The disappointment in Snake Eyes is that, with Cage and everything else it has going for it, its fervor finally dissipates in a muddled, seemingly tossed-off denouement. De Palma has the ability to draw you so deeply into his netherworlds that ordinarily you don't mind the glitches and lapses -- the kinds of things that might bother you in more conventional thrillers. The set pieces were so good in his most recent film, Mission: Impossible, that one could enjoy it even when it wasn't making a lick of sense.
But this sort of connoisseurship has its decadent side. De Palma has such a fantastic grasp of film technique that at times he lets his fluency take the place of feeling. Emotionally, in his previous work, he's gone beyond the rococo whirligig of Snake Eyes, and he probably knows it; it's a very high-class piece of slumming.
This may sound harsh in describing a film that has Nicolas Cage in top form and is so much fun to take in. But it has been, after all, 17 years since De Palma made Blow Out, in which he gave his terrors a deep-souled resonance. Almost a decade ago he made Casualties of War, which brought the ghastliness of Vietnam throbbingly close to us. These two films are the high points of De Palma's career because they grounded his horrors and gave them a human weight -- which, of course, made them infinitely more horrific and moving.
It may be that the colossal, and colossally publicized, failure of Bonfire of the Vanities -- combined with the megasuccess of a piece of work-for-hire like Mission: Impossible -- gave the shivers to De Palma the artist. He's become a director of bravura sequences and bravura performances. (Carlito's Way -- which, like Snake Eyes, was scripted by David Koepp -- is best remembered for Sean Penn's high-wire work and the grand-scale shootout at the end.) This may be the only way for an artist of De Palma's penchants to keep going in today's Hollywood. His skills as a thriller maestro are highly marketable; less so is the emotional and psychological power he is also capable of packing into those thrills.
Because of Cage's performance, Snake Eyes is more than just a virtuoso exercise. But what De Palma attempts to build around that performance is very hit-and-miss. At times he seems to be going for political allegory -- the American flag is used in that boxing arena practically as a piece of pop art, and the collusion on display between Washington military fanatics and munitions tycoons is a down-and-dirty conspiracy that might brighten Oliver Stone's day.
But this is mostly window dressing; the political element never builds to any kind of vision. De Palma is more successful here when he sets his ambitions lower. The film's noirish look and rapid-fire tough talk, particularly in the early spinning-top sequences with Rick, are like overripe renditions of Hollywood fight films from the '30s and '40s. And De Palma still has his dirty boy's passion for the illicit; when that conspiracy suspect hiding in the hotel passes herself off as a hooker and gets down to bra and panties, we're in a familiar hothouse. You've got to hand it to De Palma. After all these years he still hasn't forgotten the fine flavor of sin. For him, the lure of the illicit is inextricably linked to the sensual possibilities of the film medium. Moviemaking is the ultimate turn-on. He can't get enough.