While Seldom mulls Johnny's fate for what seems like an eternity, Blondie leaps into action to save her man, kidnapping Carolyn Stilton (Miranda Richardson), the opium-addicted wife of Henry Stilton (Michael Murphy), an ambitious behind-the-scenes political operator who has worked his way up to become an advisor to FDR. Blondie's plan: Use Carolyn as leverage to force Henry to apply pressure on Seldom and thereby secure Johnny's safe release. But Blondie has disregarded a lot of factors -- Carolyn's addiction, Henry's willingness to call in favors from gangsters, Seldom's cruelty -- that will make her eventual reunion with Johnny far different than she has envisioned.
In the absence of a fully realized leading character, the movie's most consistent and rewarding element becomes its hot improvisational jazz jams rooted in classic tunes by the likes of Count Basie and Bennie and Bernie Moten. Much of the action takes place within the confines of the Hey Hey Club, where a welcome pot of steaming jazz always brews. Kansas City's slight, linear narrative is uncharacteristic of Altman, who tends more toward the grandiose and the unfocused. But the rich backdrop of colorful supporting characters -- in this case an ensemble of gifted musicians, many of whom can act nearly as well as they play -- is an Altman trademark that asserts itself here. Kansas City is as distinct from Nashville as jazz is from country music; too bad arranger Altman couldn't have done something to eliminate Leigh's shrill note and heighten Belafonte's muted impact. Kansas City is to Robert Altman's illustrious oeuvre as The Cotton Club was to Francis Ford Coppola's -- a disappointment that shoulda, coulda, been so much more.
Written by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt; directed by Robert Altman; with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Harry Belafonte, Miranda Richardson, Michael Murphy, Dermot Mulroney, and Steve Buscemi.