Today, I’m going to delve into yet another Nicolas Cage feature: Brian De Palma’s 1998 casino thriller, Snake Eyes.
The plot of Snake Eyes is summarized on IMDb as follows:
A shady police detective finds himself in the middle of a murder conspiracy at an important boxing match in an Atlantic City casino.
Snake Eyes was directed and produced by Brian De Palma, an acclaimed auteur who has been behind films like Scarface, Mission: Impossible, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way, Mission To Mars, Blow Out, Dressed To Kill, Carrie, and Body Double, among others.
The screenwriter for Snake Eyes was David Koepp, who penned flicks like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Panic Room, Secret Window, Spider-Man, The Shadow, Jurassic Park, I Come In Peace, Death Becomes Her, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible.
The primary cast of the film includes Nicolas Cage (Con Air, Face/Off, Vampire’s Kiss, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation., The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, The Cotton Club), Gary Sinise (Apollo 13, The Green Mile, Forrest Gump, Mission To Mars, The Stand), John Heard (Home Alone, CHUD, Cat People, After Hours, The Pelican Brief), Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Sin City, Night At The Museum, Sucker Punch, American Gangster), Kevin Dunn (Veep, Warrior, Small Soldiers, Godzilla), Michael Rispoli (Kick-Ass, Death To Smoochy, Rounders, Volcano), Luis Guzman (Waiting…, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Oz, The Substitute, Boogie Nights), and Mike Starr (Ed Wood, Goodfellas, Dumb and Dumber, Black Dynamite).
The cinematographer for Snake Eyes was Stephen H. Burum, whose other shooting credits include Hoffa, Mystery Men, The Shadow, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, and The Entity, as well as a number of other Brian De Palma movies, including Mission To Mars, Carlito’s Way, Raising Cane, and The Untouchables.
The editor on the film was Bill Pankow, who is known for cutting Drumline, Money Train, Double Team, American Ultra, Feel The Noise, Max, Carlito’s Way, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Body Double, and The Untouchables.
The musical score for Snake Eyes was composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also provided music for the movies Femme Fatale, The Adventures of Milo & Otis, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, and The Last Emperor.
Snake Eyes is perhaps most well known for its striking opening sequence, which is filmed and edited to appear as though it is all one continuous, 20-minute shot. While the shots are very long, the sequence has a 8 well hidden cuts, with the longest unbroken stretch coming in at roughly 12 minutes.
The original ending for the movie has Atlantic City completely destroyed by a hurricane, and the casino dramatically destroyed by the initial storm surge. Though the major destruction sequences were cut, references to the storm are peppered throughout the screenplay.
Both Will Smith and Al Pacino were offered Sinise’s antagonist role in the film. Pacino outright turned it down, while Will Smith required a huge paycheck to take on the part, which was too high for the production to take on.
The reported production budget for Snake Eyes was $73 million, though Brian De Palma has claimed that it actually came in under budget, at $68 million. In its lifetime theatrical run, the movie managed to take in just under $104 million, easily making back its budget.
The reception to Snake Eyes from critics and audiences wasn’t nearly as good. Currently, the movie holds an IMDb user rating of 5.9/10, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 40% from critics and 35% from audiences. Among the film’s harshest critics was Roger Ebert, who, despite adoring the opening sequence, said that “it’s the worst kind of bad film: the kind that gets you all worked up and then lets you down, instead of just being lousy from the first shot.”
In the wake of the 2016 documentary De Palma, which delves into the filmography and life of the acclaimed director, Birth.Movies.Death. writer Dominic Griffin decided to take another look at the popularly derided Snake Eyes:
Snake Eyes is a thrilling look at a world too far gone for salvation, and unless you’re a sincere Femme Fatale apologist, the last great film Brian De Palma made.
It is impossible to talk about Snake Eyes, positively or negatively, without addressing its opening sequence. While its style has been nearly universally praised, there have been some people who have complained of its gimmickry. Personally, I think the faux-seamless sequence works excellently to portray the event, particularly given how many times it is brought back up throughout the movie. There is a distinct sense that you, as the audience, should be paying attention to the details of the event: you are seeing all of the minutiae for a reason, or else it wouldn’t be shown. While there are certainly some issues with the film, the opening certainly isn’t one of them. If anything, it has cemented it as a footnote in film history.
Nicolas Cage is, to put it mildly, a divisive figure in the world of Hollywood acting. Plenty will claim that he is a one-note rodeo clown devoid of genuine ability, beyond having exaggerated facial features and a distinctive scream. Personally, I am a bit of a Cage apologist: when he is in his element and sticking to what he does well, he can bring energy to a movie better than just about anyone else. With Snake Eyes, I think he is perfectly cast: everything about him screams sleazeball. His naturally erratic behavior, the way he sardonically delivers dialogue, and his shifty physical demeanor all fit the character excellently, to the point that I have trouble picturing anyone else in the role. The ridiculous suit he is put in for most of the movie would look downright comedic on anyone else, but seems to fit his personality like a second skin.
Though many critics adamantly disagree with this, I personally like that the big “reveal” is done early in the movie, primarily because it feels genuinely unexpected and in sharp contrast to genre expectations. Likewise, I think that the revelation to the audience (and not to the protagonist) adds a level of tension to the two characters’ interactions that wouldn’t be there otherwise, which makes for compelling viewing. In responding to criticism of the reveal decision, De Palma has said that “the problem is that it isn’t about who did it. It’s a mystery about a relationship, two people, and how finding that out affects their relationship.” This all reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous description of the difference between “shock” and “suspense,” which you can see here:
If the character reveal in Snake Eyes had been saved for the climax, it would have only served for traditional shock value: the bomb suddenly going off under the table. However, De Palma chose to reveal to the audience that the bomb was present. The lead character is none the wiser, but now the audience knows the truth and the stakes involved, and there is real suspense at play.
While there are quite a few things that I like about Snake Eyes, it has some pretty significant issues that hinder it from being a really great film. First and foremost among those issues is the story’s pacing, which loses steam rapidly as the third act gets going. The more the movie leans towards being a traditional action flick, the less unique and interesting it is, and the entire conclusion feels more like a Con Air set piece than the conclusion to an innovative thriller. It just doesn’t do the movie justice, if you ask me.
On the subject of the ending, there are a number of critics who seem to believe that the originally planned ending, which sees the casino and Atlantic City totally destroyed by a hurricane, might have saved the film. Personally, I just don’t see it. I think that the originally planned ending would have been hokey and way too on-the-nose with its messaging, and might have hurt the movie even more than the half-assed action film conclusion that we currently have.
Overall, I think it is a fair assessment to say that Snake Eyes is a step above the typical Hollywood fare in terms of style and entertainment, thanks in large part to De Palma’s ambitious opening and Cage’s performance. However, the pacing issues definitely keep it a step below being a classic. That said, I can certainly understand why so many critics were disappointed with it: De Palma is capable of a whole lot better than this, and there are some serious flashes of brilliance here. Unfortunately, those peaks make the valleys seem all the deeper.
As far as a recommendation goes, I highly advocate watching the opening sequence for sure. While Birdman and Rope are more popular examples of long takes with hidden cuts, I think the Snake Eyes opening adds more to the movie as a whole than the long takes in those flicks: it has more thematic purpose here than just being a gimmick, or providing a third person omniscient POV. Apart from that, die hard Nic Cage and De Palma fans should definitely watch the whole movie. While it isn’t great by any means, I think that it is worth the time for the highlights.