Kiss of Death, one of two remakes of 1940's noir pictures to hit screens this month (the other is Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath, a new version of Criss Cross), was directed by Barbet Schroeder. By an uncanny coincidence -- surely it couldn't have been planned -- the Public is currently running a retrospective entitled "The Films of Barbet Schroeder," thus providing me with a handy opportunity to discuss the new film as it relates to Mr. Schroeder's entire oovruh. This angle might keep the auteurists happy, but it would be fundamentally dishonest; though the ads tout Kiss of Death as being "from the director of Reversal of Fortune and Single White Female," this is screenwriter/co-producer Richard Price's baby from frame one.

In theory, this is a good thing, because Price is one of the best writers working in Hollywood, one of the very few who seems able to reconcile his desire to tell an essentially truthful story with his need to please nervous corporate honchos. A novelist who dabbles in screenwriting to pay the rent (his most recent book, Clockers, received a National Book Critics' Circle nomination and is being made into a film by Spike Lee), Price brings to both forms a vivid sense of milieu (his stories are almost always set in New York City), a remarkable ear for naturalistic dialogue, and a generosity that endows even the most incidental of his characters with the same feeling of history and sharpness of focus as his protagonists (there are no small parts in a film penned by Richard Price, only big-name actors). Few pure screenwriters (by which I mean writers with no desire to direct -- these are as rare as "pure actors") are as consistently interesting, or as consistently good, as Price.

It grieves me, therefore, to have to report that he botched this one almost as badly as he botched the 1992 remake of Jules Dassin's Night and the City. Kiss of Death isn't quite as relentlessly boring as that dud, but it's equally pointless, and Price's skill with characterization seems to have gone on holiday. Though the film boasts a stellar cast -- David Caruso, Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Stanley Tucci, Ving Rhames, Helen Hunt -- the script gives each of them exactly one emotion to convey, along with assorted extraneous behavioral oddities. I can only assume that Price was so self-conscious about working with such stock types as The Small-Time Crook Who Only Wants to Go Straight and The Hard-Nosed Cop With a Grudging Respect for His Adversary that he was desperate to enliven them in any way he could. The desperation is visible in every scene.

This might not be so disastrous if the plot were more interesting than it is, but despite a game attempt to update the original's premise for a contemporary audience (and Schroeder's claim that "only the title and one plot point" remain from the Hecht/Lederer script), this Kiss of Death is fundamentally the same as the 1947 edition, and the almost-half-century that's passed since then has made it kinda musty. Caruso, in his first starring role after quitting "NYPD Blue" (but in his second Price flick -- he was Robert De Niro's partner in Mad Dog and Glory), plays Jimmy Kilmartin, a former car thief recently released from prison and determined to be the kind of honest citizen his wife and young daughter deserve. When his cousin Ronnie (Rapaport) turns up at his door one night and begs him to help out with a job, Kilmartin angrily refuses, then relents when Ronnie pleads that his life is in danger -- he's working for Little Junior Brown (Cage), a psychotic who doesn't take kindly to being disappointed. Of course, the heist goes awry, and Jimmy ends up back in prison; while he's pressured by the DA to inform on Little Junior and his cohorts, his wife (Hunt) is pressured by Ronnie in other, more insidious ways....

And so it goes. There are numerous twists and turns, some new to this version, all of which I successfully predicted...and I'm usually bamboozled by narratives that my friends are able to decipher merely by looking at the poster art while standing on line for tickets (I hear "You didn't see that coming?" almost as frequently as "Would you like butter on that?"). When Little Junior announced that there is nothing he hates more than the taste of metal in his mouth, I glanced at my wrist to see how many minutes it would be until Kilmartin tried to force a gun between his lips. Unfortunately, I'd left my watch at home, so Harper's Index is outta luck. My best guess is thirty-five.

The best reason to see Kiss of Death is Nicolas Cage, who is the best reason to see almost any film in which he appears, and all too frequently the only reason. The nerviest and most fearless actor of his generation, Cage thrives on roles that demand an almost inhuman intensity; as Little Junior, he's a bit more restrained than in, say, Vampire's Kiss, but that intensity is always present just below the surface, and the film receives a much-needed undercurrent of menace whenever he's onscreen. With his impassive, heavy-lidded glare and his soft-spoken, near-monotone delivery, he reminded me less of Richard Widmark in the original Kiss of Death than of the sadistic creep played by Raymond Burr in Anthony Mann's Raw Deal. Regrettably, he isn't given much to do; like all of the film's supporting cast, he is playing not a character so much as a collection of "quirky" tics and mannerisms. While it's refreshing to see a big-budget studio production pay more attention to character than to plot mechanics, more is required than having Samuel L. Jackson constantly dab at his eye with a handkerchief. In addition to sporting the aforementioned oral-metal phobia, Little Junior is asthmatic, lifts exotic dancers in lieu of barbells, and totes a portable CD player to his murders in order to intimidate his victims with rhythm-and-blues lyrics. Frankly, this was a bit too much quirk for my delicate nervous system to endure.

By the end of the film, Little Junior seems irrelevant, his comeuppance an afterthought. The real villain turns out to be Stanley Tucci's ambitious district attorney, which squares nicely with genre convention, in which the cops are just as bad as, if not worse than, the criminals they pursue. The film's conclusion, in which Kilmartin beats the System at its own game, is as sunny and preposterous as that of any number of bad romantic comedies. I recall an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, about Barbet Schroeder's 1987 film Barfly; Schroeder reportedly brandished a knife in a suit's office and threatened to cut off his own thumb if the project wasn't greenlighted immediately. Nothing in Kiss of Death is nearly as compelling as that story, and if Richard Price wastes his time writing another unnecessary remake of a minor noir classic, I may pick up the knife myself.