A Little Light on the Darkness

In Kiss or Kill, the migration of Hollywood's old drama of lovers on the lam to the Australian countryside seems to be a mixed blessing. Nikki and Al, the fatalistic young couple in Bill Bennett's rambunctious new effort, descend from famous runaways like Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney in You Only Live Once, from Bonnie and Clyde and from the lethal media folk heroes of Natural Born Killers. But the newcomers have a square peg/round hole problem when it comes to geography, culture and language.

Imagine this: A pair of Aussie cops finally tracks these two down, and you know what one of them calls them? Detritus. Now there's an evil epithet. Call me scum-sucking pig, if you dare, or degenerate animal. Call me subhuman motherfucker and take your chances. But no man calls me "detritus" and lives to tell about it.

The peculiar nicety of the term is symptomatic, more or less, of Kiss or Kill's case of misplaced identity. Some genres don't travel well, which is why the French don't make baseball movies and why the Australians probably shouldn't make crime thrillers. The whole continent used to be one gigantic penal colony, sure, but Aussie movies are rarely at their best serving up darkness and danger. In this one, there's an unintended howler at every turn, as when Nikki and Al steal a four-wheel drive, take the frightened owner prisoner and wind up at his house in the outback just in time for dinner. Out comes a huge roasted haunch on a platter, and the fellow says: "Ay 'ope you folks like kangaroo."

Yeah, sure. But only with a side dish of detritus.
Anyway, here's how they reheat Badlands Down Under. The short-fused Al (Matt Day), who has the scrubbed good looks and high-sheen pompadour of a Fifties rock idol, and the paranoid, screechy Nikki (Frances O'Connor), who has the jitters of a speed freak, are making a tidy living for themselves in Adelaide from an ancient scam. First she seduces a horny salesman in the hotel bar. Upstairs, she slips a mickey into his drink, and when he conks out, the young lovers make off with his cash and jewelry. Fine--but after Nikki and Al accidentally kill one of their drug-and-mug marks with an overdose, they get even more trouble than they expected: There's a dirty videotape in the victim's briefcase that implicates a retired football star in pedophilia.

Before long, the cops and celebrity jock Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe) are chasing the lovers across the country. Shortly after that, Nikki and Al are at each other's throats: They start to suspect each other of a string of murders that keep erupting around them. The real mystery of Kiss or Kill is not whether Zipper or the quirky police detectives Hummer and Crean (Chris Haywood and Andrew S. Gilbert) will catch up with them, but whether they will figure out each other's deepest secrets. The strength of Bennett's drama is that the criminal lovers find themselves in as much emotional quicksand with each other as with their pursuers; its weakness is that it's hard to give a damn, since they may as well be space aliens on Mars.

This is not to say that the classic practitioners of American film noir or their descendants in neo-noir have a corner on the desperado market, double-cross or snappy dialogue. But Bennett's rather sunny style doesn't suit his subject very well, and his efforts to produce tough road talk is rather hit-and-miss. "You kids don't play by the rules," one suspicious bystander tells Nikki and Al. Try to imagine someone telling Mickey and Mallory that. Still, Bennett tries to get down and dirty in the classic way. Looking out across the dusty vista of a small town, one of the cops declares: "It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here."

The trouble is, you can't see it from here. The trade secret of road-based crime thrillers (Thelma & Louise qualifies, too) is that the protagonists and the filmmaker convince you beyond a doubt that the end of the world is always just around the next bend, that fate is about to swallow the dangerous, appealing lovers right before our eyes. The romance of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway thirty years ago was not rooted in lust but death. They knew and we knew that they were doomed; that's what joined them together and what joined them to us. Nikki and Al, by contrast, are a pair of free agents set loose in a not-very-threatening landscape, confronted by not-very-threatening circumstances. You can't see the end of the world from there, and that makes all the difference.

That, and the fact that they're detritus.

Kiss or Kill.
Written and directed by Bill Bennett. With Matt Day, Frances O'Connor, Barry Langrishe and Andrew S. Gilbert.


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