Judge George Hatch reviews the movie that lured David Caruso away from TV, made Nic Cage into an action hero, and gave Sam Jackson yet another great character actor role.
"People come to me and say, 'Jimmy, we need your help. Please help us.' And whenever I do I end up getting screwed."—Jimmy Kilmartin
For Barbet Schroeder's 1995 remake of Kiss of Death, writer Richard Price scoped out Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's 1947 screenplay, boosted the basic premise—that of a small-time crook being forced to turn state's evidence—then sped up the action to the seedy and dangerous milieu of chop-shop auto trafficking.
Facts of the Case
Ex-con Jimmy Kilmartin (David Caruso) is trying to stay clean while his wife Bev (Helen Hunt), a reformed alcoholic, struggles to stay sober, so they can raise the newborn Corinna with the help of neighbor Rosie (Katherine Erbe). Their lives begin to unravel, when Jimmy's cousin Ronnie (Michael Rapaport) comes begging for last-minute help transporting a shipment of stolen cars. Being on parole, Jimmy could go back to jail just for talking to Ronnie. Yet seeing his cousin's broken fingers and learning that he has to "answer to Little Junior Brown" (Nicolas Cage), Jimmy reluctantly agrees. When the police raid the pier to intercept the cargo, Det. Calvin Hart (Samuel L. Jackson) asks to see their manifest and is promptly shot in the face, though Jimmy manages to deflect the bullet with his hand. Nice try, Jimmy, but you're still going back to the slammer.
The police and DA Frank Zioli (Stanley Tucci) want names. Brown's smarmy lawyer, Jack Gold (Anthony Heald), convinces Jimmy to "take the hit and serve three, maybe two years of easy time," promising that Brown "always takes care of his own," which would include Jimmy's wife and toddler. Unfortunately, that care comes via Ronnie who gives Bev only $150 of the weekly $400 provided by Brown, "And that's out of my own pocket, you know, I'm just trying to help out. I mean it's not like Jimmy was raking in Gs or anything." He coerces her into working at the chop-shop for extra money, gets her back on the bottle, and seduces her while she's drunk. With a panicked morning hangover, Bev's first thought is of Corinna and she is killed racing home when a truck plows into her car. Jimmy gets the devastating news from the prison chaplain, learns the sordid details from Rosie at Bev's funeral, and decides to cut a deal. He'll identify two of the thieves involved a jewel robbery which, in turn, will point a finger at the third, Ronnie, as the stoolie. Jimmy can't risk early parole because "If I give up people up to you and you turn me loose, I won't last day one out there. All I want is a one-day visit with my daughter."
At the Baby Cakes strip-and-clip joint Little Junior is trying to catch his father's attention by bench-pressing one of the dancers, but Big Junior (Philip Baker Hall) is overly concerned about "cleaning up my own mess by getting rid of Ronnie the Rat and keeping it all 'in house.'" He dispatches Little Junior and his muscle-bound thugs to L & M Automotive along with a potential big-money connection, Omar (Ving Rhames), an inter-state broker of drugs and illegal weapons "with a posse out of Philadelphia." While Omar watches "a Rolls get chopped," Little Junior and his crew don plastic ponchos and viciously beat Ronnie to death with The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" blasting out of a boombox.
The inter-state angle, of course, brings in the Feds who, along with Det. Hart and DA Zioli all want Jimmy's help infiltrating Brown's crime ring. Someone else wants Jimmy, too: Rosie, who has matured from babysitter jailbait to a babelicious hottie. Corinna is now five years old and Rosie thinks Jimmy would make a great husband and father so she plans to keep him on the straight-and-narrow. By this time even the paranoid psycho Little Junior wants Jimmy's help managing his smash-and-grab car-jacking operation so he can move on to bigger things with Omar.
The plot becomes extremely convoluted with wiretaps, undercover agents, a kidnapping, and those three strong-arms-of-the-law jockeying for props and prestige in the take-down-Brown sting. Still, it's easy to follow all the political backstabbing and corrupt legal maneuverings because, for the most part, they're predictable variations of a standard crime drama blueprint. Price is spinning his wheels here, but I like the sound of the hum.
Richard Price successfully adapted two of his own novels for the screen—The Wanderers and Clockers—and his adaptation of Walter Trevis's "The Color of Money" earned him an Oscar nomination. However, his screenplay remakes are a mixed bag, with Shaft and Ransom being moderately successful while Night and the City was a complete disaster. Jules Dassin's 1950 version is, perhaps, my all-time favorite film noir so I may sound a bit biased. When Price updated Jo (Crime of Passion) Eisinger's brilliant Post-War London setting to modern day New York, he sacrificed the existential despair of its single protagonist in favor of an ill-fated love story about losers, with most of the colorful background characters lost in the transition. It didn't even work as "neo-noir."
While the last half-hour of Kiss of Death is unnecessarily complicated, Price proves more successful with his characterization and ambient atmosphere both of which evoke the formal stylistic conventions of film noir. In his first major film role after leaving NYPD Blue, David Caruso (King of New York) effectively conveys the frustration of a man buffeted by circumstances beyond his control, never realizing he's a victim of his own compulsive behavior—"I like boosting cars. There wasn't a make or model I couldn't pop the lock on, kill the alarm and get it on the road…It felt good to be good at something. I had money in my pocket and a flash ride." At one point he tells Little Junior, "That which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger"—(Jimmy must have been reading Nietzsche in prison!)—but he has yet to gain the inner strength that would enable him to break the losing streak he's been on for most of his adult life.
Henry Hathaway's 1947 Kiss of Death is notorious for Richard Widmark's star turn as the psychotic Tommy Udo, particularly the scene in which he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, giggling deliriously as he watches her bounce off every step. Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation) assumes this counterpart with appropriately schizophrenic results. First off, anyone burdened with the name "Little Junior" is bound to have some ego problems so he compensates by pumping up his body trying to match, in physical stature, the criminal reputation of his father, Big Junior. Both, however, share breathing problems. Big Junior is first seen with tubes in his nostrils indicating emphysema, and later dies with "only five percent lung capacity." Little Junior is asthmatic and never without his nebulizer. Also, the taste of metal makes him gag, a rather heavy-handed plot eccentricity that twice plays a part in the film's denouement. The most unbelievable trait, however, is Little Junior's fondness for acronyms, so totally out-of-character it makes you wonder if he can even spell the word. He's chosen BAD for himself: Balls Attitude Direction—and advises Jimmy to find one more positive for himself than FAB—which, for the sake of decency I'll change to SAB: Screwed At Birth. Listening to these two low-lifes wax philosophical is undoubtedly the film's laughable low-point.
Cage's Little Junior, however, can be genuinely menacing and cleverly astute when it comes to meting out justice, as when two of Baby Cake's bouncers drag in a fear-stricken "client" who has just touched one of the club's strippers. Firing up a cigarette, Little Junior says, "I think you should have more respect for what my dancers have to put up with. So what can I do to make you remember…and appreciate…what's it's like being up there?" Little Junior lowers the burning tip toward the man's splayed hand—and the scene quickly cuts to this tubby little guy dancing on stage in his briefs, humiliated and ridiculed by the audience. A very funny scene—until this same man makes a deus ex machina appearance in the film's climax, leaving me feeling like I'd been rear-ended.
The cast alone makes this revamped Kiss of Death worth watching and it's a shame that two of the standouts were allotted such a small amount of screen time. In what amounts to a cameo, Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets, What Women Want) makes Bev Kilmartin both heartbreaking (with her love for a loser like Jimmy) and frustrating (as her inner resolve deteriorates and she falls back into alcoholism). If there's another actor who can play a slime-ball better than Michael Rapaport (Copland) let me know. Just watch him manipulate Jimmy and especially Bev; open and seemingly sincere when they're face to face, but licking his lips, looking into her soul, and plotting his next move as she turns away.
In role that allows her to develop both physically and emotionally, I never realized how beautiful Katherine Erbe really is. Every week on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, she and the rest of the cast play sounding boards to Vincent D'Onofrio's "genius detective." Quite touching as Rosie, you might also want to catch her in Abel Ferrara's The Addiction made the same year, and more recently in Stir of Echoes. Anthony Heald (Proof of Life) and Stanley Tucci (Road to Perdition, Conspiracy) are particularly effective as two illegal eagles matching each other's underhanded strategies point for point. Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Unbreakable) gives full depth and dimension to Det. Hart and Ving Rhames (Dark Blue, Mission: Impossible II) has a field day as the coked up Omar.
Barbet (Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female) Schroeder's direction is efficient and frequently inspired. At one point Omar tells Little Junior he doesn't want a red Explorer because red is his "bad-luck color"—and during the entire conversation, just slightly out-of-focus in the background, is the redheaded Caruso. Some sharper editing could have tightened up a few clumsy scenes; during Ronnie's brutal beating, for instance, the camera focuses on a wall and we have to wait a little too long for the expected splatter of blood.
Fox Home Video's anamorphic transfer is decent, but the colors could have been more vibrant considering Luciano Tovoli's evocative cinematography. With his work ranging from the abstract (Julie Taymor's Titus) to the surreal (Dario Argento's Susperia and Tenebre), the gritty urban landscape he captures for Kiss of Death is a genuine asset to the film. The disc has the anamorphic version on one side with full frame on the other and, except for crisper longshots, I didn't notice that much of a difference. For the most part the 5.1 Dolby Surround is efficient and effective, though the dialogue in the apartment and hallway scenes often sounds a bit distant and echoed. This is most likely due to the difficulty of setting up audio equipment in such close quarters, so I'm not going to deduct points for filmmakers striving for realism. The Special Features are two trailers for Kiss of Death and Trailer A, though cropped at the top to make it 2.35:1 aspect ratio, does a knockout job of selling the film. There are also four studio trailers included for Don't Say a Word, Entrapment, French Connection and Unlawful Entry.
Upon its initial release this remake of Kiss of Death was passed over by critics and audience's alike. No, it isn't L.A. Confidential or Narc for that matter, but it deserves a second look. Richard Price's clever reworking of a film noir classic is one that can stand on its own as solid neo-noir original.
Case dismissed. So, what's the what? Don't give this one the Big Kiss-Off a second time.
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