Rage in the Cage

I hope all the hue and cry over David Caruso's decision to bolt from TV's NYPD Blue to pursue a career as a leading man in Hollywood does not muffle the bang made by Nicolas Cage in Caruso's first film since the split. Cage is in peak form in Kiss of Death, the liberally updated remake of the 1947 film noir classic that starred Victor Mature and Richard Widmark in the roles currently assumed by Caruso and Cage, respectively. It would be a damn shame if the hype surrounding Caruso's appearance detracts in any way from the praise Cage deserves for his feral, incendiary tour de force.

Not that the carrot-topped ex-TV cop fails to carry his weight. Caruso acquits himself admirably as the stoic, put-upon ex-con whose loyalty to his family proves to be his Achilles heel. The redhead digs into the role of Jimmy Kilmartin, a reformed car thief and recovering alcoholic who has gone straight and dry for the sake of his wife, Bev (Helen Hunt), and his baby daughter. Enter Ronnie (Michael Rapaport), Jimmy's no-good cousin, who desperately needs to locate a driver to transport a shipment of stolen cars from his chop shop to the docks, where they will be loaded onto boats and shipped overseas. If Jimmy doesn't take the job, Ronnie is a dead man. Much as he despises Ronnie, Jimmy agrees to help him out, and in so doing initiates a sequence of events that eventually will escalate into blackmail, betrayal, revenge, double-cross, and, of course, murder. Lots of murder.

Solid though Caruso's acting may be, Cage steals the film as the malevolent Little Junior, with a bravura performance of chilling menace, violent intensity, and childlike innocence, finally realizing all the potential his work in Raising Arizona and Wild at Heart demonstrated. His Little Junior here is equal parts sinew, instinct, and Freudian puzzle. One minute Little Junior pummels a suspected snitch to death with his fist, the next minute he gets teary-eyed at the thought of his father's (Big Junior, naturally) asthma. Violence gushes out of Little Junior in torrents; Cage does an incredible job of baring both his fangs and his soft spots, and in so doing creates an indelible portrait of an all-too-believable sociopath.

While novelist-screenwriter Richard Price has an admirable string of motion pictures to his credit --he Wanderers, The Color of Money, Sea of Love --is adaption of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer's original Kiss of Death stands as his crowning cinematic achievement. Dialogue always has been Price's metier; never has his ear been keener, his eye for detail sharper, or his sense of place and character more acute. The only similarity between his blueprint and the movie made from Hecht and Lederer's script is the central narrative conceit of an ex-felon using his knowledge of the underworld to exact revenge on the one-time criminal cohorts who've betrayed him. Price convincingly makes the case that a homicidal psychotic like Little Junior lives by a far stricter code of honor than the overzealous D.A. or the unscrupulous feds who want to nab the con at any cost in an effort to further their careers.

Author Price and director Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune, Single White Female) share credit for the palpable aura of societal decay and moral ambiguity that permeates the modern Kiss. From the bleak opening panorama of acres and acres of rusting, eviscerated cars languishing in an auto salvage yard located in the shadows of Shea Stadium to the garish pink neon exteriors of Baby Cakes, the strip club that Little and Big Junior operate as a cover for their disparate criminal enterprises, Price and Schroeder rub our noses in the rancid, decomposing corpse of the American dream.

Given the star turns by Cage and Caruso (plus riveting supporting bits from Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames) and the flawlessly corrupt milieu evoked by Schroeder's cameras and Price's words, the film's perfunctory, halfhearted ending comes as a disappointment. Unlike everything that precedes it, the ending feels like a scene you've watched before (maybe even on NYPD Blue). What a letdown. Kiss of Death seethes with sleaze and pulses with passion for most of its two-hour running time, only to lose its nerve at the last moment and send you home with a peck on the cheek.

Sandra Bullock drove a booby-trapped bus through the mean streets of L.A. in last summer's kinetic action flick Speed. She changes acting directions abruptly at the wheel of her new vehicle, the unabashedly sentimental romantic comedy While You Were Sleeping. Although Sleeping is syrupy and predictable, Bullock once again delivers the goods, proving what Bullock's limited outing in Speed hinted at -- she's a budding star who can carry an entire movie with her sassy charm.

Bullock's career trajectory parallels that of Marisa Tomei. Both played feisty, wisecracking babes who saved their respective macho love interest's butts in their breakthrough roles (Tomei filched every scene she graced in 1992's My Cousin Vinny; Bullock did the same in Speed). But after garnering attention for supporting roles that highlighted their pluck and ability to give as well as they got from their male counterparts, both actresses inexplicably chose to follow up with traditional love-struck roles in films that fairly can be described as romantic mush. In last year's sticky-sweet Only You, Tomei fell in love with a man she had spoken to but never seen. In While You Were Sleeping, Bullock falls in love with a man she has seen but never spoken to.

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