Two guys, some guns, a suitcase full of cash and the open road: what could go wrong? Val Kilmer and Michael Madsen meet their match in Joanne Whalley Kilmer, a neo-noir bad news dame if there ever was one. The murderous melodrama stretches the length of Nevada; director John Dahl adds the cops and the Mob to his annihilating cocktail.
Kill Me Again
1989 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date March 22, 2016 /
Starring Val Kilmer, Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Michael Madsen, Jon Gries.
Cinematography Jaques Steyn
Film Editors Eric Beason, Frank Jiminez, Jonathan Shaw
Original Music William Olvis
Written by John Dahl, David W. Warfield
Produced by Steve Golin, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, David W. Warfield
Directed by John Dahl
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the best of the neo-noirs, Kill Me Again put director John Dahl on the map as a man to watch, much like Carl Franklin and the nervous mini-classic One False Move. Six years earlier the Coen brothers had revived the small-time crime melodrama with Blood simple. Others had emulated the Coen’s wicked sense of humor, such as Martin Brest in Midnight Run. John Dahl shifted back to a straight telling of a tawdry little story with a basic noir setup: a dangerous killer, an untrustworthy woman and a private detective a little too naïve for his own good.
Brutal criminal Vince Miller (Michael Madsen) steals a suitcase filled with money from two mobsters, killing one in the process. He and his girlfriend Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) make a clean break, but they argue when she insists on splitting up. She ends up hitting Vince on the head and taking everything. In Reno, Fay looks up private detective Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer) and talks him into helping her fake her death, which he does with the help of his best buddy Alan Swazie (Jon Gries). But Fay leaves Jack in the lurch. The cops are soon after him for the fake murder, followed by the mob as well. And don’t forget Vince, who has put himself back on Fay’s trail in record time. For Jack it all started as a way to help a lady out and make some money… and now he’s got nothing but trouble.
Kill Me Again is refreshing in that it doesn’t go in for elaborate narrative tricks or diabolical character machinations – we’re offered no plastic surgery, amnesia, or small print about quadruple indemnity. Hungry Jack Andrews already owes money, and helping Fay fake her death is a quick fix. But Fay is why mothers warn their sons about attractive women with unusual need. Considering the weirdness of Fay’s offer Jack should have been a little more careful, but that’s not how life works when you’re broke and nothing’s working out. And Fay is teasing Jack all the way with hints of a ‘closer relationship.’ This is pure old-fashioned noir territory.
Director Dahl also strips away most of the fancy frills, to good effect. The story is told without cinematic tricks or kooky angles — I don’t even remember any crane shots. We get the idea that these people are stuck on the roads of Nevada, where a roadblock isn’t something one can get around easily — there’s only one road in and out of most places, and going across the desert isn’t practical. A clever setup in Dahl and co-producer David W. Warfield’s screenplay has Jack encounter a roadblock on the Arizona side of the border. But a gas station and convenience store straddles the state line. The Nevada cops take over while Jack is stopped, but their roadblock is positioned so that Jack could just proceed without being checked by anybody. He has the money with him and the road is wide open. But no, he honors his commitment, and goes back to get Fay instead.
Scorsese’s gangster movies pretty much went the limit with callous violence. This movie has several violent acts yet isn’t a bloodbath. We know Vince is a killer, but Jack is understandably disturbed when Fay proves capable of shooting a mobster in a Vegas hotel room, just like Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past. He should have known she was a little strange back when they were faking her death: in the ‘scene of the crime’ motel room, Jack pours real blood all over her, making a sticky, gory mess. She just bounces around and has a good time. Actually, we know Jack is a sitting duck the moment he meets Fay. If a woman you never met, asks you to do something illegal while inviting you to make a pass at her, it is axiomatic that she’s up to no good. That’s Chandler rule of thumb #1.
Hundreds of movies and many TV shows present us with generic threatening thugs, to little effect. So why do the bad guys in Kill Me Again still seem menacing? The best I can do for an answer is that a) we identify with the vulnerable characters, and b) the director doesn’t dissipate the ‘dread factor’ with graphic violence early in the show. Dahl and Warfield give us plenty of unfeeling, vicious bad guys, but they’re all in short scenes, talking on the phone, or tracing the stolen money. Likewise the police remain peripheral, but are given a fair shake. Jack only slowly realizes how bad things are for him. The one time that he gets Fay to tell him the truth, is when he pulls into a highway patrol parking lot and refuses to budge until she comes clean. A trooper comes to the window to politely ask if everything’s okay. It’s quite pleasurable to see Fay squirm and squeal, as if Jack were sticking her foot into a fire.
Crime pictures often invent complicated ways for people to trace each other — homing devices, surveillance equipment — but we’re more pleased when a show finds a simpler way, as in Midnight Run when a kidnapper takes a ransom photo that displays a towel with a hotel’s logo on it. In Kill Me Again Fay and Jack are easily traced through some stupid rubber bands – nothing fancy at all. They never figure it out; no wonder they think that the mob sees all and knows all. Trapped in a hotel on Lake Mead, Jack must invent an elaborate escape plan that again involves a five-mile hike to safety and a second faked death scene, which explains the film’s title. But when things get complicated the plans are forgotten, and nobody is in complete control. Kill Me Again works its way to a crazy yet logically sound finish, that’s very satisfying. Back in the early ’50s, a film like this could make the reputation of an ambitious director. I’m thinking of Richard Fleischer and The Narrow Margin in this context. But John Dahl co-wrote this movie as well. In a just film industry he’d have gone to the head of the class.
A full 27 years have passed since this ‘modern’ crime picture was released. Val Kilmer’s reputation is no longer in the best of shape, but in 1989 he was on a serious roll, with high visibility parts in Top Gun and Willow, where he incidentally met and wed Joanna Whalley. Brad Pitt wasn’t quite on the scene yet, to compete with him for parts. Kilmer’s certainly good as Jack Andrews, but Ms. Whalley makes the movie. Her Fay Forrester is a cheap tease of a kind that both the goonish Vince and the gullible Jack would easily fall for. Often praised as one of the most beautiful actresses of her time, Whalley has huge expressive eyes and a smile that could get most any man to do most anything. Her impressive showcase opportunities — Dance with a Stranger, The Singing Detective, Scandal — didn’t snowball into a bigger stardom. She kept the Kilmer name until 1995. She and her husband share an enthusiastic sex scene that’s a little less voyeuristic than the one between Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in Roger Donaldson’s ’94 remake of The Getaway. That show holds the record for the hottest married-actors-get-it-on action this side of an Internet sex tape.
After ten years of effort the capable Michael Madsen was also about to step up in the world — just the next year he nabbed memorable roles in The Doors, Thelma and Louise and Reservoir Dogs, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of Kill Me Again is a spotless transfer of this attractive color feature that gets a maximum effect from open desert roads. The only expensive- looking scene is when Fay blows some of her money gambling in a casino, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the filmmakers found a way to do that cheaply too. The important thing is that we’re never aware of the economy. I’d seen this show on cable TV but it looks far better here, in widescreen and such crisp detail.
As with almost all Olive releases there are no extras. That’s a shame, as John Dahl is a filmmaker we’d like to know more about. His name was definitely a buzzword for a few seasons, until Quentin Tarantino came on the scene. What’s with Olive Films’ cover illustration? It’s so dark, it looks like a misprint.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Kill Me Again Blu-ray
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 20, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson