Irish-American Crime Films: Kiss of Death (1995)

Cage and Caruso: Method vs. glower in "Kiss of Death"

Cage and Caruso: Method vs. glower in “Kiss of Death”

Kiss of Death (1995)

Written by: Richard Price
Directed by: Barbet Schroeder
Starring: David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson
Summary: A competent, enjoyably eccentric film about an ex-con and a weird crime boss, but feels like Pulp Fiction’s leftovers.

“Kiss of Death” had the misfortune of coming out a year after “Pulp Fiction.” It’s a serviceable, fitfully entertaining crime film with generous helpings of eccentricity, many of them provided by Nicolas Cage. Cage plays the strangely named Little Junior, the son of an ailing crime boss named Big Junior, and the actor beefed up for the role — one of the first times we meet him he’s bench pressing a stripper. Cage plays his character as having a comparably thick neck and wit; he’s a hulking man with suspicious eyes but little recognizable intelligence.

He’s responsible for a prison term served by the film’s ostensible hero, a former lackey and barely recovering alcoholic played by David Caruso. This is a remake of a well-liked 1947 noir film, and in that the characters were Italian, but they have been changed to Irish for this film, probably because Caruso, despite being half-Sicilian, resembled nothing so much as a Thomas Nast caricature of an Irish bruiser. So Caruso is named Jimmy Kilmartin, and he’s constantly led into trouble by his noxious dunce of a cousin, named Ronnie Gannon and played by Michael Rapaport. Through a complicated plot twist that causes the death of Kilmartin’s wife — played in a surprisingly abbreviated role by Helen Hunt — Kilmartin becomes an informer.

There is a lot in this film that is memorable; unsurprising, as it was scripted by Richard Price, and he’s good at this sort of story. As an example, Gannon comes to a horrific end that must rank as one of cinema’s most unique gangland assassinations. Another example: Kimartin is accountable to a police detective played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was shot in the face and now has an eye that weeps continuously. In one of the film’s more memorable bits of plotting, Cage’s character attempts a halting, awkward friendship with Kilmartin, despite the fact that Caruso’s trademark glower communicates nothing but contempt and loathing for the other man. But they share a tragedy, and so Cage just blurts out knuckleheaded facts about himself, like he has an Elvis-style acronym that he basis his life around, and he can’t stand the taste of metal. It goes bad with alarming speed, and then goes worse when some double-dealing on the part of the DA (an oily Stanley Tucci) leaves Kilmartin and his family out to dangle.

Cage’s character attempts a halting, awkward friendship with Kilmartin, despite the fact that Caruso’s trademark glower repeatedly flashes contempt and loathing for the other man.
It might be a very good film, but for “Pulp Fiction.” “Kiss of Death” shares cast members with the earlier film — besides Jackson, there is Ving Rhames and Paul Calderon. And “Kiss of Death” suffers in comparison. Its oddness feels mannered, and Caruso’s downbeat performance, consisting of a series of grimaces and a habit of. speaking, very. deliberately, comes of as charmless and unengaging compared to the collection of live-wire weirdos Tarantino populated his universe with.

Unfortunately, what resulted felt like a film that was unneeded. The original “Kiss of Death” was good enough not to need a remake, and the conventions of the crime genre had been thoroughly goosed by Tarantino so that more mundane crime stories felt dated and unwanted. “Kiss of Death” still feels this way, even though it is a film that also feels borrowed from actual police logs. Unlike Tarantino’s universe, which always seems like a series of speedy, ironic supercuts of Tarantino’s favorite movies, “Kiss of Death” is set in a world of ploddingly stupid crime bosses, where a few bad decisions can lead to a deepening spiral of misery, and where various law enforcement agencies screw up, and screw each other over, constantly, leaving splashes of blood behind without concern for who is bleeding. In other words, it sounds like our world.

But, I guess, our world just isn’t as much fun as Tarantino’s.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.