I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Kiss of Death (1995)

tn_kissofdeathThis is the kind of story that’s best to go in dark and just watch how things unfold. But I’m gonna have to describe some of it to explain the movie. At the start Jimmy (David Caruso) is on parole, he’s got a young daughter, and he and his wife (Helen Hunt) are both recovering alcoholics. She got a babysitter so they could go to a meeting together but he didn’t know that was the plan so he already went to a meeting by himself earlier. While he stays home watching the baby his cousin Ronnie (Michael Rappaport) shows up and begs him to come drive a truck loaded with stolen cars. Jimmy tries to throw Ronnie out (“I could go to jail just for talking to you”) but Ronnie has a broken finger and convinces his cousin that somebody’s gonna kill him if he doesn’t find a driver. And Jimmy’s the last on the list.

mp_kissofdeathOf course he shouldn’t do the job (let alone leave the kid with the sitter while his wife is at her meeting) but he does, and things go sour, and this is only the first of several reasons why this movie could be called WORST COUSIN IN THE WORLD. The story kept tripping me up, me not knowing what direction it would go next, but eventually it becomes the story of Jimmy forced to be an informant, trying to protect his family and take down the criminal empire of Little Junior Brown (a buffed up Nicolas Cage), who I swear to you on my samurai honor is introduced in a strip club trying to impress his father (Philip Baker Hall) by doing 40 bench presses of Hope Davis. Later we learn about his asthma and his fear of tasting metal (he can only use plastic utensils), which I’m thinking might’ve been a Cage contribution, although maybe not because it’s a perfect screenwriterly setup for Caruso putting a gun in his mouth later.

Cage doesn’t actually do that much mega-acting – definitely not like in his other KISS OF movie where it was the vampire that it was a kiss of. But there is a good mega-acting scene where he grieves by jumping up and down at the strip club like a one-man mosh pit. Junior is a good villain, a big mean lug, dumb enough to be tricked into beating a guy to death, smart enough to wear rain gear when he does it. He has a vulnerable side so you know as soon as he starts opening up to Jimmy that this fake frienship can only lead to trouble.

I feel stupid that I never watched this before. I always heard that it wasn’t very good. I can only assume that at the time people wanted it to be lighter and PULP FICTIONier. The trailer is on the DVD and it makes it look like quirky Elmore Leonard, like GET SHORTY. But really it’s more vicious Elmore Leonard like 52 PICKUP. Even if Ving Rhames is afraid of the color red.

Samuel L. Jackson (THE PHANTOM MENACE) plays an interesting character named Hart, a cop who got shot in the face while arresting Jimmy. His right eye is messed up and never stops watering, an endless mourning for his injury. The truth is Jimmy may have saved his life – he tried to stop the other guy from shooting, and the bullet went through his hand first. (An injury that seems to heal surprisingly well, I must admit. The old “TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3 railroad spikes through the hands that don’t have much of an effect” syndrome.) It seems like they should have a you saved my life sort of bond and I think they actually do, they just never admit it to each other. Hart seems to hate Jimmy and beats him up the next time he sees him. For his part Jimmy never brings it up, other than to say “I took the same bullet you did.” Not you owe me but we’re in the same boat. Ultimately Hart trusts and helps Jimmy, and I think that’s why.

I think Jimmy’s an interesting protagonist, because he’s basically a rat but you root for him the whole time. He was trying to just mind his own business but he got pushed into this mess, and now he’s going to get out. He’s not Rambo or Parker, he talks tough but he’s usually trapped. He just happens to be smart and brave enough to play everybody like chess pieces.

And Caruso pulls it off, he’s really good. The boyish deputy from FIRST BLOOD has grown up. I believe he got alot of shit for this because he left a popular TV show and then it didn’t turn him into an overnight movie superstar. But that’s not his fault. He has the chops and he has the presence, and he also had a real good role. Maybe he’s not ready for 40 bench presses of Hope Davis, but I think he could’ve done 10 squat thrusts of Lucy Liu. He was ready for movies, it was everybody else that wasn’t ready for him. He’s got nothing to be ashamed of here. Was he in anything else good? I’ll have to check.

The director is the Frenchman Barbet Schroeder, but to me it seems very American-style gritty. It’s written by Richard Price (CLOCKERS) based on an old film noir. I don’t know how the original plays out, but the structure of this one is perfect. It’s like a camera starting in closeup and slowly pulling back to show more and more of the surroundings. It starts intimately with this one character, but his world keeps getting bigger and bigger. First just him and his family in their little apartment, then his cousin and his little chop shop operation, then the police that are after his cousin, then Little Junior Brown and his empire, and the other people he’s working with, and the feds who are after them… the circles around Jimmy get bigger and bigger, but at the center it’s just this one guy and his desire to shake all those circles and be with his family.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 5th, 2010 at 3:04 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

51 Responses to “Kiss of Death (1995)”

  1. Vern – I know only of two other Caruso pictures. That SESSION 9 which got some good reviews at the time. And of course HUDSON HAWK.

  2. Don’t forget Jade RRA. I remember that as being pretty awful though.

  3. caruso_stalker217

    February 5th, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Caruso is the shit in HUDSON HAWK.

  4. odo19 – Yeah not one of William Friedkin’s better days. Still not as embarrasing him as that baby-eating tree movie he did.

    I need to watch HUDSON HAWK again because I remembered it being a real mess, and not the SANDINISTA! admirable kind.

  5. The original KISS OF DEATH is worth seeing for Richard Widmark’s great performance as a homicidal lunatic. He does something to an old lady in a wheelchair that you don’t expect to see in a movie from 1947. You should check it out sometime. Just try not to get too bummed out by the obviously-tacked-on-at-the-last-minute happy ending.

  6. Jade actually managed to turn me off Linda Fiorentino. After The Last Seduction, that’s a hell of a feat.

    Kiss of Death was pretty awesome though. Very tight.

  7. Kiss of Death was not too bad, but Horatio ain’t ever topped Hudson Hawk, still an underappreciated classic.

    Only now are people starting to realise just what they were missing (or didn’t get the first time around because they thought Bruce Willis in the 90’s meant another Die Hard)

    You gotta feel for the man and his quest for a quiet life and cup of Italian coffee.

  8. David Caruso movies: Guys! How can you forget Abel Ferara’s great KING OF NEW YORK?!

  9. CC – goddammit you’re right, how could we forget KING OF NEW YORK?

    Back also when Wesley Snipes was a good actor, not wasting his time with the action bullshit.

  10. Or An Officer and a Gentleman? Caruso almost drowns and gets mouth-to-mouth revived from Louis Gossett Jr. That’s fearless acting in ’82 if you ask me. Oh, and Caruso was fantastic in Proof of Life as Russell Crowe’s sidekick. He had more chemistry with Crowe than Meg Ryan did, and I don’t think they were even having sex in real life.

    And Vern – I think I read somewhere Cage threw in the asthma gimmick b/c his son is asthmatic and he wanted to show him that people with asthma can still be strong. Which is a pretty sweet gesture, but kinda gave Junior about one quirk too many if you ask me.

  11. I saw Kiss of Death in the theater and fell asleep. I then rented it on VHS and fell asleep. I then tried watching it when it was on HBO and then fell asleep.

    Of coarse I also believe Hudson Hawk to be the most underrated movie ever.

  12. Wow alot of HUDSON HAWK fans here.

    Vern, you’ve got to review that.

    No no, don’t bother with another recent DTV release or some obscure foreign Z-movie. Review HUDSON HAWK.

    Or WHERE EAGLES DARE, one of those two. HUDSON just to see if you agree with most folks that it’s bullshit, or a cartoon that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

  13. That was Hope Davis? No shit?

    Hey, I fell asleep, too! Or maybe “passed-out” is more accurate. I should give it another try.

    KING OF NEW YORK may be DC’s greatest hour. (Actually, I think it’s a little longer than that, but I still like it.) And SESSION 9 is one of my favorite horror films of the last decade. He basically just stayed out of the way in that one, but sometimes that’s what acting is about.

    So far, everyone has forgotten a little movie he did with the guy from MEATBALLLS and the guy from BULLWINKLE and the gal from BATMAN & ROBIN.

  14. Has everyone seen this? It’s kinda mean, but I laughed.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glvGfQnx3DI

  15. Vern: If I remember correctly, critics and audiences expressed disappointment in this movie not so much because it wasn’t like PULP FICTION, but because it didn’t fulfill the promise Caruso showed on NYPD BLUE. These films came out after DESTINY TURNS ON THE RADIO. People were beginning to get tired of witty crime films.

    His other film from about the same year, JADE, pretty much set the stage for critics to savage his movie career; in my opinion, this backlash had more to do with Caruso being perceived as a prick for asking for more money than it did his talent. Having said that, JADE is pretty awful.

    Anyone seen MAD DOG & GLORY recently? I always wondered if that one held up. I remember Caruso being good in that one, playing the kind of goofy loyal friend. He didn’t play that kind of role much. It’s possible he stole the film from both de Niro and Bill Murray.

  16. The only thing I know about Mad Dog and Glory is that Ebert hated, hated, hated that movie.

    Also, I would agree that Hudson Hawk is a cartoon that works (most of the time) and doesn’t work. But it still really really rules.

  17. Lawrence,

    You’re thinking of MAD DOG TIME. Ebert liked MAD DOG AND GLORY a lot.

    And Caruso is pretty badass in that one, in a small role.

  18. Proof. of. Life. Totally underrated. A good solid entertainment throughout but the final shot is a real classic. Plus Caruso and Russell Crowe make a bad ass team.

  19. A.R. – Is PROOF OF LIFE really that decent? Maybe its one of those unlucky bastards who got the shaft in that as a movie, people talked about everything but the movie at the time.

    Anyway, yeah I’ll go check it out now. Thanks guys.

  20. I love Kiss Of Death! I remember how I saw it one Sunday evening on TV, because there was seriously nothing better on and got pretty much blown away by it!
    But I second your Pulp Fiction theory, just because Pulp Fiction ruined a big part of cinema since it came out and still isn’t completely done with causing damage.

  21. CJ – Another good example of a movie getting fucked by this PULP FICTION theory, is James Mangold’s pretty decent COPLAND.

  22. I also remember an interview with Don Coscarelli from the late 90’s, in which he mentioned how difficult it was to sell a horror script at that time, because every studio was just looking for talky gangster movies.

  23. mad dog and glory is an awesome little flick by the director of henry: portrait of a serial killer. i dont know why it doesnt get more love. role reversal between de niro and murray’s screen personas is an inspired choice. david caruso is pretty badass in it. and murray’s “expeditor of your dreams” and “turn your life into a raging sea” (something like that) are classic.

  24. I’ll bet if Caruso had just cooled his jets and done one more full season of NYPD Blue as good as the first one (which still holds up pretty damn well for network TV), I’ll bet he would’ve gotten better movie scripts and might still be a credible leading man in movies today. I always really liked him in the John Kelly role, I think he nailed that.

    Seems like a lot of people make fun of him in CSI: Miami, but that show has been on forever for some reason or another.

    I didn’t think Proof of Life was anything special. Not bad, just nothing special. I’d call it watchable. I think Meg & Russell only have 1 kiss in it so the romance between them at the time has very little onscreen impact.

  25. Yeah Proof of Life was apparently cut in the editing room to tone down the romance aspect, so when Crowe and Ryan kiss out of nowhere towards the end, it’s like “wait, huh?” (kinda like when Eva Mendes and Paul Walker kiss in 2 Fast 2 Furious).

    But yeah, the last 10 minutes when it suddenly becomes Rainbow Six: The Movie is pretty awesome.

  26. Don’t want to overrate it. It’s a fun time at the movies that got lost in all the celebrity gossip, but as a throw-away studio movie, it acts as the bare minimum. As in, if you’re a major studio and you’re going to make a movie just because that’s the business you’re in, it needs to have at least as much going for it as Proof of Life.

    1) A qualified writer and director. Tony Gilroy and Taylor Hackford qualify.

    2) Esoteric emotional situations. You have a fight with your spouse in the morning and as they drive to work they’re kidnapped and held for months. That’s going to cause a lot of turmoil and is a good set-up for a film. And then the sexy soldier-for-hire comes in and complicates things. Unfortunately Meg Ryan is weak in this department.

    3) An interesting, real-life topic to dramatize, preferably with jargon. The movie provides a nifty little vocab lesson (proof of life, k&r, etc.) and a dramatizion of that rarified field. The film works best in those procedural scene.

    4) A couple of strong/memorable performances. Russell Crowe and David Caruso in this case. Caruso gets a fun, showy role but Crowe makes a meal out of subtle badassery. He’s not badass because of what he can do. He can kick ass but that’s not his objective. He’s got the strength and confidence to deal smoothly with desperate kidnappers. Which is very attractive to a woman in exreme, prolonged emotional upheaval. But he only briefly acts on it in a moment of personal weakness. He’s badass because of what he’s strong enough not to do. He’s noble and heroic. On that level, it’s a very mature idea made for an adult audience.

    5) Action-oriented third act. The film is actually bookended by action sequences. The first is brief and minor by necessity. You want to get on with the main story but it gives the audience a taste of the cinematically-satisfying extraction (“extra-action”) portion of the industry that the film will eventually expand upon.

    Bonus) Symbolism. Not essential to the film but thrown in as extra entertainment. It’s seeded throughout but is most overt during the extraction sequence, which is unexpected and appreciated.

    And of course, the last shot. Not going to spoil it, but it is quietly effective. A character does the right thing. It does not benefit him personally but it is the honorable thing to do. Cue melancholy Van Morrison music. Helicopter out. Credits. Movie.

    And that’s what you need to get The Ancient Romans to the cinema. Many movies have gone into production with less.

  27. Caruso in King Of New York is pretty awesome. His character is a live wire that loses control as the film goes on, which goes against his usual style of playing it cool. Also, see Ferrara’s China Girl from a couple of years before that. He has a good bit in it where he screams with rage while firing an uzi. No Horatio Caine.

    Mad Dog and Glory is where he plays cynical cop and has the line ‘two dead mutts in mutt land. Five o’clock. Time to go home’. Dunno why, always thought it was pretty cool the way he says it.

    More recently, he did a CSI miami episode opposite Tom Sizemore as the bad guy. By God, it was like the Godzilla Vs Mothra of ham acting.

  28. Poor Paul Calderon is uncredited in this movie, wonder if he was originally supposed to play Calvin but then… oh well.

    Actually, this is one of those where they populated the cast with working actors so every scene has a cameo by somebody you’ve seen in something if you watch a lot of movies. I always like that.

  29. it seems this killer….
    [puts glasses on]
    has been Caged.
    YEEEEEEEEAHHHHHH

  30. and I just have to say:
    GENTLEMEN, lets broaden our minds – Lawrence!

  31. Anyone remember when Caruso played an Irish gang leader on HILL STREET BLUES who dressed like something out of THE WARRIORS? He also did work on TJ HOOKER, RYAN’S HOPE and CHIPS. So the seeds of ham acting were planted early in Mr. Sunglasses, methinks.

    But there’s no shame in that. Anyone ever see Jack Nicholson on the ANDY GRIFFITH show? Not his finest moment.

    Films I didn’t know Caruso was in:

    AN OFFICER & A GENTLEMAN
    TWINS
    CRIME STORY

    He’s also credited as playing the role of “Mr. Softy’s roommate” in some film called SWIRLEE that I’ve never heard of. That’s one of those imdb credits that is probably more fun to read than to watch. If any of you fine folks encounter a guy on another internet message board with the nickname “Mr. Softy’s Roommate,” that’ll be me. I got dibs.

  32. Okay, I just read a synopsis of SWIRLEE: “A city dwelling man with a giant ice cream cone for a head tries to commit suicide by melting in a warm bath.”

    That’s awesome.

  33. Damn, I thought for years that Caruso was in the Tobe Hooper-directed “Tales From The Crypt” episode with Whoopie Goldberg and John Rhys-Davies, because in the end someone gets killed because he has red hair. Turns out that it was James Remar. But it’s been something like 15 years since I saw it.

  34. I have to throw my hat into several rings here:

    Kiss of Death: Totally underrated and the best Jackson/Cage movie not named Amos and Andrew.

    Hudson Hawk: I thought I was the only one who liked this movie. Thank God I’m not.

    Jade: I thought I was the only one who liked this movie. I guess I still am. Some solid car chases and decent Angie Everhart sex scenes = good times to me.

    Proof of Life: A good-but-coulda-been-great movie. As good as Caruso is, David Morse steals the flick and got the best line of the movie when he told his kidnapper: “I’ll tear your world apart in five seconds without breaking a sweat!”

  35. CJ: “Red King takes Black Queen!” Classic Crypt.

  36. jack burton – actually, this thread was making me think of AMOS AND ANDREW before you mentioned it. since you seem to be one of the handful of people who’ve actually seen it, how is it? any good? i caught bits and pieces of it on cable, and it seemed like it had potential. didn’t seem as bad as it’s putrid reputation. it’s got nic cage in wacky comedy mode – something we don’t get often enough – and it’s got sam jackson just when people were starting to realize what an asset he was to any movie (this was before he kind of lessened his impact by making the decision to be in every film ever made – well, at least he or brian cox is in every single film that is ever made on the earth).

    i love HUDSON HAWK, too. there’s lots to like in it, but i would like to highlight the typically scene-stealing performance from richard e. grant.

    i thought PROOF OF LIFE was quite good for what it was. it avoided all the treacliness that you would expect; crowe, caruso, and morse are all really good as mentioned; and i even didn’t hate meg ryan in it.

  37. David Caruso has the funniest moment in Hudson Hawk – when he’s stood behind Bruce Willis, aping his rant,
    when Bruce punches him in the face without looking. Caruso is able to convey “yeah, you’re right…I deserved that”
    without saying a word…

  38. Amos and Andrew is a so-so movie that is OK if seen at 3 AM. It’s worth seeing because of the two stars but it isn’t especially memorable or laugh-out-loud funny.

  39. Jack Burton – you are not the only making a stand JADE. I think it´s one of the more entertaining so called “erotic thrillers” of the 90´s. By that I am in no way trying to imply that it actually is erotic but I always thought it was pretty good. It continued the fien tradition of William Friedkin-directed car chases and while it doesn´t hold a candle to either FRENCH CONNECTION or TO DIE AND LIVE IN L.A., it´s pretty original in that it has to be one of the slowest car chases ever filmed.
    I also remember that Friedkin edited himself into the movie for a frame or two, “Mel Gibson-in-the-trailer-for-APOCALYPTO”-style. It´s a shame that Linda Fiorentino isn´t particularly active these days. She was the shit back then.

  40. I think HUDSON HAWK is so weird it is off-putting. I’m not saying it is terrible but man, some things in it are so far out of left field that it doesn’t work. Andy McDowell talking to the Pope through the intercom crucifix springs to mind, it’s just a crazy scene and not crazy good. Also Bruce falling out of a truck right into the seat at the cafe with McDowell where he was supposed to meet her for lunch. It breaks audience plausibility rule #1: People are willing to accept the impossible, but not the improbable. Things like this undermine a movie, though it isn’t too bad here since it isn’t supposed to be taken seriously anyway. (The way Kirk meets old Spock in STAR TREK made my head hurt.)

    I didn’t realize Caruso was Kit Kat (been years since I’ve seen it). No wonder I always thought that character was creepy.

  41. I know what you mean, Rainman. Personally I love Hudson Hawk, but a few scenes do go too far. The “kicking Bruce Willis in the front and back so he gets stuck bobbing up and down” scene at the end still stands as the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a big budget Hollywood movie. But of course that’s part of its charm I guess.

  42. 10 squat thrusts of Lucy Liu. Classic. We should start a whole catgory on celebrity workouts. How many Zoe Saldanas could you curl? I think I could leg press Mila Kunis, Elisha Cuthbert and Zooey Deschanel all together.

    This movie’s on Netflix instant. Was considering watching it again. Haven’t seen it since it came out.

  43. PROOF OF LIFE practically got me into Van Morrison. I think it was on in the middle of the night on HBO, caught the last 10-15 minutes of it maybe. Then the song (“I’ll Be Your Lover, Too”) came on and I was absolutely mesmerized. I thought at the time it was something he cut for the film, and forgot about it. To my amazement I discovered he’d recorded it 30 years earlier for the “His Band And The Street Choir” album in 1970.

  44. So this one’s leaving Netflix Instant at the end of the month – I remember kinda hating it and being underwhelmed by an anti-climactic finale, but decided to give it another try and whaddya know? It’s not a masterpiece but it’s incredibly interesting and I actually liked it alot this time.

    Caruso is great, you literally don’t see leading men like him anymore – he has a weird line delivery and speaking style but it’s fascinating to watch, almost like Christopher Walken or Peter Sarsgaaard. His character doesn’t do anything particularly badass- he never kills anyone, he loses the big fight, he wears really baggy clothes and his body looks positively normal when he takes his shirt off (which he actually takes off multiple times!) In an age when every shirtless character has a six pack even if they’re supposed to be playing an artist or a nerd, it’s refreshing to see someone like this onscreen.

    I think sometimes watching movies years later helps because you don’t compare them so much to similar films of the time, and also b/c you kinda forget how famous or not someone was. I wasn’t a Cage fan back in ’95 but I did think it was weird how little a star like him was in this movie. A second watch fixes that; he’s in the movie just enough to develop his character, but held back enough to keep him mysterious and dangerous.

    Anyway, it’s a good, quick watch with a few decent lines and a surprisingly touching relationship between Sam Jackson and Caruso. I’m glad I revisited this one.

  45. Yeah, Cage said in an interview that he struggled with the darkness of this character. He’d just come off going Full Method in DEATH BY ALCOHOL and was really wiped out. Good thing he got that Michael Bay joint the following year to lighten things up a bit (followed by the ridiculous but thoroughly satisfying CON AIR, and BEST FUCKIN MOVIE EVER).

  46. Have I ever mentioned that I’ve tried watching this twice and fell asleep both times. Don’t need to try for a third but I’m glad you’re reporting it isn’t bad.

  47. You seem to fall asleep during a lot of movies, Sternshein. You should have that checked out.

  48. Perhaps these movies shouldn’t be boring as fuck.

  49. Watch your ass Sternshein. The Michael Bay’s of this world prey on your kind. You have been warned.

  50. In which case Michael Bay is Dr Caligari manipulating his sleepwalkers.

  51. Peoface, you’re right.

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