Kiss of Death
1995, R, 101 min. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Starring David Caruso, Samuel L. Jackson, Nicolas Cage, Helen Hunt, Kathryn Erbe, Michael Rapaport, Ving Rhames.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 21, 1995
Kiss of Death is a solid piece of pulp drama that, nevertheless, feels as fleeting as its hackneyed title. Very loosely based on a 1947 film noir of the same name, NYPD Blue's David Caruso is Jimmy Kilmartin, a reformed New York hustler and petty thief who finds his currently stable situation (he's married with a wife and baby daughter) turned inside out when a noxious blast from the past -- in the form of Michael Rapaport's wonderfully sleazy Ronnie, a chop-shop operator and former hoodlum pal -- knocks at his door late one night and begs Jimmy to help him pilot some stolen automobiles to a waiting cargo ship down at the docks. When the seemingly simple plan goes wrong, Jimmy ends up back in jail, taking the heat for his old friend and catching a three-year stretch. While inside, a series of calamitous tragedies occur, not the least of which is the death of his wife. For his early release, he strikes a deal with the D.A. to bring down the sociopathic crime boss, Little Junior (Cage, with all the stops pulled out, again), in return for being able to visit his daughter. Instead, he finds himself on the short end of the stick once again as everyone from the cops to his old hoodlum pals plots against him. As Detective Calvin, Jimmy's police contact, Samuel Jackson is given a punchy, layered character who is the opposite of the one he played in last year's Pulp Fiction. Caruso, for his part (much has been made of his unforeseen leap from TV to the big screen) is excellent as Jimmy, an honest guy who just wants to be left alone with his family but keeps getting dragged back down by ghosts from his past. Caruso has that Irish red hair and baleful eyes -- he looks like a reformed leprechaun. Cage is likewise fine in his role as the asthma-afflicted, psychopathic crime boss, constantly working out by bench-pressing topless dancers and generally acting like a loose cannon. Schroeder (Single White Female, Reversal of Fortune) keeps the pace moving forward despite some obvious plot holes, and the film has moments in which the tension feels as taut as a length of piano wire across your throat. Despite this, however, you walk away from Kiss of Death with the feeling you've just watched a cinematic echo: The little resonance it has, already begins to fade as you leave the theatre. By and large, that's the nature of pulp films -- they're not meant to keep you up nights wrestling with metaphysics and morality (although good pulp authors -- James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich -- always do). Schroeder's film is fun to watch, even when it's being predictable or brutal, but its memory is nearly gone the next day.