Sets trump story in 'Kiss of Death'

By Doug Cummings

Arizona Daily Wildcat

While some thrillers are fashionable exercises in cinematic style, others simply grab the viewer through straightforward action and intense performances. "Kiss of Death" is one of those films. Based very loosely on the 1947 film noir of the same name, the film presents its story with a keen eye for urban locations and threatening personas.

David Caruso ("NYPD Blue") plays Jimmy Kilmartin, a family man with a shady past who helps his cousin Ronnie (Michael Rappaport) pull off a car theft in order to protect him from Little Junior (Nicolas Cage), one of Ronnie's

bosses. The plan runs afoul and Jimmy is sent to prison where the authorities, Frank (Stanley Tucci) and Calvin (Samuel L. Jackson), try to convince him to indict Little Junior and his associates. But knowing that Little Junior is fiercely violent, Jimmy debates whether to testify and endanger his wife and daughter, Bev (Helen Hunt) and Corrina (Katie Sagona).

The film emphasizes the taught relationships between its characters and the violence that broils beneath the surface. In virtually every scene in which Little Junior appears, he beats someone up or forces them to undergo some grueling action. Much of Little Junior's threatening presence is due to Cage's startling performance.

The movie brings the viewer into Jimmy's fears by stressing Little Junior's wickedness and the innocence of Jimmy's family. Unfortunately, the two major female characters, Bev and her baby-sitter, Rosie (Kathryn Erbe), do not have much of a purpose in the plot other than to serve as suspense devices. They're only in the movie to be vulnerable and their two-dimensionality is frustrating in a film that prides itself on presenting vivid male characters.

Director Barbet Shroeder ("Single White Female") downplays the complex camera choreography that adorns many contemporary thrillers and instead focuses on the film's urban setting. The movie exhibits a washed-out visual tone, and the various locations, from a sprawling junk yard to Jimmy's lower-middle class apartment, reflect a tangible urban reality.

David Caruso exhibits a hardened-yet-vulnerable quality that works in most of his individual scenes, but unfortunately fails to develop much emotional relevance throughout the movie. The film is so intent on depicting Jimmy's benevolence, and his struggles to extract himself from turmoil, that it doesn't leave enough time for him to develop much of a personality.

However, despite its flaws, "Kiss of Death's" memorable supporting performances and realistic veneer elevate it into a laudable thriller.

"Kiss of Death" is showing at Century Park 16, 620-0750.

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