Kiss of Death is full of famous actors: Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Philip Baker Hall, Helen Hunt, David Caruso, Anthony Heald, Michael Rapaport, Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci, Hope Davis. Some of these actors have roles in the film that seem inconsequential, or which exist only to further plot points that remain hidden to the casual viewer. And so the movie feels over-loaded and taking on water.
I didn’t really realize what exactly the problem with the film was until I read some other critics’ takes on the film. Just take a look at Junior Brown (Cage) for a moment, won’t you? He’s a weight-lifter, paranoid, deeply in love with his father, asthmatic, loves acronyms, likes the song “Jump Around” by House of Pain, and can’t stand the taste of metal. How many of these facts are important to the plot? Very few. Similarly, the movie as a whole has a lot of things going on, but when you pare it down… what is really important?
What’s really important is Jimmy Kilmartin (Caruso), who gets thrown in jail after agreeing to do “one last job” for his cousin Ronnie (Rapaport). Kilmartin, in an effort to get his life back on track and leave his criminal record behind, decides to work with the cops. When he is released, he hangs around the sadistic Junior Brown, who is the new head of the city’s crime syndicate. Kilmartin, unfortunately, may or may not be getting played by both sides; he never knows who he can trust, who is out to get him. Before long, his family gets dragged into his troubles and then things really get personal.
Caruso is supposed to be playing a suave sort of bad-ass. He’s the poor man’s Kevin Bacon, basically. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do a very good job of balancing the two parts of his persona and Jimmy ends up seeming mostly meek a lot of the time – despite talking about being a bad-ass, we never really get to see much of it. He’s just a family man who has been pulled into this seedy underworld, not an old expert who is taking the wheel again.
It’s probably not unfair to say that Cage over-acts his role as Junior Brown; he chews the scenery like he’s got jaws made of steel. But, dammit, that’s what makes the character so fun – and honestly, it’s why the movie remains entertaining beyond its uncompelling protagonist’s journey. Cage is wacky without being cartoonish, and even though I am a Nic Cage apologist, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he totally steals the show.
There’s a lot of emphasis on Kilmartin’s strategy in trying to end up with the resolution that he wants. He refuses to rat out Ronnie at first, for differing reasons, waiting until the time is right for it to benefit him most. For all of this thoughtfulness, and in spite of a plot twist late in the movie that ought to have been more important than it was, the actual resolution of the film was remarkably disappointing. All of the effort that had come before was rendered useless by an ending which was hackneyed and boring. I don’t want to give away the ending, but here’s one reason that it was less than electrifying: one character is given a time limit to reach a certain destination, but then finds the traffic so bad that he will not be able to reach the destination in time. Does this pose any problem at all? No. The fact of the traffic jam doesn’t come into play at all regarding the finale. It’s just superfluous.
Kiss of Death is not a bad film. It’s an entertaining movie, probably a good rent, and certainly worth seeing if you are a Nic Cage fan like myself. The film’s real problems are in its uncharismatic lead actor and those insignificant characters and events. They turn what could be a gripping movie into a merely passable one. Ain’t no shame in being just okay, but ain’t no glory there either.