MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Kill Me Again’: A Lust-Filled <i> Film Noir</i> With a Twist

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In the low-budget but classy film noir pastiche “Kill Me Again” (at the Mann Westwood), the film makers show right away that they know their stuff. They know that film noir is as much a way of seeing as a type of story. They don’t avoid cliches: the shabby shamus’ office, the skeptical cops, the slick crooks. They plunge right in with relish.

This is a modern crime thriller with an archetypal plot--a love-on-the-run story about a femme fatale and a private eye, pursued by both cops and crooks--but the movie makers don’t get jaded or coy. They drape shadows over the walls, take us into cut-rate motels, hurl us down desert roads to nowhere, surround us with all the rotten neon glamour and quicksand sex of Las Vegas and Reno.

They keep the brutality quick or carnal and the sex deadly: in the middle of a storm, or on blood-soaked sheets while “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” curls up on the sound track. The characters speak out of pay phones or the sides of their mouth. When the film makers stage a stickup they do it in portentous low angles, and close-ups that emphasize the sweat and exhilaration of the thieves: femme fatale Fay (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) and her ex-con psycho stud, Vince (Michael Madsen).

Most of all, director-writer John Dahl and producer-co-writer David Warfield know the mood-enhancing quality of a Venetian blind, slicing up light into latticed shadows in the long seedy afternoons of a private eye’s office. “Kill Me Again” doesn’t look like the noir classics; instead of black-and-white, it’s shot in slightly muddy color with vagrant green tints. But it feels like them. It has that nerve-jangling mix of pungent cynicism and thick gobs of pseudo-Expressionist style. It’s not brilliant or original, but it’s still a lean, fast, wide-awake sleeper.


Dahl and Warfield seem to base much of their idea on the mood of writers James M. Cain or Jim Thompson and on the Jacques Tourneur noir classic “Out of the Past”--where, as here, a tormented sleuth gets seduced into a world of murder and betrayal. The title gimmick is classic shtick: Fay, running from Vince with the dangerous mob loot, wants patsy Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer) to fake her own murder. When he does, he becomes a fugitive too, sucked down into Fay’s world of lies, duplicity, double-dealing and death.

The movie is about layers of guilt, levels of amorality. As a clue, Dahl and Warfield include a visual echo from “Psycho”: the tell-tale car that won’t sink into the slime. But there’s one major flaw in the story: It doesn’t build up Jack’s everyday reality enough, the normality that Fay tears asunder. Instead, the film makers try to set up the contrasts through flashbacks and the leads’ looks: Fay’s sneaky peek-a-boo sex and Jack’s tough jock naivete, the way the lighting emphasizes their soft skin.

Kilmer and Whalley-Kilmer--no relation, and an odd marquee match-up if there ever was one--are good, but Madsen is better. He doesn’t look actorish; he looks like a crazy ex-con who just wandered into the movie. Madsen makes Vince a psycho-heavy on the Lee Marvin-Robert Ryan level. Harsh light plays up his stubble, tattoos and open pores. When he chases Jack through his office, manacled to a desk and slamming it against the walls, it’s hilarious and scary. When he tortures people, it’s with a bored manner that suggests he’s done it again and again. Vince is the film’s secret motor, pursuing Fay like a sleazy knight, with a code in which lust and greed have replaced love and honor.

“Kill Me Again” is easy to praise because it’s small, cool and craftsman-like. Though it’s Dahl and Warfield’s professional feature debut, it has the narrative assurance and smart plotting that most big-budget thrillers lack. Even so, it doesn’t break any new ground or open new veins. It’s crafty but derivative and on some level it might even seem retrograde, steeped in the genre’s alleged cultural misogyny.

Is Jack Andrews another grown-up tough boy, scared of sex? Not completely. Film noir is usually sexually paranoid but socially progressive. It comments on the rotten values of society, the false dreams of sex, fame and easy loot. So does “Kill Me Again” (rated R for sex, language, violence). Watching it, at its best, is like seeing the world through those half-open Venetian blinds. Everything gets all cut up into light and dark and what you see right away is as dangerous as what you don’t.