Brian De Palma's riveting thriller "Snake Eyes," as much as Peter Weir's "The Truman Show," Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" or such '80s De Palma films as "Dressed to Kill," "Body Double" and "Blow Out," concerns itself with the act of seeing.
When distinguishing reality from illusion, are our own eyes to be trusted? Or should we rely on another's vision? Whose version of the truth is based on fact, and whose accounting of events is pure fiction?
That's a lot to ask of a high-concept whodunit, but De Palma manages to simultaneously pose those philosophical questions and involve viewers in steadily mounting suspense. Gaudy and frantic and self-consciously stylized, "Snake Eyes" nevertheless ranks as the director's most accomplished piece of moviemaking bravado since "Scarface" stoked controversy 15 years ago.
Nicolas Cage (able to morph from hangdog melancholy to goofy silliness to macho intensity in films as varied as "The Rock," "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Raising Arizona") is smartly cast as Rick Santoro, a detective assigned to security detail during a nationally televised heavyweight fight in Atlantic City.
Clearly over the top in a role that requires as much, Cage is the model of police sleaze -- a cash-grabbing conniver who juggles cell-phone conversations with his wife and girlfriend, and matches his rust-gold suit and loud Hawaiian shirt with gold chains and smarmy invitations to every attractive woman in sight.
His apparent polar opposite is Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a reserved, four-square military careerist and childhood friend of Santoro's on hand to provide extra protection for arena visitor Charles Kirkland (Joel Fabiani), the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Sinise, sliding up the A-list thanks to stellar work in "Ransom," "Apollo 13" and "Forrest Gump," plays Dunne with a steely reserve and a creepy sinister edge.
De Palma grabs our attention from the start, employing rapid cutting, sudden blurry camera swivels and lightning-fast dialogue as Santoro prowls around the arena, joking with small-time hoods and reporters, and cutting deals left and right. It's dizzying but effective, and the cinematic wild ride doesn't settle down until a few minutes into the fight, when champ Lincoln Tyler (Stan Shaw) falls to the ring floor, shots ring out and Kirkland is downed.
Dunne and Santoro are thrown together to solve the murder, and a cat-and- mouse game ensues, as authorities lock the exit doors of the arena and its adjoining casino and hotel, and rival investigators gradually reveal their motives. "Those are 14,000 suspects," Santoro yelps as the boxing fans hysterically rush through the tunnels leading away from the venue.
Once again masquerading as a showy film student with a bag full of tricks that he can't wait to display, De Palma employs multiple flashbacks from different points of view to gradually reveal details that fill in the blanks. It's a cinematic storytelling technique that's been utilized everywhere from Akira Kurosawa's classic "Rashomon" in 1951 to Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown." Surprisingly, it doesn't come off as a gimmick.
Tyler and Julia Costello (Carla Gugino, of "Michael" and "The War at Home"), a beautiful ingenue who has learned of a cover-up related to missile production, spin their own stories, and Santoro revisits his own recollection of the assassination. Yet another telling is related via a floating eye-in-the-sky camera. Screens split, time is suspended, the mystery thickens and heroes trade places with villains as the investigation proceeds with the aid of such high-tech accessories as hidden cameras and motion sensors.
With longtime cinematographer Stephen Burum, De Palma has created an eye-popping video chiaroscuro, a color-saturated eye feast painted in the tones of the American flag: Red is for the impossibly bright ringlets of a curvy lady who might be a conspiracist, and for the blood that soaks clothes and stains a $100 bill that keeps changing hands. White is for the gleaming dress worn by Gugino and for her innocence. Blue is for Dunn's pressed uniform and the rows of glowing empty seats that line the cavernous arena.
Several audacious sequences, too, scream for viewers' attention, including an overhead shot of a stairwell that frames the good guy and his future girl in a virtual labyrinth, and a flyover of hotel rooms that allows us to watch the action before descending onto one scene. Remember the ceiling-down view of Robert De Niro as Al Capone in De Palma's 1987 "The Untouchables"?
The story is so enthralling that it's easy to forgive the director's indulgences, trickery and Hitchcockian references (for a final one, stick around for the credits). Who might have figured that the often maligned director would follow his generic 1996 blockbuster, "Mission: Impossible," as coolly professional and ultimately detached as its killers, with a vision as unique as that displayed in "Snake Eyes"? De Palma rolled the dice, and we won this time.