The Tao of Nicolas Cage: In Atlantic City Cage Rolls ‘Snake Eyes’

The legendary Brian De Palma takes a gamble on Cage and gets Snake Eyes.
By  · Published on June 2nd, 2017

The legendary Brian De Palma takes a gamble on Cage and gets Snake Eyes.

“Well, Kevin, this may not make you feel better, but don’t you see? That’s what she was there for. That was the plan. To give you a boner. And you got one. Congratulations, you’re human.”

Snake Eyes opens up with what appears to be a 20-minute tracking shot. In reality, only about 12 minutes are one continuous take but director Brian De Palma, with a little help from editor Bill Pankow, is able to trick us into seeing one long opening shot. This opening is a wonderful showcase for De Palma’s directing chops and allows Nic Cage to do what Nic Cage does. As far as opening tracking shots go this is right up there with Goodfellas and Boogie Nights and one could make an argument that this surpasses them both.

“I’m on TV, I’m on TV,” are the first words uttered by Rick Santora, the Atlantic City cop played by Cage. He makes this first appearance within the first two minutes and then is on screen for nearly every second of the extended opening shot. During this time we get a great feel for his character. He’s a dirty cop, the type of low-level scumbag that the movies tell us can always make it somewhat big in a place like Atlantic City. He’ll let virtually anything slide and look the other way as long as the payoff is to his liking. He has a wife and child at home but that doesn’t stop him from having a girlfriend on the side. Having a girlfriend on the side doesn’t stop him from continuing to court women at the casino. In his own words, he’s the king.

Santora has ringside tickets to the big fight thanks to his childhood best friend Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a Navy Commander escorting Defense Secretary Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani) to the event. Soon after the fight starts shots ring out and the Secretary goes down. Throughout the chaos, Santora catches a few things that don’t feel quite right and begins to investigate the crime.

The first 20 minutes sets up the entire film. Even the non-fans of Snake Eyes, of which there are plenty, have to be impressed by these first 20 minutes. Famed critic Roger Ebert gave the film a 1-star review but said of De Palma’s opening, “he steals the crown here from the famous long takes by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas and Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights and it’s virtuoso work, as the camera follows Cage up and down stairs and he never quits talking.”

See? You can make an argument it surpasses both.

It’s what happens beyond the film’s first 20 minutes that has most people torn. The next 40 are basically a repeat of the first 20 but seen from different POVs of the various parties involved. As everything plays out and we become more aware of the story we pick up on the various visual clues that De Palma puts right in front of us from the start. The entire story is there for us to see, we just have to be paying attention to every little detail.

The film’s big reveal is presented to the audience about halfway through. Santora is still on the outside looking in trying to piece everything together. This is a clear attempt from De Palma to channel Hitchcock but it rubbed some audiences the wrong way. De Palma has spoken on this a number of times, indicating that the film isn’t about who did it, but rather about the relationship between the guilty party and Cage’s Santora and how the actions within the film impact that relationship.

I don’t mind the early reveal, but the film does lose a little bit of its luster the further along it goes. There are still plenty of little moments within where high tension builds, but that big final knockout blow is never there.

This is a brilliant Cage performance. Santora is very flamboyant and charming — he’s scum but you like him. He’s quick and witty, delivering snappy dialogue while always on the move. He’s rarely ever still, always moving in some way which can be distracting but works perfectly for this role. And despite being a total sleazebag, his character does display a moral high ground. Yeah, Santora will take a bribe, but he won’t take part in any murder.

Dominic Griffin of Birth.Movies.Death. wrote about Snake Eyes last year and described Cage’s performance as a “high octane audition for his eventual role in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant remake.” That’s unbelievably accurate.

Cage is in top form and he’s matched by De Palma every step of the way. The story may have some flaws but Snake Eyes is a masterclass in filmmaking style and technique. The film is one gorgeous shot after another that includes an outstanding overhead shot of all the different shenanigans that take place in hotel rooms and a staircase shot that is a direct reference to Vertigo.

The ending is what prevents Snake Eyes from being one of De Palma’s absolute masterpieces. The film takes place on a stormy night with a hurricane approaching. The original ending had a massive wave wiping the arena and casino out and it sounds like it would have been awesome. Apparently, it was filmed but scrapped for some unknown reasons, but references to it are left in that make things a bit confusing. Plus there’s this weird forced relationship between Santora and Julia (Carla Gugino). Cage and Gugino actually have really good chemistry but within the context of the story, it makes no sense for those two to be romantically linked.

What’s fascinating about watching Snake Eyes now is that there is a relevancy to it that I don’t think anyone expected it to have nearly 20 years later. When you break it down the film is essentially a government conspiracy involving the Secretary of Defense. The murder is setup to look like it was the plan of a lone Palestinian sniper as an act of terrorism against the US to prevent missile sales to Israel. In reality, it was an inside job done in an effort to allow the Department of Defense to move forward with an anti-missile defense system.

Now that’s obviously the plot to a movie, but would it surprise anyone if the current Administration pulled something like this?

Going even further into the plot and we learn that the man who owns the anti-missile defense system is named Gilbert Powell (John Heard) and he’s a billionaire. He’s in on the whole thing and actually owns the arena where the fight takes place, giving him easy access to help set the plan into motion. Allegedly Powell was based on Donald Trump. Perhaps De Palma had some sort of vision of the future and Snake Eyes was his attempt to warn us all? Hmmm. *insert pondering emoji here*

Not everything works within Snake Eyes. The ending is problematic and while the early reveal isn’t a killer it does take away a bit of the shine. From a purely technical standpoint, the film is aces. Cage’s performance is one of his most underrated, sort of getting lost in the shuffle of his late 90’s work but he goes the full 12 rounds making the most of every second of screen time. It falls just short of being another masterpiece for both Cage and De Palma, but it’s still damn good.

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Chris Coffel is a contributor at Film School Rejects. He’s a connoisseur of Christmas horror, a Nic Cage fanatic, and bad at Rocket League. He can be found on Twitter here: @Chris_Coffel. (He/Him)