A very loose and contemporized remake of one of the more celebrated late ’40s films noir, “Kiss of Death” is a crackling thriller that feels unusually attuned to its lowlife characters. Powered by an ever-tightening plot, muscular New York energy and highly concentrated direction by Barbet Schroeder, pic will be the focus of media and public attention as toplined David Caruso’s first feature since departing “NYPD Blue,” but is most noteworthy for Nicolas Cage’s amazing turn as a colossally tough hood. It all adds up to brisk springtime biz for this Fox release.
Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer’s densely packed script for Henry Hathaway’s 1947 meller detailed the increasing desperation of a small-timer (Victor Mature) being squeezed from one side by his former shady associates from the neighborhood and from the other by a D.A.’s office hungry for names and evidence against his criminal cohorts, including the chief baddie played so memorably by Richard Widmark in his screen debut.
This basic situation is about all that’s left of the original in Richard Price’s spiky update, which is based in the pungently sleazy world of professional car thieves in the shadow of the 7 train in Queens.
Jimmy Kilmartin (Caruso) is an ex-con rigorously walking the straight and narrow with his wife, Bev (Helen Hunt), and baby daughter. However, he can’t refuse the desperate entreaties of his cousin Ronnie (Michael Rapaport) to drive a rig of stolen cars to port. When Jimmy is inadvertently caught up in the wounding of one of the cops (Samuel L. Jackson) waiting dockside, he lands back in the slammer.
Naturally, Jimmy’s code of honor forbids him from coughing up the names of his partners in exchange for a reduced sentence. But when his wife is accidentally killed and he learns that she spent the night with Ronnie, Jimmy is able to orchestrate some clever revenge from within prison to do in his double-dealing cousin.
Forty minutes in, the film jumps ahead three years. Up for a parole review and anxious to get on with his life, Jimmy agrees to help persistent assistant D.A. Frank Zioli (Stanley Tucci) nail the criminal kingpin, Little Junior (Cage) , by taping incriminating conversations while wired with a mike.
Based at his flashy Baby Cakes strip club, Little Junior tries to win approval from his father, Big Junior (Philip Baker Hall), with the efficiency and ruthlessness with which he operates in the underworld, and he puts Jimmy through a rough shakedown before admitting him to his inner sanctum of muscle boys.
But all hell breaks loose when Little Junior executes a fellow car thief who turns out to be a federal agent. Little Junior is hauled in, with Jimmy lined up to be the prime witness against him. Due to seamy political machinations, Little Junior is let go, and Jimmy, who has been moving around to secret locations with his daughter and new wife (Kathryn Erbe), must deal with Little Junior on his own.
The big advantage “Kiss of Death” has over many other crime dramas is a complicated, absorbing plot that actually seems credible, at least until the very end, when things are wrapped up in overly convenient and conventional fashion.
Price’s script conjures up the treacherous milieu of chop shops, utterly amoral hoods, sweating informers and wives left on the sidelines with extreme verisimilitude, and manages to convey how the stolen car business works within the context of developing incident and action.
Director Schroeder makes the most of this head start with an ultra-realistic approach that still manages to sensitively evoke the dilemma of a would-be man of honor stuck in a lousy world where official authorities and gangsters alike operate on a sliding scale of moral and ethical relativity, if not bankruptcy.
Despite the familiarity of such cop and bad guy characters, they all seem freshly conceived here, due to the attention to detail and uniformly vibrant work by the excellent cast.
A bit hamstrung by a victimized character who’s bounced around like a pinball by men more powerful than he, Caruso works within a very limited emotional range , but has a capped-powderkeg quality and authoritatively holds his own with the big boys.
Jackson gives interesting shadings to the part of a cop whose relationship with Jimmy completely transforms over the course of the drama, while Tucci, Rapaport, Hall, Ving Rhames and Anthony Heald vividly portray scumbags of assorted persuasions on both sides of the law. Hunt and Erbe register as well as possible in their curtailed roles as the unfortunate and patient women in Jimmy’s life.
But it is Cage who walks away with the picture, thanks to a stunning performance unlike anything he’s done to date. With a goatee and bulked-up upper body, and seen early on bench-pressing a stripper in his club, Cage makes Little Junior a man of steely nerves constantly threatening to erupt into excruciating violence.
Beyond this, Cage gives this despicable hood a depth and complexity rare in genre films, by doing revealing things with Junior’s inferiority complex vis-a-vis his dying father, his asthmatic disability, his make-the-punishment-fit-the-crime sense of justice and his personal code of behavior. No, he doesn’t get to push an old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs , but he doesn’t need such a scene to establish his complete command and villainy.
Various New York-area locations and all behind-the-scenes hands contribute strongly to the aura of utter realism. Lee Percy’s editing and Trevor Jones’ loud score help propel things along at an exciting, but not too manic, pace.