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Chopped to Death

The casting of Nicolas Cage as Little Junior in the thriller Kiss of Death might seem at first to be foolhardy. Cage as a bad guy? More specifically, a menacing, pumped-up sociopath? But as Little Junior, Cage isn't only convincing, he's a marvel. It's a shame his character is given little else to do other than look really upset and occasionally grab people by the neck. And it's even more of a shame that his character had to end up in such a complicated, overplotted and underrealized movie.

Kiss of Death would have benefited from a longer running time; trying to compact its intricate web of events and people into a mere 101 minutes only results in a choppy product with so-so thrills -- always a problem for a thriller -- and insufficient character development.

Kiss of Death is centered on Jimmy Kilmartin (David Caruso), a reformed car thief who's trying to make an honest living. Unfortunately, Kilmartin's two-faced cousin Ronnie plays on Kilmartin's good-at-heart nature to convince him to perform one last job. What should be a simple crime goes terribly awry, a cop is killed and Kilmartin lands in jail. It's only the first of many, many bad turns.

Once the wheels are set in motion, and Kilmartin faces the harsh cards dealt to him by fate, Kiss of Death promises to become intriguing. Caruso plays Kilmartin with enough intensity and vulnerability to forge a bond with the audience and dismissing any doubts about whether Mr. "Too Hot for TV" can hack it on the big screen. But as the story continues to unfold, its disjointed nature increases, as does the disenchantment.

Strike one: when Kilmartin is released from prison, he marries Rosie (Kathryn Erbe); highly unnerving, since the only thing established about her in the film's beginning is that she's Kilmartin's high school-age neighbor/baby sitter.

Strike two: the sudden change in Calvin (Samuel L. Jackson) from "I'll personally beat you to death" bitter cop to sympathetic father with a badge, for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Strike three: Little Junior's operation appears to be a small-time, inner-city outfit; yet when Kilmartin enters protective custody, Little Junior's power suddenly increases to major league mob proportions.

And to top it all off, Kiss of Death is soured by a tacked-on ending that's not only out of sync with a dark thriller, but also extremely heavy on the cheese factor, including a giving of the thumbs-up sign to Kilmartin at the conclusion.

It's likely that the footage that would have smoothed out the film's jumps ended up on the cutting room floor; the only question is why. Having received Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Director for Reversal of Fortune, Barbet Schroeder's an established player in the film business. And as the director of the disturbing Single White Female, he's no stranger to thrillers. All of which makes his stumbling as director here hard to explain.

However, Schroeder does manage to be successful with the film's visuals. He gives Kiss of Death a memorably lurid look, from the pretty-in-pink aura of Baby Cakes -- a gentlemen's club that's also Little Junior's base of operations -- to the earth tones that enshroud the majority of the film's action. And a few of the minor characters do manage to escape the gaps in the film's continuity, resulting in shiny -- albeit brief -- performances. Helen Hunt, for one, manages to win our sympathy despite having almost cameo-length screen time. And as Kilmartin's deceptive cousin Ronnie, Michael Rapaport -- who probably enjoys only a few minutes more than Hunt -- quickly gains our disgust.

But it's not enough. Watching Kiss of Death is much like trying to read a book that's missing a good chunk of its pages; there's enough there to keep you interested, but by the end you can't help but wonder about the parts that you've missed.

Kiss of Death.
Directed by Barbet Schroeder. With David Caruso, Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson.

Rated R.
101 minutes.

 
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