.

Worse, in a misguided effort to dramatize Santoro's inner turmoil, De Palma has encouraged Cage to underline and italicize each mixed emotion in his character's psychological profile. As a result, Cage comes across in some scenes as painfully obvious, almost cartoonish. And while that was perfectly acceptable, if not mandatory, in Wild at Heart, Cage's uncaged excesses here are too strident for his - and the movie's - own good.


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