Maybe the lasting symbols of the 1990s are different for everyone, but as far as movies go there’s an uncomplicated formula: we either remember a movie because it’s great or we remember a movie because it absolutely sucks. The vast majority fall in the middle, films that might have been passable at the time but are ultimately forgettable because, hey, look, Dunkaroos. Did you see that movie? No, I was too busy trading six Warheads for a gel pen and beating the hell out of my siblings with Sock’em Boppers with a sweatshirt tied around my waist. But what a time the mid-’90s was for movies that were just straight-up fun — like Space Jam, Home Alone, Men in Black, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, Flubber, every other Robin Williams movie. And what a time it was for movies that were just straight-up awful — like Kiss of Death.
Admittedly, this is not a movie I remember from childhood as being spectacularly bad. It came and went and I never watched it or even heard of it until recently, engrossed at the time in Goosebumps books and Outkast (Say Cheese and Die! was my jam, Outkast still is). But the first ten minutes of Kiss of Death brought ’90s nostalgia rushing back — the good kind, not the O.J. Simpson kind — in such a way that it felt like this just might be one of those terrible, laughably overacted ’90s action flicks that, were I a few years older, I might have remembered as one of those terrible, laughably overacted ’90s action flicks. In lieu of entering the abyss of nitpicking that would result from a look at the entire movie, let’s just take those first ten minutes.
The opening shot is a long, swooping tracking shot that introduces us to the crappy back alleys and rusted-over junkyards where so much of Kiss of Death takes place. The vibe is evident from the very beginning. If you ever had to pinpoint opening theme music rooted fully in 1995, with the big rain drums and the distorted wakka-wakka electric guitar solo, this is definitely it. It’s the kind of “hardcore” rock that more often finds employment as the quiet backing track for a video game. The only other thing in the running with Kiss of Death for the prestigious award of Most Impossibly ’90s Opening is the first season of Law & Order:
Turn those mids up a bit, willya? Anyway, it’s also evident during this tracking shot that Kiss of Death actually has a pretty killer cast. Superschmuck David Caruso somehow leads Samuel L. Jackson, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames, Helen Hunt, Philip Baker Hall and more, begging the question as to why any of those people didn’t take the lead role instead. Even still, at this point all indications are that Kiss of Death might survive on the strength of the cast alone.
And then a little credit pops up on the screen that says “And Nicolas Cage as Little Junior”, and from that point on pretty much everything is hilarious. It becomes brutally obvious that the money in the cinematography budget went entirely into that opening shot, as it soon fades away into a few cheap establishing shots of a location other than the one we just established. No similar trickery is utilized for the entire rest of the film. That’s actually probably a good thing, considering Nicolas Cage is so overly enthusiastic in every way; the slightest flinch of the camera might distract from the Cage Fighter, the Nic-at-Nite King in his natural habitat, the clear master of wearing shirts that have six massive round holes in them: one for your waist, one for your neck, two for your arms, and two for…your…arms?
What company makes shirts like that, and why? Who wears them? If you’re General Grievous or one of the aliens from John Carter, fine, but if you have the more traditional two-arm torso configuration then such an article of clothing can only be worn for humor. If so, it does the job very well. When we first meet Cage’s Little Junior he’s wearing a white jacket with the sleeves cut off — where I’m from we say white vest and then we shudder in fear — and puffing on an inhaler because it makes his character deep or something. He later expounds on the severe asthma and aversion to the taste of metal in his mouth (sigh) but really we’re quite certain he’s just out of breath because the Sleeve Monster is clearly running this guy ragged. Literally.
Past the first ten minutes all of this gets old. Caruso is unconvincing and simply unlikeable, and his isn’t a protagonist you root for in the least. If Cage wasn’t Cage, we might at least root against Little Junior, but instead we’re stuck watching two kittens locked in a halfhearted tussle over an old toy. They lose interest about the same time we do. Maybe something about the landscape of the industry in the 1990s allowed for such drivel to be produced with such frequency, or maybe movies like Kiss of Death just age poorly, or maybe we’ve already given too much thought to a throwaway action flick starring the CSI ginger. In any event, Kiss of Death represents a whole subsection of softboiled crime dramas that can never escape the time period in which they were made, forced to run in place (or jump in place, as it were — see below) and vibe to the same ’90s music over and over. I suppose if it’s Outkast, though, then in the grand scheme of Sisyphean punishments that ain’t all bad.