Kiss of Death takes place over four years, has eight to ten significant characters, and runs an hour and forty minutes. It skips ahead three years at the forty-five minute mark. And the last twenty minutes could have their own movie, as David Caruso returns to the city to face Nicolas Cage, who knows Caruso snitched on him only it’s never clear how he knows or to what extent.
And it’s important to look at why it’s unclear because Richard Price wrote this Kiss of Death–I’m a Price aficionado–but Price also wrote it like a novel. Then he cut a bunch out of a four-hour miniseries, threw in some more scenes of Cage’s absurd villain who isn’t actually a character so much as an unthinking monster moving his way through the film, and called it… well, probably not good, but called it a movie. Only it’s not a movie, especially not with Schroeder directing.
Kiss of Death is a remake of film noir and, in updating noir, Schroeder basically dumps anything related to the genre in terms of visual style. Luciano Tovoli’s photography is technically fantastic, but it has no personality. The film opens on this fantastic tracking shot of an auto yard, which figures into the fates of Caruso, Cage, and everyone else in the film only Schroeder’s got no visual style to tie it in. It’s like doing a Touch of Evil homage without understanding how it works for the viewer. It feels tacked on and generic, like almost everything else in the picture.
But, you know, Schroeder’s not terrible, he just doesn’t know what to do with this movie. He directs maybe four of the actors well. And never Caruso, who’s going through all these physicality bits–trying to do more with saying less–only Schroeder doesn’t seem to pick up on them. Caruso’s walking away in a medium long shot physically reacting to something and Schroeder doesn’t want to concentrate on Caruso. He doesn’t understand how to make Caruso the protagonist given the depth of supporting characterization. It’s kind of a mess.
Caruso’s okay. He’s best with Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, and Kathryn Erbe. His scenes with Michael Rapaport and Stanley Tucci are too forced, either by script, direction, or Caruso himself. It’s an okay performance, not great, but with glimpses of great. Cage is in a similar boat. The actor, the script, and the director are all in disagreement about how to portray the character. When it’s Cage and Caruso together, Kiss of Death is at its best. There are lots of contrary things going on and the actors are still working so it creates a tone for the film, which otherwise has none.
Jackson’s got some really good moments, same for Erbe, though she’s utterly unappreciated. Actually, Helen Hunt’s unappreciated with some really good moments too. It’s kind of like Kiss of Death has too many good actors without enough material for them to do, so Price hints at better stuff off screen and then Schroeder’s not good enough at the on screen. Kiss of Death is its own worst enemy.
Michael Rapaport’s probably gives the film’s best performance as an annoying worm of a sociopath. Stanley Tucci’s fun as a righteous but greedy district attorney. Anthony Heald’s phenomenal as the mob lawyer. He gets two scenes. Just watching him and Tucci argue in front of a judge could carry a movie.
Lee Percy’s editing is a tad fast-paced. Trevor Jones’s music is a disaster.
Kiss of Death has too much potential, too little ambition, and some rather good performances (all things considered).
Directed by Barbet Schroeder; screenplay by Richard Price, based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky and the 1947 screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Lee Percy; music by Trevor Jones; production designer, Mel Bourne; produced by Schroeder and Susan Hoffman; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring David Caruso (Jimmy), Samuel L. Jackson (Calvin), Nicolas Cage (Little Junior), Helen Hunt (Bev), Kathryn Erbe (Rosie), Stanley Tucci (Zioli), Michael Rapaport (Ronnie), Anthony Heald (Gold) and Ving Rhames (Omar).