Kiss of Death (1995)
A few months ago, Alison Willmore and I discussed the multi-faceted career of actor Nicolas Cage on our weekly IFC News podcast. We noted how we admired about half his work and hated the other half. Amongst the "other half" was Barbet Schroeder's 1995 remake of the famous film noir Kiss of Death. It'd been quite a while since I'd seen the film, but I did mention that Cage gave one of his worst performances. As I recalled, he even had one scene where he delivered his dialogue while bench pressing weights.
Turns out I'd only half remembered. Not only is it one of Cage's worst performances, it's also one of his funniest and craziest. And my memory of that scene where he lifts the weights was also slightly off. He's not pressing weights: he's pressing a half naked stripper.
In other words, this movie is a lot more bitchin' than I recalled.
Somehow, in a movie that stars Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames, Michael Rappaport and Philip Baker Hall, only David Caruso receives above-the-title billing. That's because this movie was made in that brief moment when the fiery haired Caruso was the hottest thing in Hollywood. He'd just left NYPD Blue after one season to pursue a movie career. He promptly made this and another terrible movie called Jade which made a combined $25 million at the box office. That's not counting chickens before they hatch: that's counting chickens before the eggs have been laid.
Caruso's fine; better than I expected given the level of insanity he brings to each episode of C.S.I.: Miami where he uses his sunglasses to punctuate sentences (taking them off is a comma, putting them back in is an exclamation point). It's really Cage who really brings the crazy as "Little" Junior Brown, the son of a mob boss and all around lunatic. Bench pressing the half-naked stripper isn't even the craziest crap Cage does in the film; arguably the scene where he learns his father is dead is even wackier (I scoured YouTube for a clip but no luck). In it, Cage jumps up and down, cracks his neck, screams ("MY FATHER'S DEAD!"), jumps up and down, cries, cracks his neck, punches a guy, cries some more, cracks his neck, jumps up and down, breaks a bottle over the poor guy's head, cries, screams, cries, and jumps again. AND HE DOES ALL THIS IN THE SPAN OF TWENTY SECONDS. Nicholas Cage: professional psychopath. And did I mention he's also an asthmatic who constantly hits his inhalers? And he hates the taste of metal in his mouth, so he discusses at length his love of plastic utensils? I'd say you couldn't make this stuff up, but for some reason, someone did.
Cage has Barry Bonds style muscles and the receeding hairline to match and it occurs to me that this might be the last time Cage showed his real hairline in a movie. The same might also be said for co-star Samuel L. Jackson who plays a balding cop who's on Junior's trail and who runs afoul of Caruso's Jimmy Kilmartin. An incident early in the movie that sends Jimmy to jail (prompting a burning need for revenge that sets up the rest of the strangely sluggish plot) also gets Jackson's character shot in the face; for the rest of the movie, his left eye tears constantly and uncontrollably, making Sam's cop maybe the most emo badass police officer in movie history. I kinda wish this character was the one that fought the snakes in Snakes on a Plane so he could have been dabbing his eye while screaming "I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MUTHAF#*@( SNAKES!"
The movie's not very good, but it's weirdly watchable, partly because Cage is so incredibly bad and partly because the rest of the cast (except maybe Caruso) is so talented and yet so decidedly uncompelling. I mean if you look at that cast list alone you'd think there's no way this movie could be bad (Price's presence the dude wrote Clockers doesn't hurt either). And yet... oh and yet. There's a saying in sports for when an underdog upsets a heavily favored team. They say "That's why they play the game."
In this case shittyness is the underdog, and quality is the favored team. That's why they made the movie.