Cage Examination #22: Kiss of Death

Film: Kiss of Death
Demeanor: Bug-eyed fits of rage broken up by periodic moments of oddball lucidity.
Hair Quality: Largely overshadowed by the quality of Cage’s goatee, which is magnificent.
Performance Quality: Seven Cages Out of Ten. 

Little Junior Brown is a very strange character.

I mean this both in the colloquial “Man, what a character!” sense, as well as on a conceptual level. As a construct created by a writer to inflict menace and/or comedy relief on a protagonist, Brown is only effective in fits and starts. This is not necessarily the fault of Our Greatest Living Actor, who portrayed brown in the 1995 crime thriller Kiss of Death. However, given the sheer volume of peculiar ticks and inexplicable character traits stuffed into Brown’s dialogue, I do have an inkling that he was involved in shaping some of this character’s tone and demeanor.

Perhaps it was director Barbet Schroeder’s will that Brown, the heir apparent to a New York crime family of indeterminate national origin (I think they might all be Irish?), have an affinity for bench-pressing strippers in his family-owned nightclub. Maybe Cage had nothing to do with Brown’s penchant for crafting acronyms, asking tactless philosophical questions, nor his anxiety over the thought of anything metal being in his mouth. Maybe his pile of character quirks came from other sources. But knowing Cage as well as I think I do by this point in our series, I highly doubt it.

It seems especially suspect given how generally straightforward and dull much of the rest of Kiss of Death is. Theoretically a remake of a 1947 film of the same name, Schroeder’s Kiss of Death is at once a deathly serious “one last job” crime movie and a tale of a man “pushed to the brink” by nefarious forces. The brink-pushed man doing the one last job, in this case, is an old Irish mob thug who has gotten out of the life of crime. But when a cousin of his bangs down his door one night pleading for his help driving a truck full of stolen cars, he finds himself unable to resist the temptation. And then everything goes terribly, horribly wrong.

Before I get into documenting exactly how everything goes pear-shaped, I think a timeout must be taken to explain that the aforementioned reformed thug is played by David Caruso. Fresh off his time on NYPD Blue and angling to make a legit run at a film career, Kiss of Death marked the actor’s first starring role in a movie. And watching Kiss of Death, it’s pretty easy to see why Caruso’s film career tanked nearly as quickly as it began. 

Caruso is pretty much only capable of playing some variation of David Caruso. That’s fine for some actors like Christopher Walken or Dennis Hopper, because playing themselves usually results in some insanely memorable piece of weirdness that sticks with the audience. Caruso is not these actors. He’s not even close. He’s a fiery-headed bore, better at giving steely glares and the occasional goofy one-liner than actually…you know…acting. In some ways, he is very much the anti-Nicolas Cage. Where Cage is often accused of overreaching, Caruso is a chronic under-reacher. 

There are times and places for a David Caruso performance. NYPD Blue suited him just fine, and CSI: Miami managed to wring a couple of memes out of him, at least. But in Kiss of Death, Caruso is too mannered, too visibly tough to actually be tough. He’s just pretending, while others around him actually act. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his scenes with Cage. Cage, for all his mannerisms and excitable energy, acts. He buries himself into whatever ludicrous human being he is trying to portray. It doesn’t matter how stupid it looks, he believes in it, dammit. And Cage is in stupid overdrive here.

Junior Brown’s thick Queens accent, his desperately weird conversation etiquette, his…everything, it’s all ridiculous. Nothing about it feels authentic, and yet you can’t quite take your eyes off Cage because if nothing else, he’s bought in. Caruso doesn’t even look bought in to his middle-of-the-road ex-con character. He doesn’t seem to be bought in either to his marriage to Helen Hunt (before she’s brutally murdered—not a complaint) nor Katherine Erbe, who you may remember from that second-tier Sixth Sense knockoff starring Kevin Bacon, and that one Law & Order series you think you might have seen that one time it came on after an SVU marathon, but can’t really remember anything about.

He’s just a dead stare with snarling fits of vengeance. He looks weak even when confronting Michael Rapaport (who plays his cousin). If Michael Rapaport looks more authentically tough than you in a movie, you’ve lost the battle.

Kiss of Death is largely dull, unimaginative, and, like its first-billed star’s film career, is doomed from the beginning. Only Cage, and a brief but memorably coked-out appearance from a post-Marsellus Wallace Ving Rhames, stand out in any meaningful way. When Nicolas Cage isn’t pouring his heart out about his aversion to metal objects in his mouth to a dumbstruck Caruso, he’s literally bench-pressing Hope Davis. It’s an over-the-top gem of a performance in a movie that’s often suffocatingly dull. As to whether it’s worth braving the dull bits in favor of seeing what Cage does, nah. There are better examples of this type of behavior in his back catalog, and there’s better to come still.

Yes, better even than this.

Random Thoughts:

  • I suppose I can’t say nothing else in Kiss of Death stood out to me, since I did remember how bad Helen Hunt was. Helen, I’m afraid “blue collar crime wife” isn’t a look nor a personality that suits you. Twister didn’t really work for you, either.
  • I’ve been extremely hard on David Caruso, so I don’t want you to think I outright hate the guy. He’s just our generation’s William Shatner, except without all the spoken word craziness. There are places where he fits as an actor. Leading man isn’t one of them.
  • I somehow never managed to mention Samuel L. Jackson’s role in all of this as a cop who gets shot in the face early on, and spends the rest of the movie wiping involuntary tears from his eye. That’s right. He took a bullet to the face, and now he can’t stop crying. And he is PISSED about it.
  • Sorry for the ridiculously long delay between entries. I needed a break. I was burned out. However, since you’ve been so patient with me, you’ll be getting two entries a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, until I’m caught up. Glad to be back.

Next Time: Leaving Las Vegas

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    Sooooo happy this one is up.
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