De Palma’s movies are like great math: They’re all about how you arrive at the solution.

Imagine a long lighted fuse that snakes down corridors, winds around corners, slithers up and down stairs, doubles back on itself, and finally arrives at an impressive-looking explosive device. Kaboom? No. Out comes a tiny flag with a sign reading, “Bang!” So goes Brian De Palma’s Snake Eyes, a thriller of serpentine excitement all the way up to that dud of a climax. The preview audience left muttering darkly, and no one at the pizza joint next-door could say enough nasty things. But I’ll bet that 30 minutes earlier those people were entranced. I was. De Palma is like a single-minded physics wizard who, with every new picture, sets out to demonstrate a different spatial/temporal theorem. The way Matt Damon scrawls breathlessly on a chalkboard in Good Will Hunting–that’s the way De Palma makes a thriller, piling on angles, variables, fractions, exponents. Now De Palma needs to learn that the kind of payoff that dazzles a math professor doesn’t always give an audience that ultimate, explosive charge.

The movie’s first 20 minutes is its premise–its mathematical “given.” It’s a single, 20 minute tracking shot that holds on Atlantic City Detective Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) as he bounds around the arena that’s the site of a heavyweight championship fight. Sporting a loud orange rayon jacket with a Hawaiian shirt, the brazenly corrupt Santoro pummels a bookie (Luis Guzmán) and extorts a wad of cash, hollers encouragement to the rabbit-punching champ (Stan Shaw), and gives high-fives to his righteous-dude buddy, Navy Cmdr. Kevin Dunne (Gary Sinise), assigned to protect the visiting Secretary of Defense (Joel Fabiani). De Palma holds on Santoro even when the bout begins and the crowd goes nuts at what they see (but we can’t)–and even when shots ring out and blood begins to gush from the secretary of Defense’s throat.

All the details De Palma withholds in that first showoff sequence he provides in the next hour: the fight, which a video replay suggests was “thrown”; the secretary’s barely heard conversation with a blond “bystander” (Carla Gugino) who has glancingly caught one of the bullets; and the comings and goings of a mysterious woman with red hair and lots of cleavage and a wild man with a radio earpiece who shouts at the champ that he’s going down, he’s going down. The more perspectives the sleazy Santoro gets, the more he understands what actually happened “before his very eyes”–and the more unhinged he becomes at the prospect of having to be a hero.

Snake Eyes takes place more or less in real time, and in one giant megastructure: The arena is attached to a hotel and casino, and outside rages a hurricane (Jezebel) that keeps the cast of characters indoors. This gives the movie an astonishing concentration. The hotel is a hothouse maze: The tacky décor is oppressive, the images shot a little too close, the camera angles skewed to induce vertigo.

Here’s an example of how De Palma works: The villain is searching for a young woman (Gugino), who, trapped in the hotel-casino, has pretended to be a whore, latched onto a fat man at a gaming table, and disappeared with him into his room. The villain knows she’s on the 35th floor, and De Palma tracks with him down a long, tacky corridor as he moves from door to door, listening for her voice. The director cuts to Cage, riding up in an elevator, talking to a buddy in security. The buddy is screening a videotape of the fat man at the gaming table and zeroing in on the guy’s wallet, trying to read his name, so that he can call the desk and find out the man’s room number and tell Cage so that Cage can get there before the villain gets there. Now it’s back to the villain, who stands outside another door, listening. Hot-dog that De Palma is, he cuts to an overhead shot, and his camera begins to move, gazing down at the bad guy in the corridor and then the inside of the room he’s in front of (a couple is fooling around) and then the room after that (a man is sleeping) and then the room after that–which holds, voilà , the fat man and the girl. But there’s another variable, another time bomb: The fat man expects sex, the girl doesn’t want to give it to him, and he’s trying to throw her out despite her protests that her life is in danger. Now the elevator door opens and Cage arrives at the 35th floor–and now he and the villain are moving in opposite directions down the corridor, converging on the room where the increasingly frantic girl is being pushed toward certain doom …

Yes, it’s mechanical, even metronomical, but thrillers are built out of wheels and pulleys and ticking clocks, and De Palma’s machines are more intricate than anyone’s since Hitchcock. And just when you think that he has run out of variables–that he can’t possibly introduce another element, another angle–he’ll suddenly split the screen and present you with two tumultuous frames instead of one. The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, is full of post-Romantic film noir gloom, but Sakamoto also introduces a more modern, free-floating anxiety, a New Age dread that deepens the horror–that takes it out of the whodunit class and into the “Can we ever believe what we see?” league of Rashomon.

Snake Eyes could have been another De Palma masterpiece instead of a bummer on the order of Mission: Impossible (1996). But it never transcends its (glorious) elements. Santoro’s high-tech odyssey and the movie’s themes don’t intersect as they did in Blow Out (1981), and the climax doesn’t unify the movie’s visuals–the way the angled escalators in the shootout of Carlito’s Way (1993) were like a grand, trigonometric punch line. The screenwriter, David Koepp (Carlito’s Way, Jurassic Park [1993]) gives De Palma what he wants but no more–a blueprint, and not an especially witty or resourceful one. That leaves Cage, who in contrast to Koepp gives everything he has and then some, humanizing the film with his trademark goofy exuberance. Betrayed, humiliated, beaten to a pulp, he limps along a snakelike corridor toward that final confrontation with the bad guy–and then a deus ex machina robs him of his finest hour. De Palma leaves him all bloodied up with no place to go.