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Snake Eyes

By Judith Grant, Political Science Department, USC (September, 1998)  

[Editor's note: The following commentary reveals some plot details.  Readers who have not seen the film may want to bookmark this site and return to read this commentary after they have seen the film. Video Clip of Snake Eyes]

At its best, the law is always about more than just maintaining the social order.  All the really great tragedies concerning law, pit what scholars like to call, "God's law" against the laws of men. History is filled with people who have claimed to have disobeyed man's law out of a loyalty to some higher purpose. The problem almost always becomes how to tell the difference between mere self-interested lawlessness as against disobedience with higher moral intent. Thus, while one might be sympathetic to Antigone or Martin Luther King Jr., one might be less so to Oliver North.  Brian De Palma's latest film, Snake Eyes, is another, albeit unlikely, entry into this conversation. 

Lest you think De Palma has become didactic, let me assure you at the outset that this film operates just as well as a thoroughly enjoyable and uncomplicated thriller. For one, there is the fabulous performance by Nicholas Cage. Cage is nearly as over the top as he was in Leaving Las Vegas, but in this film, he is more comical (at least at first). Despite the "R" rating, there is very little of De Palma's trademark violence. Happily, however, the film is still vintage De Palma, and harks back to his earlier homage to Hitchcock in Dressed To Kill and Body Double. 

In its essence, Snake Eyes is a story is about law's connection to honor, dignity, and brotherhood. Heavy-weight boxing is used as the metaphor for the kind of male dignity that seems to appeal to directors like De Palma. The use of boxing in this manner has almost become a pop culture cliché as stories from the Twilight Zone to Raging Bull to On the Waterfront, to Rocky attest.  Snake Eyes takes place at a heavy-weight boxing match in Atlantic City. Nicholas Cage, plays Rick Santoro, a cynical, sleazy, wheeler-dealer Atlantic City police detective. Santoro is a cop on the take, hustling money from small time drug dealers, hustling bookies and cheating on his wife while babbling incessantly into his cellular phone. De Palma sets him up as a kind of coked-up singles bar hipster. In fact, the way that De Palma and Cage set up the Santoro character during the first 20-25 minutes of the film is itself worth the price of admission.  

Santoro is pretty much the exact moral opposite of his best friend, Kevin Dunne. Dunne is a real straight arrow. He is a Navy commander now working security for the Department of Defense, his mission is to guard the Secretary of Defense. He fails, and it is here, as they say, that the plot thickens. It is here, too, that the film shows flashes of brilliance.  
In true Hitchcock fashion, the film now becomes about shifting identities and who is watching whom. In fact, if you want a real treat, rent Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, and pay particular attention to the scene where Doris Day goes to the opera house to stop the assassination. The scene in Snake Eyes where the Secretary of Defense gets killed is basically the same one. And it works just as well—little to no dialogue and lots of long shots showing who sees what. It was, for me,  the highlight of the film.  
What Santoro sees, for one, is a fighter (Lincoln Tyler played by Stan Shaw) taking a dive. Why he takes the dive is complicated and best left to the film to explain. But the plot device sets up a thematic structure enabling Santoro to get  to make a similar choice later in the film. When he is finally offered blood money (rather obviously, I might add; the shot is literally of a bloody hundred dollar bill), it has less to do with the plot than it does with the themes of dignity, betrayal, integrity and male friendship. Santoro is a bad cop, and Dunne is his hero. When he realizes that Dunne is bad (he is involved in the plot against the secretary), Santoro has an epiphany: There are things that are more important than money; friendship, loyalty, and one's own dignity.  

Though Dunne believes he is  breaking the law for a higher moral purpose (one based in thinking not unlike the kind of right-wing militarism Ollie North espoused), Santoro is unconvinced. Devastated, Santoro feels personally betrayed by Dunne and is moved, for what may be the first time in his life, to put someone else's interests ahead of his own. In so doing, he is lead to uphold the law. That this does not really transform him into a good cop is, to De Palma's credit, revealed in the denouement of the film where Santoro basically gets punished for all that he's done before his epiphany. His decision to become good means that he has to pay the piper. Not surprisingly, it is a woman who de-centers the male bond.  

Julia Costello (played by Carla Gugino) is also fighting for a principle—truth. Though Santoro hides and protects Costello, one gets the impression that she is really quite beside the point. Santoro doesn't seem to care as much about saving her as he does about proving to himself and to Dunne that honor, integrity and truth are still possible even in the face of betrayal. The law, too, is little more than a vehicle to explore these themes.

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