Cage Rolls the Dice, Playing Another Flawed Hero

Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes , from a screenplay by David Koepp, based on a story by Mr. De Palma and Mr. Koepp, begins with an eye-opening Steadicam shot that goes on for 20 minutes with a single take through a jampacked Atlantic City arena (actually the old Montreal Forum), the site of a fixed Heavyweight Championship Fight, and the beat of corrupt police detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage), on whom the steadicam is focused amid 35,000 extras en passant . In a sense one shot, which culminates in a political assassination, constructs the melodramatically conspiratorial mysteries of a plot, which an array of surveillance cameras and videotapes proceed to deconstruct. Mr. De Palma and his cinematographer Stephen H. Burum project with this one tour de force much of the visual panache we associate with the stylistically adventurous 60’s and 70’s before the new movie moguls with the Phi Beta Kappa keys decided that dumbing down the product was the way to go with the shareholders.

The almost anachronistic virtuosity of Snake Eyes also reminds us of the spectacular single-take overture to Touch of Evil (1958), currently being revived in a restored version, with the credit titles removed from the visual pyrotechnics set off by Orson Welles and gifted cinematographer Russell Metty 40 years ago. By now, however, Mr. De Palma has fully repaid his debts to Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, and has emerged with a complex, thorny sensibility of his own, one which shuns a facile Manicheanism for more shaded gradations between good and evil, though I am one of the few critics who fully endorsed Mr. De Palma’s one excursion into Leone-Morricone good-guy, bad-guy revenge fantasy with The Untouchables (1987). Still, his one unalloyed personal masterpiece remains Carrie (1976), which places him closer to the blood-and-gore horror genre than to the murky depths of noir. In the past, I have expressed some uneasiness over Mr. De Palma’s lapses into giddy trickery verging on facetiousness. Fortunately, Snake Eyes never loses its bearings as it hovers between preposterous paranoia and a Billy-Wilder-like moral fable about a deeply flawed hero who draws a line in the sand beyond which he cannot go.

Mr. Cage, the probable bankable force behind the production, has gambled that audiences are adult enough to accept him as an imperfect, far from omnipotent and omniscient protagonist. It is a gamble that has been lost at the box office through the years by intelligent masterpieces such as John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and, more recently, by Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998).

As far as suspense and surprise are concerned, Snake Eyes lets the cat out of the bag rather early in the proceedings as the full scope of the machinations of the evil post-Cold-War military-industrial complex is exposed in an unlikely locale. The problem then becomes how one Atlantic City detective without any dependable allies can overcome the forces arrayed against him by his childhood friend, now Navy Commander Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), a high-ranking Department of Defense security specialist with access to all the latest surveillance technology. Their friendship is the old neighborhood story of the Italian kid (Santoro) bonding with the Irish kid (Dunne) over their shared Roman Catholic heritage. The final breaking of this bond is a wrenching experience for Santoro, and his hesitation in turning on his old buddy is almost fatal. Instead he is beaten to a pulp before the electronic media, lightly satirized throughout Snake Eyes , plunge blindly to the rescue. What little there is in the way of a feminine presence and eventual love interest is competently provided by Carla Gugino’s Julia Costello, who is more interesting in the beginning when she is clearly not what she seems than in the end when she turns out to be one of the last idealists in an evil and cynical world. Stan Shaw’s sellout heavyweight, Lincoln Tyler, provides an impressive portrait of monolithic moodiness.

The picture hinges, however, on the shifting relationship between Santoro and Dunne as all hell breaks loose around them. Mr. De Palma and his collaborators have told a comparatively simple story with a very rich and resourceful mise en scène . This sort of mastery has become so rare in today’s mainstream movies that I find myself more bewitched and beguiled than perhaps I should be.

Stella Gets Laid (Applaud Now)

Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back , from a screenplay by Terry McMillan and Ron Bass, based on the novel by Terry McMillan, seems designed to repeat the commercial “crossover” success of Forest Whitaker’s Waiting to Exhale (1995), adapted from Ms. McMillan’s previous best-selling novel. And “designed” is the operative word for the most lavishly furnished living spaces since Ross Hunter’s glory days at Universal back in the 50’s. As for the clothes for all occasions, Calvin Klein is given credit for the swimsuits. The main beneficiary of this voluptuously upscale life style is Angela Bassett’s Stella, a 40-year-old stockbroker and single mother, who jogs every morning before going off to set the financial world on fire. But lately she has been burned out, not in the “groove,” not having any fun. Her sisters and girl friends urge her to go out on dates, or at least take a vacation. Stella’s best friend, Delilah (Whoopi Goldberg), is particularly insistent and persuasive on this point, and quicker than you can say “Caribbean,” Stella and Delilah find themselves in Jamaica, where the beaches are sandy and the men are horny. I couldn’t hear all the outrageous pickup lines because they were drowned in the audience’s screaming laughter. No need for a laugh track here. As with Exhale , Stella seems to touch a nerve and satisfy a need among African-American women after centuries of oppression by white and black patriarchies.

Stella’s immediate problem in Jamaica is how as a 40-year-old overachiever she can embark on a passionate relationship with a 20-year-old Jamaican underachiever. Can she make this unlikely and “unnatural” relationship blossom into marriage and lifelong commitment. Her friends say No. Her heart says Yes, and that is finally all that matters.

Stella is less explicitly feminist than Exhale , but it comes out at a time when the movie industry is being castigated in the media for casting a steady succession of actresses 20, 30 or even 40 years younger alongside bankable aging male stars over whom much, much younger female performers supposedly swoon. So why can’t Stella find happiness with Winston Shakespeare (Taye Diggs), particularly since he turns out to be not some kind of beach bum, but the serious-minded son of a local surgeon, with indefinite plans to begin medical school? There is not even as much pressure from her son Quincy (Michael J. Pagan) or her parents to “act her age” as there was on Jane Wyman from her snotty children in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) when she thought of running off with younger Rock Hudson, a gardener who preached the simple life, which Hollywood has always glorified from its vantage points in Malibu.

Yet, Stella, particularly as she is acted by the histrionically facile Ms. Bassett, fights most of her inner battles on her excessively expressive face. She dictates every change of mood and tempo with a workshop exercise often out of sync with the less volatile members of the cast. I have had this problem with Ms. Bassett throughout her career as she has risen higher and higher in public esteem. So perhaps it is just an esthetic idiosyncrasy on my part, although I strongly suspect that if Ms. Bassett has ever heard of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s dictum that “less is more,” she has chosen to ignore it. Ms. Goldberg, on the other hand, seems to have gauged the precise moment when it is time to turn off her shtick, and let the scene subside into a thoughtful reverie. Mr. Diggs is given the most difficult role as Winston, a gentle stud, childlike but not childish, self-confident but not self-absorbed, warm but not hot, dignified but not stuffy, proud of his heritage, but not aggressively funky. Considering that he is a New York actor who had never been to Jamaica before the shooting of the film, and that he had to learn a Jamaican accent from scratch after acting on Broadway as Benny the landlord in Rent , Mr. Diggs does very well indeed as the wistful Winston, earning at the audience screening I attended a loudly sibilant Marv Albert-like “Yess!” that caused an eruption of approving laughter.

As with Exhale , listening to the audience is a big part of viewing Stella since it provides invaluable sociological clues to what women really want and feel in these turbulent times. Still, I doubt that Stella will make as big a splash as Exhale if only because it is more fun to watch delinquent husbands getting their comeuppance en masse than to watch a man with a few saving graces wooing and winning a recalcitrant woman. I am talking now of the angrier feminists in the audience, and, particularly, the African-American contingent, which supplies the box-office rationale for a project like Stella . As it happened, Exhale was the precursor to Hugh Wilson’s all-white The First Wives Club (1996), another demolition job on male presumption. Where will it end? When will it end? Probably no time soon, gender politics being what they are.

Cage Rolls the Dice, Playing Another Flawed Hero