|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 16 February 1999|
Strictly from a sound standpoint, ‘Snake Eyes’ is one of the more intriguing films to come along in years. Most good directors, particularly those with big-studio budgets, avail themselves of innovations in recording technology, but Brian De Palma is one of the few who consistently uses the nuances of the track as a key part of the plot. A major setpiece includes deliberate sound distortion, so that later both the hero and the audience must decipher what was actually heard and what has been masked by the roar of the crowd.
In the theatrical version of ‘Snake Eyes,’ the multi-layered sound was a blessing and a curse. De Palma got us to look at--or rather, listen to--the clues of his thriller in a whole new way. The downside was that the technique caused the dialogue to become ever so slightly fuzzy in places. This problem has been solved for the DVD, allowing us to admire the effect while also clearly hearing everything that we’re meant to comprehend.
‘Snake Eyes’ is set almost entirely on a single rain-soaked night in Atlantic City, where crooked homicide detective Nick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) is having a great time sitting ringside at a championship fight. His lifelong best friend, U.S. Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise) is there as well, guarding the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Joel Fabiani)--who is felled by an assassin’s bullet an instant after the knockout punch is thrown. Worried that his pal Kevin will be hung out to dry for failing to prevent the shooting, Rick swings into action, but the situation is not what he imagines it to be.
Writer David Koepp, who co-authored the story with De Palma, and actor Cage both get points for putting a stronger character arc than usual into the thriller. We can guess what Nick will do, but his transitions are a lot sharper and crankier than what the genre ordinarily allows. Nick gets positively vitriolic when he has to do the right thing, and Cage is at his most entertaining when he’s complaining.
Still, characterization takes a back seat to a script designed to showcase De Palma’s visuals. Echoing the bravura tracking shot through the club in Martin Scorsese’s ‘GoodFellas,’ De Palma follows Nick on his initial rounds through the arena’s backstage area right into the seating area, seemingly without cutting away from mid-Chapter 1 through mid-Chapter 3, for approximately 11 minutes. (Those who want to check out where the cuts are lurking should use the remote to run the sequence backwards.) It’s technically impressive while adding muscular dramatic energy, augmenting our sense that the protagonist, like the camera, never stops to rest. The mob scene at the boxing match is likewise accomplished beautifully, with masses of color and shifting levels of sound competing for attention, becoming increasingly menacing as we’re led to notice that all sorts of threats can be (and are) hiding in the complex vista.
‘Snake Eyes’ starts to wobble a bit by the finale. Once the filmmakers have had all the fun they can showing us how looking at the same scene from a different angle can make all the difference in our perceptions, they let the plot taper into something routine, though they do provide a pleasantly ironic tag. Still, there are sights here worth seeing and if you want to hear sound used as an active story ingredient, ‘Snake Eyes’ is one of the few games in town.