De Palma's first film since the barely comprehensible Mission: Impossible opens confidently enough: a Scorsese-baiting 15-minute tracking shot shadows Nic Cage as he threads his way through the gathering chaos of the main event. He has a flutter on the fight, roughs up an `associate', expounds his ethical views to buddy Sinise (""If there's one thing I know, it's how to cover my ass...""), and takes calls from his wife, kid and girlfriend. The camera executes cute little swoops and scuttles, whip-pans and pull-backs, but the dialogue is flat and first-draftish. It's a warning of things to come. All surface, no feeling.
Cage is always watchable, but his plan here is apparently to blur together Face/Off's Castor Troy with Con Air's Cameron Poe, and, if in doubt, shout. He's also stuck with some ridiculous character logic, when, halfway through, Santoro suddenly flips the switch over from flawed and interesting good/bad guy to fine, upstanding man-of-unquestionable-honour Steven Seagal-type. You half-expect him to snatch a moment and call his AA counsellor, apologising for missing those sessions.
After the opening flourish, things soon settle down. Sinise is good, the splendid Carla Gugino turns up, and De Palma keeps his eye firmly on the audience-interest ball with teasing glimpses snipped from the chaos of the crowd: various clues and bluffs force you to become complicit and store everything away, hoping it'll all make sense later. After the assassination, Cage wakes up a little and there's at least the prospect of some motivational conflict (Santoro: ambition and craving for recognition; Dunne: careerist self-preservation).
But as the intrigue begins to unravel, everything takes a dizzying mass nose-dive: plot credibility, character development, suspense. The mystery turns out to be not all that much of a mystery, the villains are revealed in all of their cackling, megalomaniacal ludicrousness and De Palma even parodies his own technical virtuosity with some mostly confusing perspective fiddling.
A dwindling sense of urgency, little effective character interplay, ho-hum expositions and, most insultingly, one of the oldest fake-tension ruses in the book: villain dashes into lift... Good guy chases... Good guy gets there just as the lift doors are closing. Damn! Gotta take the stairs... What is this? An episode of The Equaliser? Why not simply press the button to re-open the doors?
Almost everybody in Snake Eyes behaves with unreconstructed horror-movie stupidity and, towards the end, Gugino is completely shut out of the action because the writers seem to have run out of things for her to do or say way before it's time for the hurricane to hit. Another major, perfectly likable character abruptly decides to cross over to the dark side - off-screen - with no prompting, or even the vaguest of attempts at explaining his motives in the script.
De Palma still has it (sure, he steals, but always improves on the original), but he hasn't found the right combination of idea, script, actors and execution since he made Carlito's Way - five years ago. As for Cage, City Of Angels implied that he was doing a Carrey: deliberately going against type to prove a versatility point. Now, he doesn't seem sure which way he wants to go. ""Don't try and make a hero out of me..."" says Santoro early on. ""It won't fit"."