By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 14, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Has Brian De Palma finally lost his mind? Ever since Carrie (1976), his one true masterpiece, this director has evolved into a cinematic serial killer of common sense — a man so tone-deaf to practical priorities that he’d happily stage birth videos of his own children to look like Hitchcock climaxes, if only he could lay dolly tracks in the delivery room. It’s doubtful, though, that even De Palma has thrown rationality to the wind with quite the lurid exhibitionistic fervor he displays in Snake Eyes.

For most of the movie, we’re inside a glitzy Atlantic City arena, the site of a live pay-per-view broadcast of a heavyweight boxing match. Strutting madly through corridors and down escalators is Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), a hyperkinetic sleazo cop in an ugly merde-nightclub jacket. The champ, on whom Rick has a big wager, is about to throw the fight. Why? Oh, the usual reason: He’s the stooge in a plot to assassinate the U.S. secretary of defense, who is seated at ringside, behind a mysterioso brunet masquerading as a blond (you know, just like in … Vertigo!). As the shots ring out, the official grabs his throat in the exact manner of a certain early-’60s president. Snake Eyes, in other words, is a conspiracy thriller that refracts the JFK assassination through the prism of the Zapruder film, The Manchurian Candidate, The Conversation, and De Palma’s own Blow Out (which already recycled all of those movies). It’s postmodern, get it? — a rip-off of a rip-off. Gary Sinise plays the defense secretary’s Navy-commander bodyguard, who’s an old friend of Rick’s. Gee, could there be more to this eagle-eyed military automaton than we think?

There’s no denying that the camera choreography is exquisite, the situations ”ingenious” in their ominous expressionist glory. Yet De Palma, working from a tangled script by David Koepp, whips the action into an exhausting delirium, and he’s so entranced with staging his purplish voyeuristic set pieces that we can hardly believe a minute of what we’re seeing. Snake Eyes pointedly unfolds in an era of omnipotent closed-circuit video surveillance, yet once the shooting occurs, none of the investigators even bother to look at a security tape. (They all turn into Jack Webb.) The mysterioso girl? She gets splattered with blood like Jackie Kennedy, then spends the next half hour wandering through the lobby, with virtually no one giving her a second glance.

Here, as in an Ed Wood film, every other encounter seems to spring from a ludicrous I-just-happened-to-be-walking-by coincidence. After a while, you can’t separate the conspirators’ machinations from De Palma’s. I did like the bit in which he rips off Rear Window and Taxi Driver by gliding his camera over a series of hotel rooms. Still, is De Palma ever going to stop being the world’s oldest — and, by now, loopiest — film student? He’s become the masturbator of suspense. D

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