Nicolas Cage in: Kiss of Death

Kiss of Death

Released in 1995 ▪ Review posted September 28, 2014

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Carl Sagan

David Caruso was TV’s hottest celebrity in 1994. With his path to stardom cleared by his role on NYPD Blue, it was only a matter of time until he could work his way up to the major motion picture leagues, as George Clooney would use ER to do a few years later. Remember, we’re talking about ’90s television. People did not generally associate prestige with TV acting until HBO reinvented it with The Sopranos.

Caruso became impatient with his relegation to the small screen. Feeling like a Clooney fish in a Dennis Franz pond, he abruptly quit NYPD Blue, unable to negotiate a gigantic raise and turned off by how taping conflicted with the shooting schedules of the big-screen projects more suited to his celebrity stature. One of those projects was Jade, a terrible film about a hatchet murder cover-up. Another was this week’s film, Kiss of Death, a crappily written remake of a 1947 thriller by the same name. The updated version is filled with predictable twists and boring turns. The movie is bad, and David Caruso is terrible in it. This ambitious choice was effectively the end of his movie career, but we aren’t here to bury David Caruso, no matter how terrible he’s become.

In Kiss of Death, Nicolas Cage plays Little Junior Brown, the son of a mob boss, inheritor of a mob fief, and villain of the film. Little Junior is written clumsily and Cage portrays him with a sincerity that the character doesn’t deserve. He’s supposed to be an egomaniacal, power-mad monster, but Cage softens him with moments of tender empathy. Although wildly inappropriate for the film, it’s an interesting acting choice. There are so many misses in Kiss of Death that it’s hard to tell where its errors end and Nic’s begin. Even Helen Hunt, Stanley Tucci, and Samuel L. Jackson, who typically turn in quality performances, are flat.

We do get to see a preview of Cage’s presentational balance of highs and lows, something he refines over the duration of his career. Cage Match has noted that good Nicolas Cage performances are frequently a series of peaks and valleys; manic highs that counterweigh emotional lows and thus create a satisfying parabola. In Kiss of Death, we get an early example of Cage using this pattern. Instead of picking one extremum or the other, his (otherwise boring) character oscillates between both. It’s ill suited to the movie, which called for a more go-hard-or-die Cage, but significant for showing a glimmer of what is to come.

Kiss of Death is a waste of time, but for the finely tuned eye and ear of the Cage aficionado, it’s a significant moment in the history of his style.

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