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The Cahiers du Cinema-era French film critics coined a name for the American crime drama of the '40s and '50s, in which every technical effort was extended to forge a mood of sordidness and epic struggle. They called it film noir--a genre in which ticket-buyers were carried roller coaster-style through an alternative universe where law-breaking was a career, if not a lifestyle, and ethics were replaced by the political maneuvering of brute power.

Cinematographers worked overtime to create long shadows, dark corners, harshly lit confrontations. Light was reserved for those moments when virtue prevailed, and darkness was both a cover for and an expression of humanity's sinful nature.

The effect was of a jacked-up, inside-out morality play, where we learned how to live by watching how not to live. Killers, con men, gamblers, thieves, adulterers, and stoolies were the average citizens in this dark reflection of our cultural underbelly. Those who refused to redeem themselves usually died in a blaze of gunfire.

Films such as John Huston's Key Largo and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity presented masculinity as a code of honor--or a weakness to be manipulated by a scheming woman. Even if you enjoyed the exploits of stylized villains like Edward G. Robinson and Richard Widmark and Barbara Stanwyck, you didn't feel bad about it. They inhabited a vacuum-sealed universe of their own, and you knew they'd get theirs in the end.

Fast-forward through four decades that include Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, Francis Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. As American families began to splinter, people questioned old ideas, and the role of the individual moved to the foreground. Suddenly movie violence lost its Victorian tidiness. Murderers were endowed with a sympathetic, complex frailty they'd never before exhibited, and Americans were eager to close the gap between themselves and the lawbreakers.

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway enjoyed the same late '60s hero worship in Bonnie and Clyde as their real-life counterparts had 30 years earlier; The Godfather series of the '70s and '80s domesticated the Italian Mafia; and Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver personalized the criminal impulse. His thugs weren't evil; they were alienated.

Political winds have blown the cultural weathervane rightward again, spawning a new generation of directors who've put the escapist fun back in big-screen degeneracy. Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary, John Dahl, Mario Van Peebles, the Hughes Brothers, and an ever-adaptable Scorsese all scored recent hits by removing the moral barometer from their crime sagas and allowing audiences to immerse themselves in the pungent hostility of the violent act itself.

They don't explain away or even attempt to contextualize the horrible acts their people commit. These wind-up demons run on an obscure logic all their own, in a throwback to the reassuringly abstract compositions of film noir. In the '90s, however, we can't assume fate will dispatch these artful demons with the same furious panache as they dispatched their victims.

Our choice as an audience is to reject this unguided tour of the id (and plenty of people have voiced strong, sound opposition to the peculiar mean streak which runs through all varieties of film today). Or we can settle gratefully in our seats and let the meanness wash over us like a hot bath. I am an unqualified advocate of well-choreographed film violence. Like it or not, all of us possess a sadistic, vengeful side, and the movie theater seems like a better place than most to exorcise it.

But what are the new rules that separate a great crime film from an inferior one? In a world where syndicated TV shows broadcast live police raids as entertainment, and the film industry raises the stakes with each new gangster opera, exactly what's required to entertain our deadened sensibilities?

Barbet Schroeder's highly publicized Kiss of Death is the director's attempt to contemporize film noir. He has forsaken the genre's clean technical virtuosity for a rawer, sootier, "documentary" feel and claims to have injected a more subtle variance of character than Henry Hathaway employed in the original 1947 version (you could trust the lawyers and cops in that one, because they were "lawmen").

In interviews, Schroeder has displayed something close to distaste for the first film. He insists his feature is a "very loose" adaptation, but the 1995 Kiss of Death follows virtually the same plot, with a few incidental changes (jewelry thieves become auto thieves, a sleazy Italian restaurant becomes a topless joint, etc.) and the addition of two intriguing subplots by novelist-screenwriter Richard Price (The Wanderers, Clockers) that resolve the story in much the same way Hathaway did.

I won't describe what happens in too much detail, since the twisty-turny adaptation by Price is one of the few pleasures here. Suffice it to say that it follows the travails of a good-hearted ex-convict (David Caruso) who wants to resume his life as a family man, but finds himself exploited both by overzealous lawmen (Samuel L. Jackson and Stanley Tucci) and a company of dangerous auto thieves led by a psychopathic hit man (Nicolas Cage).

You're going to see worse movies this year than Kiss of Death, but probably none will be as frustrating in its abundance of missed opportunities, narrative misstrokes, and general sense of failed ambition. The film's strongest asset is the impressively controlled Caruso, who manages to convey that rarest of contemporary screen qualities--decency--in a role that many young actors would have balked at playing because the character is permitted almost no control over his own fate. He's finally driven by sheer desperation to take the suicide mission that feeds the film's climax. The showdown finale in a topless nightclub is exciting because Caruso has elicited our sympathy, so if he fails, we have something to lose, too.

Unfortunately, the actor must swim against the utterly uninspired guidance of director Schroeder, who has again and again proven himself to be the most overrated talent in the business since he started making Hollywood features with 1987's Barfly. Schroeder has no ability to pace a scene, much less string a group of them together into anything that approaches a consistent moviegoing experience. As with his last attempt at suspense, the painfully predictable Single White Female, Kiss of Death features interactions among proven talents that thud along because there's no sense of emotional intrigue, resolution, or pacing.

Nicolas Cage is another problem. I'm an unqualified fan of his sweet, sly, befuddled charisma. He may be the most watchable leading man in movies today. His performances in Honeymoon in Vegas and Guarding Tess left Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, and Richard Gere eating his dust in terms of the self-effacing grace with which he morphed from one mood to the next.

But as Little Junior Brown, a volatile, merciless ringleader who really seems to relish killing, Cage stomps around like just another schoolyard bully who's made good in the family business. He has bulk, not presence, and he's not very smart, to boot. If the guy was standing in front of you in real life, you'd be scared, but on the movie screen, he's a slightly silly, temperamental ape who says things like "you fuck with the bull, you get the horns." He even has a cliche schoolyard bully affliction--asthma--to accelerate his hostility toward others.

A great movie villain is capable of anything, which means you don't know what he or she will do next, and you hate to guess. Effectiveness comes as much from feeling their animalistic desire to kill, and a hint of the mechanics behind it, as from seeing the act performed. In the original Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark was a scrawny, nervous rodent who knew he was a scrawny, nervous rodent. He hated himself for it, and hated you for knowing, too, so he got his kicks in any little sadistic, petty way he could. In fact, his imagination seemed to work overtime in the revenge department. You could feel the overcompensating rage behind every facial tic.

Cage, on the other hand, just gets mad and beats people to death. There's no steel will underneath, no otherworldly rage, and therefore nothing to unnerve us. You can't help but think if Samuel L. Jackson switched characters and brought his eye-blazing, scripture-spewing hit man from Pulp Fiction into Kiss of Death, he could make Cage's inarticulate homunculus cry in five minutes flat.

Like the rest of Kiss of Death, Cage's performance sort of shambles across the screen, periodically erupting but never quite affecting. If there's a small consolation to be taken from the return of a repressive social climate, it's that contemporary filmmakers and actors have been granted a fresh license to shock and surprise us. Cage was probably just miscast, but Barbet Schroeder's failure to deliver the goods speaks more profoundly of his limitations as a filmmaker.

Kiss of Death. 20th Century Fox. David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson. Written by Richard Price. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Now showing.


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