Friday April 21, 1995
The dark, twisty kingdom of film noir, a shadow world that leaks fatalism, pessimism and romantic despair, is the drug of choice for today's directors. Hardly a month passes without one filmmaker or another attempting a modern-day noir knockoff, so strong is the lure of this brooding bad-guy genre. But it takes the arrival of a film as compelling as "Kiss of Death," one of the most effective neo-noirs, to underline why so many of the others haven't been able to go the distance.
While most of the modern copies are content to mimic the surface moodiness of the classics, "Kiss of Death" duplicates their emotional impact as well. Written by Richard Price, directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring "NYPD Blue's" David Caruso in his first post-stardom movie role, "Kiss" is not after dispassionate admiration. Its depiction of fallible characters whipsawed by pitiless antagonists on both sides of the law is wrenching to experience, and that is as it should be but hardly ever is.
As noir fans will know at once, "Kiss of Death" takes its title from a 1947 film remembered for showcasing Richard Widmark as the unbalanced Tommy Udo, whose idea of fun was pushing frail old ladies down flights of stairs. But rather than a conventional remake, screenwriter Price has come up with a new story suggested by the original's theme of a loner pressured to break the criminal code and turn against his own kind.
A successful novelist ("Clockers") as well as an accomplished screenwriter ("Sea of Love," "Mad Dog and Glory" and the Oscar-nominated "The Color of Money"), Price gives "Kiss of Death" all the noir essentials: an intricate plot that flows and eddies in unexpected places, dialogue that is juicy as well as wised-up and characters whose anguish is easy to connect with.
With brisk economy, "Kiss of Death" introduces its protagonists, Jimmy Kilmartin (Caruso) and his wife, Bev (Helen Hunt). Just the looks they exchange in their Queens apartment indicate how difficult it has been for them to remain in love, how grateful but skittish they are about having survived the rigors of alcoholism (for her) and a prison stretch for stealing cars (for him).
Later that night, with Bev out and Jimmy baby-sitting their daughter, there is hysterical knocking at the door. It is Jimmy's cousin and former cohort Ronnie (Michael Rapaport), and he is desperation itself. If he can't get one small final criminal favor from Jimmy, he's going to end up a dead man. Jimmy, out on parole, knows he should say no, we all know he should say no, but this isn't that kind of picture.
Inevitably, nothing is as easy as Ronnie says it will be, and much against his will Jimmy gets sucked into the dark heart of amorality where it's difficult to tell the criminals from the crusaders. Everyone wants something from him, from ambitious Dist. Atty. Frank Zioli (Stanley Tucci) to a relentless cop (Samuel L. Jackson) to Little Junior (Nicolas Cage), a mesmerizing crown prince of crime.
Jimmy's instinct is to refuse everyone, but no one is willing to leave it at that. Decisions about cooperation are forced on him, as Jimmy desperately tries to balance what he believes in against the effects his actions will have on the family he values so much because it has been so hard to create and maintain.
Stories like this don't work unless the actors hit all the right notes, and in "Kiss of Death" they do. The very warm Hunt, star of TV's "Mad About You" and also a vibrant presence in "The Waterdance," deftly establishes Bev's character, and Jackson brings his usual extra dimensions to the role of a wary, embittered cop.
On the other side of the law, Rapaport, last seen as the confused neo-Nazi in "Higher Learning," adds another to his list of idiosyncratic Iagos. And Cage, one of the few American actors who gets more interesting from film to film, comes close to kidnaping the picture as Little Junior, a pumped-up but asthmatic thug who, like King Kong, is a gorilla with a wistful air about him. Adroitly written and beautifully realized, Little Junior is a character whose words and actions defy prediction. Except that no one is likely to forget what happens when he's around.
Fine as Cage is, without an equal presence in the leading role, "Kiss of Death" would not satisfy. And Caruso turns out to have a classic film noir look about him. Although his face never loses its pose of cool, there is a sadness around his eyes, a vulnerability modifying his surface toughness. As "NYPD Blue" proved, Caruso knows how to make you care, and that ability has survived intact on the big screen.
A fair share of the credit for all this must go to Barbet Schroeder, a director since 1969 who has worked largely in France but sporadically (most recently with "Single White Female") in this country. Collaborating with veteran cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, Schroeder's experience and expertise are visible from the opening shot, a smooth crane movement revealing an enormous auto junkyard, immediately establishing a sense of place, of a New York only native New Yorkers ever see.
What Schroeder also brings to the mix is a welcome unobtrusiveness and sense of balance. This is the kind of film where the violence is parceled out in small, intense doses, and a key sexual event is signaled by nothing more than an open top button on a pair of jeans. Although his interest in the dark side has been evident at least as far back as the kinky "Maitresse," except for Nicholas Kazan's Oscar-nominated effort on "Reversal of Fortune," his American films have until now suffered from below-par scripts. With a fine piece of work in his hands, Schroeder has brought all his skill to bear on "Kiss of Death," and it has made all the difference.
Kiss of Death, 1995. R, for violence, nudity and strong language. Released by 20th Century Fox. Director Barbet Schroeder. Producers Barbet Schroeder, Susan Hoffman. Executive producer Jack Baran. Screenplay Richard Price, story Eleazar Lipsky, based on the 1947 motion picture screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. Editor Lee Percy. Costumes Theadora Van Runkle. Music Trevor Jones. Production design Mel Bourne. Set decorator Roberta J. Holinko. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. David Caruso as Jimmy Kilmartin. Samuel L. Jackson as Calvin. Nicholas Cage as Little Junior. Helen Hunt as Bev Kilmartin. Kathryn Erbe as Rosie. Stanley Tucci as Frank Zioli. Michael Rapaport as Ronnie. Ving Rhames as Omar.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times