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Friday, March 5, 1999

De Palma's mission implausible

There was a time, back in the '70s, when Brian De Palma was considered a possible heir to Hitchcock. Certainly, Hitch's influence was easy to spot in De Palma films like"Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out." Yet it's been a long time since that comparison made any sense; between the gangsters ("The Untouchables," "Carlito's Way"), ultraviolence ("Scarface," "Body Double") and flashy action ("Mission Impossible"), it's been a long time since De Palma carried a film on pure suspense.

Indeed, his most recent work, "Mission Impossible," was notable for its complete lack of suspense and lamentably threadbare plotting. Who needs plot when you have Tom Cruise's glower? Thus, despite appearances, it was unlikely from the outset that De Palma could return to his roots in his latest, "Snake Eyes." Sure, the concept looks promising -- Nicolas Cage as a mildly corrupt cop fumbling his way through layers of political conspiracy in a seedy Atlantic City casino. But like the boxer in the film who takes a dive in round five, "Snake Eyes" is down for the count just as it starts to get interesting.

It's a shame, really, since De Palma starts the film off in style, indulging himself with a continuous Steadicam shot that goes on for about 15 minutes. The camera rushes about on the tail of detective Rick Santoro (Cage) as he does his rounds through the Atlantic City arena, placing bets with a bookie, shaking down dealers and strutting like a peacock as he takes his ringside seat for the championship fight. De Palma overloads us with detail and the sleazy ambience of the venue, and presents a world where everyone is on the take, and ethical behavior is a relative concept.

Santoro soon finds himself with a mess on his hands: Just after the champ is decked and the crowd goes wild, persons unknown put a couple of bullets through the visiting Secretary of Defense. Santoro's old hometown buddy, Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), was the military man assigned to the security detail, and he's kicking himself for not doing his job. Santoro, ever the pragmatist, points out that Dunne did nail the assassin, and immediately goes to work to spin the situation in his favor.

Still, some things don't seem right to him. Who was the beautiful blonde (Carla Gugino) urgently speaking to the secretary moments before he was shot? And why did the boxer (Stan Shaw) throw the fight? As Santoro begins to put the pieces together, De Palma returns repeatedly to that opening sequence by the ringside, in the moments before the assassination, each time revealing a new significant detail.

Yet despite this wind-up, the expected knock-out punch turns out to be a whiff. The deeper we get into the conspiracy, the more it smells like a cow pie. There are just too many improbable turns of the plot to buy it. Try this: an Islamic fundamentalist trusting a U.S. Naval Intelligence officer enough to cooperate in an assassination plot? Or even worse: a military-industrial high-tech corporation spending millions on a risky assassination plot, involving everyone and his brother, just to win a government contract? Ha! Any fool knows that the same few million in the pockets of lobbyists and congressional PACs would be a much surer bet. Any fool, that is, but screenwriter David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "The Shadow"), whose sloppiness is only exceeded by his lack of imagination.

Compounding the plot's problems is the decision to reveal the villain fairly early on. Aside from spoiling the suspense, the actor in question seems about as menacing as sliced squid. The filmmakers resort to old-school "Bride of Dracula" tricks like shooting him with low lighting and dark bags under his eyes in a feeble attempt to make him appear threatening. Cage, meanwhile, doesn't come off any better. While he can often carry a film, he's in parody mode here, hamming it up outrageously to the detriment of the film. De Palma's doing Hitchcock, but Cage is still off in John Woo comic-book land.

The ending is particularly puzzling, as De Palma sets in motion a special effects extravaganza, in which a giant fallen globe, tossed by hurricane-force winds, looks set to come rolling in like a juggernaut and crush the bad guy flatter than seaweed. I don't know what happened here -- either the filmmakers ran out of money at the last minute, or audience testing gave the thumbs down to human hamburger. Whatever. Imagine if in "Mission Impossible" Tom Cruise and John Voight had leapt onto the outside of the Chunnel train and it just stopped. Climactus interruptus.

In some respects, "Snake Eyes" often seems like an inferior pastiche of the director's earlier works. There's the political conspiracy of "Blow Out," the multiple perspectives and flashbacks of "Raising Cain" and "Murder a la Mod," the casino setting from "Wise Guys" and the elaborate Steadicam shots that are his hallmark. Yet what there isn't is suspense, and the director's usual ability to create some memorably taut and breathless sequences. By the time the end-credits roll for "Snake Eyes," it's unlikely there will be any open eyes left in the cinema.

"Snake Eyes" is playing at Shinjuku Joy Cinema 2 and other theaters.

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