In the John Wayne ‘40s, we had heroes. In the Dustin Hoffman ‘70s, we had anti-heroes, good men with big problems. In the ‘90s, we’re developing anti-antiheroes, guys with sympathetic faces but major moral complexion flaws.
Mostly, they’re crooks trying to go straight (think Al Pacino in “Carlito’s Way,” Nicolas Cage in “Red Rock West”), and we’re on their side because we sense these nice guys really don’t want to be knocking over banks and carving up orphans. The latest in this new breed of whatever is David Caruso, who plays a reformed hood drawn back into a life of crime in “Kiss of Death.”
Caruso took a lot of grief for bailing on TV’s “NYPD Blue” to try to become a movie star, but he’s done a smart thing here. In “Kiss of Death,” he plays a role almost identical to his “NYPD Blue” character, except that he’s on the other side of the badge. Caruso holds the screen, and his peculiar calm draws you into this taut, energetic crime drama.
But the real star of “Kiss of Death” is Nicolas Cage, taking the splashy role Richard Widmark played in the original “Kiss of Death” in 1947. Widmark was a demented hood who cackled as he shoved an old lady in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs. Cage has a quieter take on the role. Most of the time, his trembling voice is trying desperately to conceal a world of fury. I can’t think of another actor gifted enough to play this sociopath as well as the nice guy in last year’s “It Could Happen to You.” Half the time, Cage reminds you of Jimmy Stewart; the rest of the time, it’s Hitler.
“Kiss of Death” works only if Cage is the scariest man alive and, with his basketball-sized biceps, he is. Director Barbet Schroeder keeps things moving, drawing Caruso into a caper that’s headed straight for the slammer. When he gets out of SingSing, the cops make him sing, because they need Caruso to get Cage.
It’s a crackerjack story, well told, but it’s showing its age. “Kiss of Death” will remind you of Brian DePalma’s “Carlito’s Way,” as well as every movie Martin Scorsese ever made (OK, not “The Age of Innocence”). It’s all about codes of honor and women who are about as useful as stuffed animals and, good as it is, for my money, you’re better off with a video of the better-made, more stylish DePalma film.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Kiss of Death” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Barbet Schroeder, starring David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson Running time: 1:41 Rating: R