Nicolas Cage stars as Rick Santoro, a crooked detective from Atlantic City, as well as a terrific character. Not many characters have such an elaborate evolution through a film. Santoro is first presented to us as a corrupt cop with a taste for women, gambling and boxing. When he goes to this big title fight, it’s simply to have a good time and maybe score a few bucks. But things mess up big time, and this flawed cop might be tempted to do the right thing, just once. This is quite different from Cage’s usual characters, who are generally more relaxed and cool. Even in his 1996-97 action trilogy, he remains cooky, like a fish out of water.

In “Snake Eyes”, Cage becomes this film noir kind of hero, the kind James Cagney used to play. Streetwise and fast-talking, he’s able to take control when the need comes. But this is Cage, the most risk-taking actor in Hollywood, so he still has fun with the character. He plays interestingly with his dialogue and physical language and even bursts into song and grandiose gestures. Here’s a big star who’s not afraid to try stuff instead of just sticking to the formula.

Director Brian De Palma opens the film with an impressive 20 minute seamless shot featuring complicated camera movements, lots of dialogue and, get this, 14 000 extras packed in Montreal’s old Forum. Still, this is more than just a technical challenge. It’s also a clever storytelling device which puts us right with the characters. When events precipitate and no one really knows what’s happening, we’re confused too. The sequence achieves to develop Cage’s character and to show in real time the boxing match turned political assassination.

But that ain’t the last trick De Palma has up his sleeve. He multiplies unusual camera angles, Steadycam POV shots and always keeps us with our eyes riveted to the screen. He goes back three times through the assassination through the eyes of three of the characters, kinda like Tarantino did in “Jackie Brown”, only more complicated. There’s also a spellbinding split-screen sequence and as for the climax, it’s over-the top, yes, but you can’t deny that it’s dazzling, and the melancholy epilogue is satisfying.

I don’t think that there’s anything in this film that really doesn’t work. You could stumble on some of the story’s details, or say that the film is just an exercise in style borrowing from many better pictures, but you can’t deny De Palma’s achievement unless you’re on a vendetta against him. He loves to handle the camera, is that a a crime? He still gets good work from his cast. Cage is as good as usual, Gary Sinise is great as Cage’s best friend and colleague, snd then there’s nice supporting acting from Carla Gugino as a beautiful and mysterious woman, Luis Guzman as a hustler and Mike Starr as a security watchdog.

This is a film superior to most of what Hollywood gave us in 1998, even though many called it one of the worst films of the year. In a way, this is indeed schlock, but it’s fun, goddamit! Few movies pack as much bravado filmmaking as this one. This is my kind of schlock.