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Though both Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death and Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath style themselves as postmodern noir, they owe a far greater debt to Quentin Tarantino. That’s not all they have in common. Both include nonchalant killers who pragmatically tote plastic dropcloths and heavy electrical tape to big jobs; both include Dennis Hopper roles; neither include Dennis Hopper; both are loose adaptations of crime flicks from the late ’40s; and both would have themselves be suspenseful, but fail to generate much genuine suspense. Just the unease that results from the proximity of dropcloths and guys in Hopper roles.
Kiss has a stylistic sensibility that’s pure Pulp Fiction, and the comparison doesn’t suggest itself only because its cast includes Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames—both of whom basically reprise their Pulp roles. The most pointed similarity is that the psychotic hood at its center also serves as the film’s comic relief. Little Junior (Nicolas Cage) is the increasingly familiar stoopid/lethal bad guy: He’s menacing, he’s ruthless, he’s…goofy. When he’s not intent on killing, he delivers dimwitted metaphysical asides between pulls from his asthma inhaler. Like much recent bloody cinema, Kiss resembles Disney’s animated features, whose villains are the only interesting characters.
Indeed, the marginal likability of Kiss‘ protagonist has the unfortunate effect of taking the edge off his imminent peril. Jimmy Kilmartin (erstwhile NYPD Blue star David Caruso), is a one-time petty criminal who is attempting to start a sober, law-abiding life with his wife and child. Prevailed upon to do one last “favor” for his shifty cousin, Jimmy quickly gets in over his head. The favor goes bad, Jimmy does three years in the slammer, loses his wife, and ends up back on the street only after he grudgingly agrees to act as an FBI informant.
Though Schroeder (Single White Female) and screenwriter Richard Price (Sea of Love) based Kiss on the 1947 gangster pic of the same name, the story has, as the press kit puts it, been “contemporized.” This, apparently, is a euphemism for saturating it with graphic violence. (Oh, and the filmmakers headquarter Little Junior at a strip club, necessitating a more or less constant backdrop of topless babes.) During a botched stolen-car-delivery run early in the film, for instance, a bullet splatters through Jimmy’s hand and into the face of the FBI agent next to him, thus setting the movie’s aesthetic tone. And because Price’s plotting is so pedestrian, the sense of waiting for something (else) bad to happen is the only thing that gives Kiss any momentum.
The film’s bid for high seriousness is its uninspired observation that mobsters and lawmen aren’t at all dissimilar: Jimmy, caught between them, gets screwed by both. The good guy/bad guy demarcation becomes increasingly indistinct as the brutality of the mobsters is played against the perfidy of the legal establishment. But the film undercuts even its own shrill insistence on this parity. To wit: Kiss features two instances of police brutality. In the first, an FBI agent kicks Jimmy in the head; in the second, the same FBI agent slams Little Junior’s head against a car door. The former incident is framed as an act of outrage while the latter is played for laughs.
Soderbergh’s The Underneath is also rife with bad guys who turn out to be good and good guys who turn out to be bad. Sort of. It would be more accurate to say that everybody—good and bad—turns out to be dull.
This affected, plodding film is based on 1949’s B-list noir classic Criss Cross, and original writer Daniel Fuchs is co-credited with Sam Lowery for its screenplay. In the film’s press kit, the director calls it “a relationship movie with a crime in the middle.” Unfortunately, he’s right: As reconceived by Soderbergh, Underneath is a lot like his sex, lies, and videotape with blood.
Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is a compulsive gambler who returns to his hometown intending to win back the wife he abandoned. But like Kiss‘ Kilmartin, Chambers is inexorably drawn into criminal activity. His ex, Rachel (Alison Elliott), is now engaged to Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner), an abusive hood with an explosive temper. Michael, having secured a job as an armored-car driver, convinces Tommy to join forces with him in executing an elaborate robbery. The scheme, of course, is to dupe Tommy and abscond with Rachel and the dough but, as moviegoing has taught us, such things rarely come off according to plan.
In the interim, Michael and Rachel indulge Soderbergh’s taste for the dubious profundity of relationship dialogue. One exchange between the pair:
Michael: “Oh. Yeah.”
The killing can’t happen soon enough.
And, as in Kiss, it’s hard to mind. The film suggests that Michael and Tommy aren’t really very different—Rachel has merely exchanged passive abuse for active. But then, she’s pretty insufferable, too (“Men buy me Mustangs…I don’t know why,” she quips). Besides, as the film’s heavy-handed and relentless lottery imagery reminds us, what they all have in common is greed.
Such unsophisticated symbolism abounds. Indeed, at its worst, Underneath resembles a film-school project gone awry. And not just because Soderbergh overuses his handheld camera and color filters. The director’s attempts to create Kieslowski-style interconnectedness are numerous and awkward. While Michael struggles to piece together his relationship with the insidious Rachel, for instance, two men in the armored-car office have an ongoing discussion about the infidelity of one of their wives while deeply engaged in a series of jigsaw puzzles. The film’s amateurishness reaches its apex when a violent incident lands Michael in a hospital room. To suggest semiconsciousness, the room—a specially constructed set—has windows and furniture that are wackily asymmetrical. Though the effect is presumably meant to be sinister, it produces the bizarre impression that Michael has been taken to Pee-wee’s Playhouse for treatment.