Caruso, Cage give new edge to 'Kiss of Death'

April 21, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Meet Jimmy Kilmartin, small-time thief, big-time stand-up guy. Jimmy does a straight three-year slide in Sing Sing without doing any sing-singing himself: he carried Little Junior's name locked up in a secret place, and even though the local gendarmes threaten him with all kind of malevolence, he keeps his mouth shut.

For his efforts, Little Junior was decent and loyal. But between Little Junior and Jimmy, unfortunately, there's Cousin Ronnie, who's not so decent and loyal, no kind of stand-up guy, and in any way, shape or form, a creep.

I don't know about you but I love movies about guys called Jimmy, Ronnie and Little Junior, particularly if they're as scuzzy, violent, dark and dangerous as "Kiss of Death," which opens today.

The film, from the knowing pen of Richard ("Clockers") Price and the seductive directorial stylings of Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal Fortune," "Single White Female") is derived (loosely) from Henry Hathaway's great film noir of 1947. It starred Victor Mature and the then-unknown Richard Widmark, a former drama instructor at Lake Forest College who became a star by giggling as he pushed an old lady down the stairs.

Even in this sleeker, more dazzling modern version, set not in Manhattan's underworld but in the sleazier precincts of the five boroughs, among professional car boosters and strip-bar owners, it's based on two key noir conceits. The first is that

there's really no good and bad, only competing tribes. In this film, the cops are just another gang, and they even squabble bitterly among themselves. Justice is for suckers: Each outfit wants to take all the swag, whether it's auto-theft money or the thrill of running a big case before the media.

The second is the notion of fate, or destiny. Jimmy (David Caruso) is good at what he does, but he's unlucky. The cards are always stacked against him. He never catches a break, and the movie to some degree follows Napoleon's dictum that it's better to be lucky than to be good, but it adds a corollary: If you can't be lucky, you better be smart or you're dead.

Jimmy, bless his Irish soul, is smart, and that's his salvation. But it's very rough sledding. The film opens with Jimmy, fresh out of stir and trying desperately to go straight, giving in to Ronnie's implorings and agreeing to drive a rig loaded with stolen vehicles in a caravan of such things. Of course the caravan is bounced by the cops. Of course Jimmy is the only one caught.

But the dynamic figure in the film's early going isn't the solemn, baleful Caruso, who grows (slowly) on you, it's Michael Rappaport as the weaselly, sniveling, banally corrupt Ronnie. There's scum and then there's pond scum, but Ronnie is pond scum with gangrene. With his wheedling cuteness, Rappaport, who's usually cast as a lovable schlemiel, really brings him to crackling lowlife.

It's an odd structural tic of the film, however, that as much as we enjoy hating Ronnie, he's gone by the first 45 minutes. Then the story proper begins, an account of how in order to protect his family and avenge his own dishonor Jimmy agrees to become a CI -- confidential informant. He's a rat, in other words; but he believes he's only paying back in kind.

The movie -- like much of classic, realistic noir and unlike much of highly artificial and nostalgified neo-noir of the '90s -- is terrific at re-creating the clammiest of all noir sensations, fear. As Caruso's Kilmartin gets into Little Junior's confidence, wearing a wire, we feel the pure essence of his existential agony: the shortness of breath, the watery weakness of his knees, the sense of the universe about to swallow you up. And he makes mistakes, coming in one instant just a second away from discovery (and death). The movie is full of his vulnerability and Caruso, who was so stoic on "NYPD Blue," registers most passionately as a guy riding a wave of fear.

Still, the demonic figure in the second half of the film is Little Junior -- Nicolas Cage, in the role of his life. What's scary about Little Junior isn't his violence or even his wretched taste in clothes (though that scared the heck out of me), but the methodicalness of his willingness to hurt. He doesn't get excited. He hurts out of logic, not passion, and afterward talks in the feel-good lingo of PMA audiotapes: "You should have a positive acronym [meaning motto]," he earnestly instructs Jimmy after blowing a .45 through the head of an undercover agent. "It will help you set goals."

Price's thing is realism and astringent dialogue. Like a lot of films from his screenplays ("Mad Dog and Glory," for example), this one isn't brilliantly structured or driven by incredibly intensifying suspense. In fact, it's so complex that even in my summary, I leave out a whole subplot involving Kilmartin's relationship and growing friendship with the detective who is running him, Calvin, played with the usual insouciant brilliance by Samuel L. Jackson.

What it offers, however, is the slow, steady accrual of reality. You feel yourself sinking deeper and deeper into a whole universe that's been put together with almost anthropological intricacy and feels convincing to its tiniest detail. (I feel the same way about Price's novel "Clockers.") It's a very hairy place.

"Kiss of Death"

Starring David Caruso, Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by Barbet Schroeder

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated R (extreme profanity and violence)

***

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