Screenplay by Richard Price, adapted from the original 1947 screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer; story by Eleazar Lipsky
Kiss of Death, based on the renowned 1947 film noir of the same name, marks the point at which Hollywood started to get lazy in its use of Richard Price: This, the industry seems to have decided, is the guy who writes remakes of old crime movies. So while Sea of Love and Mad Dog and Glory used some elements of film noir storytelling to deliver original stories that addressed themes Price was interested in, Kiss of Death (which follows in the footsteps of the Night and the City remake) feels more like the for-hire job it is, with little evidence that Price ever held it particularly close to his heart.
But it’s still well-done and enjoyable in its own right, even if it doesn’t provide many thematic dots for me to connect.
The outline of the story stays pretty close to that of the 1947 original: Jimmy (David Caruso) is a former NYC car thief gone straight who gets harangued into one last job, only to end up as the one guy on that job who gets caught and sent to prison. Upon his release, the prosecutor’s office and the cops (including Samuel L. Jackson as a detective who was non-fatally shot in the face during Jimmy’s initial arrest) more or less force him to turn informant against Little Junior (Nicolas Cage), a psychotic local kingpin Jimmy knows from back in the day. That endeavor of course doesn’t go according to plan, leaving Jimmy caught between the law’s threat to his freedom and Little Junior’s threat to his and his family’s safety.
Little Junior is probably the most memorable part of the film, as it’s a quintessential insane Nic Cage performance; if you’ve spent hours watching The Wicker Man clips on YouTube, this is a movie you should check out. The role was famously originated by Richard Widmark, who played it as a giggling sadist, and this version takes a different but equally attention-grabbing approach: Cage’s Little Junior is brutally violent but also wistful and sensitive in a twisted, moronic way. So basically he just does and says a bunch of weird shit, from bench-pressing strippers to talking about how he can’t stand the taste of metal (“Gotta use plastic forks and spoons all the time”) to mourning his father by weeping while jumping up and down at a strip club, then punching out a guy who bumps into him and yelling “MY FATHER DIED!”
Some critics felt that the character was too weird, that his inconsistency or lack of realism undermined the story. And I mean, I guess, but it’s all so entertaining that I’ve got to count the guy as an asset rather than a liability here.
And while Kiss of Death’s story is obviously pretty dark, Little Junior isn’t the only character who benefits from the off-beat humor in Price’s script: There’s also the gangster who hates the color red but refuses to have a red car repainted because “it’d still be red under the paint,” or the thug who insists on hanging around to watch a burning car explode: “I always get such a kick out of that. It’s the kid in me.”
The stacked supporting cast–which includes Helen Hunt, Kathryn Erbe, Michael Rapaport, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames and Philip Baker Hall–has a lot of fun with this stuff, while Caruso functions as the movie’s icy, (mostly) humorless core, proving that at least some good came of his widely criticized decision to quit NYPD Blue for a career in film.
As was the case with Mad Dog and Glory, the film falters a bit in its climactic final showdown. The original Kiss of Death went out with a suspense sequence that was small in scale but grippingly tense, while the equivalent scene here has more action yet doesn’t feel as satisfying (or make as much narrative sense). That aside, though, this is a smartly made thriller that’s engaging throughout even if it doesn’t offer anything particularly new. And, again, it’s got Nic Cage acting crazy, and that’s always fun.
A few other notes:
• Richard Price appears onscreen here as a city clerk. It’s perhaps his smallest Obligatory Richard Price Cameo, but he still gets in a couple lines.
• In addition to its genre and screenwriter, Kiss of Death has a few more connections to Sea of Love: Samuel L. Jackson appeared in the earlier film in the tiny role of “Black Guy,” while Paul Calderon has a supporting role in each film, though for some reason he goes uncredited here. Trevor Jones, who composed Sea of Love‘s soundtrack, apparently worked on Kiss of Death‘s “Orchestrations.”
• Hey, look who’s credited as an office production assistant: It’s Morgan Spurlock, future director of Super Size Me!
Next week: Spike Lee brings Clockers to the big screen.