'Snake' Snaps With Style

Nicolas Cage is one of Hollywood's most energetic actors, and Brian De Palma is one of the few filmmakers who's a match for him. Coming in the sticky doldrums of August, their new "Snake Eyes" is a hard-edged effort to wake-and-shake the lethargic late-summer season. It may be too ornery and slippery to succeed, but it certainly shoots off a lot of sparks trying.

Cage plays Rick Santoro, an Atlantic City cop. Taking a break at a championship boxing match, he stumbles onto a plot to assassinate the secretary of defense, who's also at the match after busy weeks of assessing a new antimissile system. Santoro's first task is to aid his best friend, an army commander guarding the official. But the plot turns out to be thicker than anyone suspected, and soon our hero is simultaneously chasing the villains and figuring out where his loyalties should lie.

As a story, "Snake Eyes" has less suspense and surprise than first-rate De Palma thrillers like "Raising Cain" and "The Fury," which still carry a tingle years later. It's not as tight or emotionally compelling as it might have been if David Koepp's sketchy screenplay matched the wide-eyed conviction of Cage's admirably extroverted acting.

As an exercise in pure style, "Snake Eyes" fares better, again justifying De Palma's longtime claim that he's more interested in creating vivid images than making audiences squirm in their seats. The picture is a small-scale symphony of kinetic camera movements, rapid-fire montage sequences, split-screen effects, and long-lasting shots that allow characters and settings to interact more artfully than happens in less-imaginatively filmed movies.

"Snake Eyes" also has a serious theme to ponder: the out-of-control materialism of contemporary life, represented here by a concatenation of follies ranging from excesses of the gambling and prizefighting industries to machinations of the military-industrial complex. It's no coincidence that the movie's most frequently recurring image is a hundred-dollar bill smeared with a criminal's blood. This symbolizes the crassness and corruption that "Snake Eyes" persuasively attacks when not falling prey to its own brand of media-bred sensationalism.

Cage gets solid if uninspired support from Gary Sinise as the military man with a secret, John Heard as a defense contractor, and Julia Costello as a young whistleblower caught up in the violent events.

But the real heroes are cinematographer Stephen H. Burum and editor Bill Pankow, who help the picture keep popping even when its plot and dialogue go into a slump.

* Rated R; contains violence, vulgar language, and strong sexual innuendo. David Sterritt's e-mail address is: sterrittd@csps.com

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