Sunday 19 March 2023

Kiss of Death (1995)

Director: Barbet Schroeder
Writers: Eleazar Lipsky, based on the 1947 screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer
Stars: David Caruso, Kathryn Erbe, Philip Baker Hall, Anthony Heald, Helen Hunt, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci and Nicolas Cage

Index: The First Thirty.

Taking a break from the nice guy roles that he took in each of his three 1994 films, Cage is back to being the bad guy: Little Junior Brown, an asthmatic psychopath who takes over his father’s crime empire. As Kiss of Death is a loose remake of the 1947 movie with Victor Mature, he’s not really playing Richard Widmark’s role of Tommy Udo and therefore has an easy task bringing something memorably new to it.

Fortunately, Barbet Schroeder doesn’t give him the leeway that Christopher Coppola gave him two years earlier in Deadfall, so he’s good here, every potentially outrageous quirk very believable. His choice of beard reminds us of a bulked up John Travolta, but his inhaler gives him a little vulnerability, even if he happens to bench press strippers for fun.

The star of the picture is David Caruso, who was fresh from 26 episodes of NYPD Blue but a full seven years away from his signature role, sunglasses-wielding Horatio Caine. I’ve never been a fan of Caruso because everything that he does is a pose and that holds true here. He’s initially tasked with acting opposite Michael Rapaport, but Rapaport brings Ronnie Gannon to life as a cheap thug, while Caruso poses his way through his scenes as Jimmy Kilmartin.

He’s an ex-con trying to go clean and cousin Ronnie screws that up for him, bringing him onto a job driving a car transporter full of hot cars to the docks. The cops are there waiting and that’s another stretch inside for Jimmy, whose wife Bev is in AA and whose daughter Corinna is a baby. Them’s the breaks, dude.

What’s important is that he doesn’t snitch. He sits back and he does his time, at least until his idiot cousin roofies Bev, who wakes up at his place and, traumatised by what must have happened, drives into traffic. Ronnie even lies at the funeral, telling him that he did all he could for her. That’s exactly when Jimmy calls the DA and offers names, setting up his cousin so that the boss thinks he ratted them out. And that’s it for Ronnie, who Brown quickly kills.

I like Cage here. He’s dressed all in white but he’s no angel. He’s not out of control as much as he does unusual things, often to extremes. When a customer grabs a girl at his strip club, he threatens him with physical harm but puts him up on the stage in his own underwear as a lesson instead. He runs the show, his equally asthmatic dad relatively out of the way. He’s a commanding wild man, intense without ever going gonzo.

The biggest problem Kiss of Death has is that it’s a bunch of different movies wrapped up in one script. It starts out as a regular crime flick, ditching the film noir style of the original. It’s all about Jimmy trying to go clean but being dragged back into the life and, because David Caruso isn’t quite as annoying as usual, it has the potential to play out well.

But dumbass Ronnie ends that movie with a lowlife move that sets his cousin against him and suddenly it’s an undercover gig, Jimmy in Little Junior Brown’s operation, wired for the DA so he can gather data on what Brown’s got going with some dude called Omar, played by a tough Ving Rhames.

And then it’s not about that either, because that mission goes south in bloody fashion and suddenly it’s a jurisdictional dispute between agencies with Jimmy stuck in the middle and his daughter kidnapped to send a message and what movie were we watching again?

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the 1947 original but, while it moved through the same cycles, I don’t remembering it being as jarring as this. What I liked this time was how the bad guy wasn’t always constant. Sure, Cage always stays on that side of the fence, though we see less of his psychopathic side than we expect. At least he’s honest about who he is. I loathed his laywer more, as well as the character who causes much of the trauma late in the film but I’ll keep quiet about that because it’s a spoiler.

The point is that Jimmy’s set up to be a bad guy but isn’t. He’s spent time inside before the movie even begins and, while he wants to go clean to be with his wife and daughter, he’s right back inside again at the drop of a hat. Both he and Bev are supposedly alcoholics, though that has no development whatsoever. And then he’s a snitch. Add the fact that he’s played by David Caruso and that’s plenty of baggage to overcome. However Caruso plays him straight down the line and we end up with an ounce or two of sympathy for him as he gets caught up in the machinations of both sides, neither of which particularly care.

I liked Caruso more than I expected here but I wasn’t with him the way the filmmakers had in mind. I liked Helen Hunt as his wife, who’s dead before we know it. Stanley Tucci plays a sleazy DA, albeit not quite as loathsome as he was in It Could Happen to You. Michael Rapaport is a perfect lowlife. Ving Rhames does a good and reliable job as Omar.

Behind Caruso and Cage, though, is Samuel L. Jackson as a cop called Calvin Hart. He gets his teeth far more into this role than the one he was given in Amos & Andrew and easily the best story arc here is how Jimmy and Calvin change how they see each other over an hour and a half, with Cage hovering over them both like the Sword of Damocles.

It’s not a bad film, though it’s not up to the standards of the original. It’s a decent watch, even with David Caruso in the lead. There are enough major talents backing him to get past his television style of acting, Jackson and Cage at the top of that list.

Had I come to this at random, it wouldn’t be surprising. Cage as a quirky psychopath? Sure, that’s exactly what I’d expect. However, at this point in his career, it feels oddly out of place. He’d arguably played a good guy in six out of his previous seven movies, even if he’s an idiot thief in one, he’s hired as a hitman in another and he robs a bank in a third.

This feels almost like an attempt to fix what he did in Deadfall only a couple of years earlier. This is established Cage, a much bigger name in 1995 than he was in, say, 1984, shooting up speakeasies in The Cotton Club, and he’s saying that he can absolutely play a bad guy with substance, even if he’s not the lead. He failed in Deadfall. He succeeded in Kiss of Death and could then move on to what would be some of the most important films of his career.


Karen said...

I was never very interested in seeing Kiss of Death when it came out (primarily because of David Caruso) -- I seem to remember that this was supposed to be the start of his career as a superstar. But I would like to check it out -- and what a supporting cast!

Hal C. F. Astell said...

Oh yeah, it's a great supporting cast. I'm glad I'm not alone in my disdain of David Caruso. It wasn't just CSI: Miami. I don't think I've seen him in anything yet that I really liked him in.