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CARUSO LACKS CHARISMA, BUT `KISS' ISN'T ALL THAT BAD

Should David Caruso have left the hit television series "NYPD Blue" to pursue big-screen stardom with a remake of the 1947 classic thriller "Kiss of Death"?

You can do worse than signing on with a director like Barbet Schroeder ("Reversal of Fortune," "Single White Female") and surrounding yourself with supporting players of the caliber of Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage.But the fact is, every time Caruso has a scene with Jackson or Cage, he seems to be out of his depth. Not that it's easy to go up against such powerhouse actors, but Caruso doesn't seem to have the level of charisma necessary to hold his own.

Still, he's pleasant enough in this crime-thriller as small-time hood Jimmy Kilmartin, who has the hardest time going straight. But that's just what he's trying to do. He's got a job and a wife he loves (Helen Hunt) and a baby daughter he's crazy about.

So, when his old friend Ronnie (Michael Rapaport, another powerful performer) hits him up for a favor, he automatically says no. "I could get busted for even talking to you," he protests.

Ronnie explains he is working for tough hood Little Junior (Cage) as a truck driver, delivering refurbished stolen cars to the New York docks. And he's in trouble since one of the other drivers arrived too drunk to do the job.

Jimmy still says no, but Ronnie begs him - finally bringing up old debts to twist his arm. Reluctantly, Jimmy agrees. And wouldn't you know it - the cops show up.

Jimmy is busted, while Ronnie gets away. District Attorney Frank Zioli (Stanley Tucci) tries to get Jimmy to turn state's evidence, but, of course, Jimmy declines - and he heads for prison.

Assured by a mob lawyer that his family will be taken care of, what Jimmy doesn't know is that Ronnie is double-crossing him. After three years in prison, Jimmy discovers the truth under tragic circumstances and plots revenge.

But once he goes along with the DA, he finds himself under his thumb. Should he try to pull out and take his chances about Little Junior finding out he's been squealing? Or should he continue to work for the cops and the DA - who seem to have their own agenda?

"Kiss of Death" is loaded with twists and turns, and is quite a different film from the '47 version. Aside from the R-rated excesses, there also seems to be some plot theft from "Prince of the City" and "Q&A."

The screenplay has been adapted by Richard Price, who also wrote "Sea of Love" and "The Color of Money," as well as the novel "Clockers" (which has been made into a movie by Spike Lee). What he does best here is give the supporting players a number of interesting quirks - Jackson's character has been shot in the face and one of his eyes continually tears, while Cage is a bundle of eccentricities and offbeat conversation.

Despite its drawbacks, and Caruso's ineffectual performance, the double and triple crosses and the characterizations make the film fairly satisfying. Schroeder manages to propel the film along quite nicely and Jackson and especially Cage deliver knockout performances.

Of course, Jackson seems to be in every other film these days (look for him in "Die Hard With a Vengeance" in a few weeks) and Cage has been in so many light comedies lately ("It Could Happen to You," "Trapped in Paradise") that it's easy to forget what a strong character actor he can be. Even a simple screen moment, as when he is prowling a jail cell like a caged animal, offers remarkable resonance.

"Kiss of Death" is rated R for considerable violence, profanity, vulgarity, nudity, drugs.