As the American Film Institute has just foisted its bland Top 100 upon our Blockbuster culture, this may be the time to ask: How will a peevish Hollywood maestro like Brian De Palma go down in popular film history? Speaking as a fan, I fear De Palma's legacy will be as his detractors would have it--that he was simply a shrewd pastiche artist who stole outright from Hitchcock (Body Double) when he wasn't sucking up to the mainstream (Mission: Impossible) or venting his hostility toward women (Carrie). These days, while his good friend Steven Spielberg earns not only billion-dollar grosses and AFI immortality but critical acclaim as a "realist," of all things, De Palma continues perfecting his brilliant visual style within the most blatantly artificial plot scenarios, somehow keeping it a secret from people that he's actually been making some pretty sharp social satires. But to anyone who's watching, De Palma's voyeuristic gifts are abundantly clear right from the start of his stunning new Snake Eyes, an assassination thriller whose first reel makes a proudly synthetic antidote to the war-correspondent verité of Spielberg's latest. As you may have heard, the film kicks off with a near-20-minute Steadicam shot that follows Nicolas Cage's crooked-cop character from the Atlantic City boardwalk into a sports arena for a heavyweight boxing match. The outrageous immodesty of this fight-scene entrance (take that, Scorsese!) is a perfect match for Cage's flamboyant character, Rick Santoro, a smarmy hustler in a wide-collared Hawaiian shirt who struts into the stadium giving literal blood money to a bookie while smooth-talking a girlfriend on his gold-plated cell phone. That Cage begins the movie working his bug-eyed weirdo shtick to an annoying degree is also ideal. As De Palma has spent the last decade tailoring his personal obsessions to suit the demands of huge stars (Cruise, Travolta, Pacino, Hanks), his films have pulled variations on the theme of shallow, arrogant men being forced by circumstances to reveal their true characters. To put it another way: The stylish superficiality that De Palma is so often accused of is in fact one of his subjects. When the secretary of defense (Joel Fabiani) is assassinated during the big bout, Rick starts looking for clues and discovers through a slo-mo videotape that the fight was fixed. He directs the investigation by making himself the star of every scene, eventually offering to help conceal the secret that his old pal Kevin (Gary Sinise), a Department of Defense bigwig, was busy chasing a skirt through the arena when he should have been bodyguarding. The suspense becomes this: Can the cop deploy all his high-tech surveillance equipment to get to the heart of the matter? (Is that gold-plated cell phone just a nifty toy or might it serve some practical function?) And can the director's own flair for covering all the angles help turn his flashy hall of mirrors into a focused character study? (For what does it profit a filmmaker to gain the Steadicam but lose his soul?) De Palma dares to jazz up his ostentatious thriller even further by presenting the assassination in flashback three more times through the perspectives of the government man, the defending champ (Stan Shaw) and a nearsighted supporting character (Carla Gugino) whose blurry vision gives the film its most audaciously subjective sequence. (Call this De Palma's Rashomon for the era of information overload.) As for Cage's character, suffice it to say that he wanders through this baroque film noir until, at the moment of truth, he reveals his innermost feelings. The catch here--or should I say the conspiracy?--is that neither the cop nor the filmmaker is practicing his craft independently. Each is working in an arena. In Snake Eyes, the mogul at the top of the heap is a zillionaire industrialist-cum-casino developer (John Heard) with ties to weapons manufacturers, government heavies and the news media. Ultimately, as the arena/casino/Pentagon is revealed to be one big infotainment conglomerate, the test for De Palma is whether he can transcend his assignment as an auteur-for-hire within the summer-movie superstructure, delivering final cut and a singular point of view before the whole thing self-destructs ("Your mission, should you choose to accept it...").
And does he pull it off? Well, it's a measure of his ingenuity as the modern Master of Suspense that, having turned the conditions of his studio contract into the film's topic, the artist withholds his signature until the very last seconds. Without giving it away, De Palma's jewel of a final shot suggests that even amid the construction of a concrete corporate monstrosity, some glimmer of personality remains.