“Kiss Of Death” kicks in with more subtlety and finesse. Director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune) and writer Richard Price (Clockers) update the classic 1947 film noir that featured Richard Widmark’s startling debut performance as the giggling psycho who terrorized Victor Mature as an ex-con trying to go straight on the twisted streets of New York. This time, Nicolas Cage is the bad boy, and David Caruso, fresh from his TV walkout on the NYPD Blue series, plays the flawed hero. It’s Cage’s show.
As Little Junior Brown, who works for his father, Big Junior (Philip Baker Hall), running cars, drugs, girls and guns, Cage doesn’t push an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs the way Widmark did. He doesn’t giggle, either. He doesn’t have to. He’ll chill your blood with a cool, steady stare that gives way to fits of manic emotion and violence. When the DA (Stanley Tucci) cracks wise about his father’s name — “Big Junior, is that one of those expressions like jumbo shrimp?” — others aren’t so quick to laugh. Cage beefed up to play this villain who owns a topless bar and works out by lifting strippers. Little Junior always wears white, except for a bloody scene in which he dons a raincoat to eviscerate a suspected stoolie. After going soft in romance (It Could Happen to You) and farce (Trapped in Paradise), Cage comes gloriously unglued in a role that builds on his mad glint in Wild at Heart, Raising Arizona and Vampire’s Kiss. He’s mesmerizing and all the scarier for staying recognizably human.
Caruso is also ideally cast as the haunted Jimmy Kilmartin. He’s doing the same decency-under-siege number he did on NYPD Blue, but he does it with feeling. Jimmy wants out of the crime business for the sake of his wife, Bev (Helen Hunt in for a tense, telling cameo), and their daughter. But the underworld keeps pulling him back in. Caught in a truck hijacking organized by the Juniors, Jimmy turns informer in prison after a family tragedy leaves him eager for revenge. His daughter’s baby sitter Rosie (Kathryn Erbe) offers help with the scheme and bedroom eyes for comfort.
Price’s script tries to put some meat on the bare-bones plot of the original by making the cops as corrupt as the outlaws. It sure helps having those Pulp Fiction bad boys Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames around to play variations on good and evil. But for all of Price’s gnarled psychology, Schroeder’s attention to character and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s gritty location shooting in New York, the new colors can’t match the seedy black-and-white allure that drew us into the shadows of the original. Cage and Caruso strike sparks in this riveting piece of pulp fiction, but it’s that first Kiss you’ll remember.