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De Palma 

- all camera, no content

Wednesday, Aug 5 1998
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For the first 14 minutes or so of Brian De Palma's new movie, Snake Eyes, the camera swoops uninterrupted through a cavernous boxing arena, rushing through hallways and darting around corners as it tracks Nicolas Cage like a heat-seeking missile - it's a sensational opening hand. Cage, playing a mercenary Atlantic City cop named Richard Santoro, has come to the arena as the guest of his best friend, Kevin Dunne(Gary Sinise), a naval officer who's heading up security for the secretary of defense as his boss takes in a heavyweight fight. Midway through the first round, though, someone fires a shot at the secretary, the arena is cleared of its 14,000 panicked visitors, Santoro stumbles onto an intrigue, and energy begins to whoosh out of the film as if from a balloon. Not too long after those 14 minutes are up, all that's left of Snake Eyes that bears much remembering are Cage's wild eyes, a bravura overhead tracking shot that seems borrowed from either Godard or Terence Davies, probably both, and De Palma's restless, anxious camera, on the prowl for something, anything, to hang on to.

De Palma has always been a director with more style at his disposal than content. For much of his early career, that didn't pose too great a problem, and with the help of reviewers, most famously Pauline Kael, he got away with some true groaners, including The Fury and Obsession. Coming off the '70s, he thrilled the same critics with the odious Dressed To Kill, took on Scorsese and Coppola with Scarface, then stumbled badly with Body Double. As the vogue for personal filmmaking gave way to the high-concept '80s and '90s, it became clear that, as Coppola had, De Palma could be counted on to sacrifice his auteurist impulses for a popular audience - even if, as with The Bonfire of the Vanities and Carlito's Way, the public didn't much care. In this context, Mission: Impossible seems no less personal than, say, The Untouchables; what's personal about both films is their superb craft and, in the case of the latter, Sean Connery. Ironically, when De Palma tried something genuinely original, namely the lunatic psycho-thriller Raising Cain, he was excoriated; it's no wonder he signed on with Tom Cruise.

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Snake Eyes looks like a return to some of the director's surface preoccupations. Surveillance and cheap blond wigs both figure in the movie, as do murder, conspiracy and De Palma's fondness for orchestrating, sometimes brilliantly, elaborate crowd scenes. The Hitchcock influence is fairly muted, though there is an echo of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and probably every other Hitchcock movie in which watching and being watched is a theme. It doesn't matter, and neither, for most of the film, does Cage's charisma or De Palma's undeniable showmanship. David Koepp's script is a flat-out, unmitigated drag - a waste of time filled with phantom characters possessed by phantom desires, and burdened with insipid exposition and boilerplate dialogue ("Nobody was supposed to die"). Dangling with loose ends, the script has nothing to recommend it save the logistical complications of shuttling players from one side of the board to the other, then back again; since De Palma shares a story credit with Koepp, he's obviously not entirely blameless.

It takes a while to realize there's not much going on, if only because, at least initially, Cage and De Palma are so extraordinarily revved up, a perfectly matched pair of showoffs sharking through the neon-blasted scenery. As Cage criss-crosses the enormous set in those first 14 minutes, high-fiving the indifferent champ, shaking down a drug dealer, glad-handing a bookie, admiring a well-placed rump (belonging to Carla Gugino, a little girl lost), the camera keeps pace with the actor, shot by sinewy shot. (The nimble cinematographer is Stephen H. Burum.) Although you're aware of the camera, fully alert to its grandiosity, even its menace, you never get the feeling that its moves, its swerves and its swooshes, are in any way superfluous to the character - its swagger is Cage's swagger, its adrenaline is Cage's adrenaline, its high is Cage's high, and vice versa. It's difficult not to think that the Steadicam was invented for just this scene, or that perhaps with this opener, De Palma is trying, somewhat strenuously, to trump Scorsese's celebrated nightclub entrance in GoodFellas. But the fact that De Palma comes close can't make up for the rest of his film, which all but expires once the first gunshot rings out. After that, instead of burning fuel, Cage and his director are simply running on fumes.

At first glance, there's also not much to Brother, a relatively new film from Russian writer-director Alexei Balabanov, beyond an almost American-style cynicism and the unsettling lead performance of Sergei Bodrov Jr. (star of Prisoner of the Mountains, which his father directed). Danila, a young man who's just returned home after an uneventful stint in the military, travels to St. Petersburg to stay with his older brother, Viktor, a smiling, bald-headed contract killer who soon hijacks the younger man's purposelessness to his own murderous ends. When he's not doing his brother's bidding, Danila is roaming the streets of the former Leningrad like a tourist, being seduced by an abused married woman, grooving to the sounds of his favorite rock band and more or less acting like a teenager stoned on too much money.

Danila, whose motivations and personality remain essentially opaque until the film's final chilling minutes, takes to his brother's vocation with the careless indifference, even ease, of the guileless kid we think he is. He evinces about as much passion pumping a bullet into a Chechen gang leader as he does slipping a compact disc into his Walkman - even less. That the two actions are irrevocably connected is, of course, very much the point of Balabanov's movie, which seems as influenced by Taxi Driver and Menace II Society as by Dostoyevsky. That slippage between old-school existentialism and new-school nihilism makes Brother an interesting cultural artifact, but it also makes it something of a bummer. It's bad enough that Russia has taken to Western capitalism with such unalloyed fervor; do Russian filmmakers also need to embrace the crushing political cynicism that so often follows in capitalism's wake? Apparently, they do: In 1997, Brother was the country's biggest box-office hit.

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