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Jimmy Kilmartin's an ex-con who's trying to go straight. But he can't say no to a quick driving job because his so called friend's life is threatened. The job is for Little Junior Brown, a violent and powerful villain. When things go wrong, Jimmy is left to do the time, and his whole life is turned upside-down, but if that wasn't enough, the cops won't leave Jimmy alone when he gets out... They want 'Little Junior'Written by
Rob Hartill, corrected by Lex Gustafsson
A loose remake of the classic 1947 film noir, this version boasts an impressive cast: Nicolas Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Ving Rhames, Stanley Tucci as well as the underrated David Caruso. As Kilmartin's first wife Bev, Helen Hunt is particularly good, and one feels the film loses intensity when her character shortly disappears. Unfortunately the presence of all this talent doesn't make this film anything more than a commercially entertaining 90 minutes or so. Schroeder sacrifices many of the strengths of the original production to create a thriller with a much more contemporary impact, but average results. Whereas Hathaway's film was praised at the time for its documentary feel, Schroeder's location work remains fairly anonymous, excepting the impressive crane and tracking shot through the junkyard over which the opening credits are played out. At the heart of the film is the character of Kilmartin. Dragged back into the underworld and danger by the call of an imagined debt, his journey is a gradual one from a position of weakness and entrapment to that of strength and liberation. As he says later to Junior,"whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" - hardly original philosophy, but his growing assertiveness confirms the truth of this inspiration. Kilmartin has to overcome in turn his injuries, his imprisonment, his wife's crash, betrayal and his own fear before he finds his feet again. His adventures become a means to recover his self-respect, to regain personal equilibrium, a result only achieved in the final scene.
While Caruso fittingly provides the most complex and understated performance in the film, the opposite is true of Cage, who plays the asthmatic and hulking Junior - a psychopathic thug with a bizarre aversion to eating with metal cutlery. Junior says that he has taken 'Balls, Attitude, Direction' as his personal acronym (a somewhat laboured plot point when it reappears later on the forehead of Kilmartin's kidnapped daughter and then his front door). BAD is too strong an assessment of Cage's uncontrolled performance, which remains entertaining and memorable, but he has been better. His casual 'press-ups' with the dancer for instance, his ritualistic slaughter of Kilmartin's cousin, or his asthma spray (which at times recalls Frank's oxygen mask tripping in Blue Velvet), remain in the mind long after the rest of the plot has been forgotten. Kilmartin's nervousness when he next meets Junior, and the edgy scenes which follow between the two, are among the better things in the film, mainly due to the psychotic traits Cage gives his character and the resulting tension.
Calvin, played here by the excellent Samuel L. Jackson, has little to do. Excluded from Kilmartin's final plans except for his timely arrival to arrest Junior, he grows increasingly redundant. The original gravitas, accompanying his character's internalised rage, evaporates through the plot's meanderings. Significantly, although present, he is largely excluded in detail from the subplot concerning the ambitious DA (Tucci). Having said that, Calvin's weeping eye is an excellent touch, its false tears reflecting his bitterness after the shooting. But still we long to see him in more extended interaction with the persecuted hero. Instead he is largely wasted, a symbol of many of this film's missed opportunities.
Those looking for a reasonably exciting thriller will enjoy this sufficiently to make it worth their while. Those wanting to see the real thing, albeit somewhat different in detail, will be advised to seek out giggling Richard Widmark and fraught Victor Mature in the atmospheric original.
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