Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Lost Gems: "Kiss of Death" (1995)

The unfortunate reality of popular culture is that we often forget about the minor or hidden gems. The box office smashes and the Oscar winners occupy most of our memories when it comes to movie history.

Movies like “Kiss of Death,” the ensemble 1995 remake (re)written by novelist Richard Price, which received mostly positive critic reviews but tanked in theaters, faded into the ether despite numerous great qualities.

For those who don’t know or never saw (which must’ve been quite a lot of you), “Kiss of Death” follows the story of Jimmy Kilmartin, a down-on-his-luck ex-con. Kilmartin is played by David Caruso, who pissed off the entire universe by leaving the bold and groundbreaking “NYPD Blue” after a single year, basically flipping off the very vehicle that shot him into the troposphere of stardom.

I always enjoyed Caruso’s acting. He had that bitter smoulder thing working... although after a while it’s clear he’s got the emotional expression range of Kristin Stewart. But his Jimmy Kilmartin brings it just fine. And he’s surrounded by some actors doing their best (or most fun) work.

There’s Michael Rapaport, playing his screw-up skeezy boyhood pal who pulls Jimmy back into the mire, gets him thrown back in jail, stiffs Jimmy’s poor wife and then takes the betrayal to another level of ick. I won’t say Rapaport is a great actor, but I love him in movies, and I’m thrilled he’s going to be a part of season 5 of “Justified.” He’s almost so dopey that he’s mesmerizing. I watch him like Chris stares at C.D.’s nose in “Roxanne.” I can’t help it.

There’s Stanley Tucci, who plays the DA. Some critics call him sleazy, but I just call him one of the most accurate representations of a politician/lawyer in film. He’s cruel and insensitive and practical and could care less about lying to anyone. But what makes his role so delicious is the sparkle in Tucci’s eye as he works it. This is a real person. And it’s probably the most enjoyable and memorable role in the movie. (His “chickpeas” line is cinematic gold, delivered supremely.)

There’s Samuel Jackson in one of his most subdued roles, as a good cop with a grudge against Kilmartin. There’s Philip Baker Hall as the ailing mob boss. There’s Helen Hunt as Kilmartin’s stranded wife.

And then there’s Nicholas Cage as “Little Junior.” Critics ate Cage’s portrayal up. He’s not my favorite part, but he’s got some great moments and some even greater lines, and he is well-portrayed as both streetwise and book stupid. It can be difficult for some actors to pull off both at the same time, to look stupid without being foolish.

An early story arc for Boyd Crowder on the super-awesome TV show “Justified” involves him trying desperately to clean up and be good. Unfortunately, episode after episode, no one believes his aim is genuine, and everyone keeps trying to pull him back into his evil ways. He can only keep the faith in his own goodness for so long until he caves to what the world expects of him and goes back to crookin’.

Kilmartin, on the other hand, genuinely wants to reform himself. He wants to be a dad, to live on the outside of a cell, to leave alone and be left alone. And his motive, his goal never changes in the film.

It’s strange, but this makes Kilmartin an unusual modern protagonist. In a time when main characters in TV and movie are caught in webs similar to Kilmartin, they’re all actively wrestling with their dark sides, and they’re usually losing, and the fun is that the writers are screwing with the viewers, getting us to root for people who don’t really deserve to be rooted for.

Kilmartin, on the other hand, never wavers from his mission of reforming himself even while those around him use him like a rag doll. A con man who only gets his hands dirty in order to get them clean, even as no one trusts him, likes him, or believes whether he really wants to fly right.

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