Ginger should have stayed blue

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Barbet Schroeder's Kiss of Death, a loose remake of the 1947 film noir is about two attempted transitions. The story concerns an ex-con trying, unsuccessfully, to go legitimate. And the cast is headed by David Caruso, bidding to move from television (NYPD Blue) into the movies - this is his first major film role. He has, however, several strikes against him, starting from the top: ginger hair. In this film, with its cold, highly coded palette (red is explicitly described as a bad-luck colour), his rug glows like a sore thumb amid the metallic blues and greys of an auto repair yard and the mauve pinks of a kitschy nightclub: the two main settings. Maybe that's one reason why there are so few red-headed leading men (think of Eric Stoltz, whose once-promising career is dissipating into a series of quirky character parts). They're a production designer's nightmare.

It's not only Caruso's colouring which sets him apart from the rest of the film. He has been likened to Cagney, and indeed there is a resemblance, but the copy is faint. And he lacks Cagney's intensity: his playing is introspective, understated - perhaps he thinks he's still on television. Next to the larger-than-life supporting cast, he looks anaemic. (This weakness is also Kiss of Death's main flaw: moral confusion and ambiguity are the essence of film noir, but without a strong central hero they can flatten, as here, into cynicism.)

But what a cast: a salty array of low-lifes from both sides of the law, each with his peculiar quirk: Stanley Tucci's silky, duplicitous DA with caterpillar eyebrows - which he deploys to great effect - and a fondness for hotdogs; Anthony Heald's scrunched-faced Mob lawyer, his brilliantined hairline practically reposing on the bridge of his nose; the splendid Samuel L Jackson's injured police officer with a weeping eye (he issues the meanest threats with a delicate tear). These days Hollywood's inflated star salaries mean that the budget often can't run to an A-list supporting cast; Kiss of Death is a welcome reminder of the studio era when movies were fairly teeming with brilliant character actors. Only the two thinly written female roles let the side down, as so often.

Bestriding the lot is Nicolas Cage's enjoyably, preposterously inflated performance as a dim, vicious, sentimental thug, bulging out of his designer shell suits and sleeveless shirts, bench-pressing bar-girls to balloon his pecs still further, turning a puff from his asthma inhaler (in its personalised gold case) into a gesture of theatrical bravado.

Kiss of Death is that oddity, a film noir with a (not altogether convincing) happy ending. Killer is more conventionally fatalistic, the story of a hit-man who falls for the mysterious and seductive woman he is sent to kill, while she, seriously ill, is desperate to die. It's a first film and a mite ponderous - the scenes are punctuated by self-conscious captions quoting from the dialogue ("Are you gonna break my heart?"), which, frankly, isn't that extraordinary. The direction, however, is very confident, and there are two wonderful central performances from Anthony La Paglia and, especially, the abrasive, intriguing Mimi Rogers, whose strange screen presence has rarely been given the roles it deserves.

As American politicians (Bob Dole is the latest) continue their sabre- rattling, vote-catching onslaughts on Hollywood's "depravity", it's worth checking out what most popular, shopping-mall American movies are actually about. They have divorce on the agenda, to be sure, and death and infidelity, but so often all they're yearning for is the perfect nuclear family. In The Brady Bunch Movie, for instance, Shelley Long's single mum and Gary Cole's single dad merge their broods to produce - hey presto - a domestic dream: six lovely acne-free kids, three boys (brunet), three girls (blonde), all as alike as Russian dolls and living in a happy-face, surrealistically wholesome moral universe.

The Brady Bunch Movie is based on an American television sitcom of the early Seventies. The film-makers have updated it to the Nineties, where the Bradys' little Astroturfed, orange-upholstered time-bubble shines on obliviously in a grey, riot-ravaged LA. It's the same comic device in reverse as The Addams Family: the deviant, but superbly functional family which shows up the "normal" world (indeed, one feels that the Addamses and the Bradys would make excellent neighbours).

The irony is writ a little emphatic (it doesn't, after all, take too much sophisticated post-modern insight to recognise the Seventies as a style dustbin), but it's a very good-humoured, unspiteful movie, and mounted with great energy. Everyone acts in that manic, twitchy, over-emphatic manner of bad US sitcoms, while Betty Thomas directs with speed and wit. And any film which gets a splendid - albeit very brief - gag out of the Monkees gets my vote.

More single parents complete the week: in Man of the House, a jaw-droppingly awful comedy, Chevy Chase courts divorcee Farah Fawcett and disaster in his kamikaze bid for the affections of her noxious, resentful 12-year- old son. Hoping to shake Chase off, the brat convinces him to enrol in the YMCA's Indian Guide Program, a bizarre scheme intended to encourage father-son bonding by having them dress up as Indians, do rain dances, learn how to throw tomahawks and make reindeer out of clothes pegs. At first I assumed this was a satire on the dafter excesses of Iron John (only in America would affluent, middle-class, white males seek self-insight by adopting the lifestyle of an oppressed minority), but in time the awful truth dawned that the program was for real. Warning: the film also contains a mime artist. The end credits reassure us that no bees or Native Americans were harmed in the making of the picture.

In the British comedy Jack and Sarah, Richard E Grant, reeling from the death of his wife in childbirth, raises his infant daughter alone (a single father's life is relatively smooth when he lives in a huge terraced house in Holland Park) with the help of an amateur nanny (Samantha Mathis, the obligatory minor American star) and foreseeable results.

It's an oddly structured film, which makes time to drool endlessly over its star baby (to no great surprise, we note that she is played in the later scenes by the director's daughter), but has found no space for most of the plot: many key expository scenes seem to have disappeared on the cutting-room floor, and the baby grows by about a year overnight. The heavy-duty supporting cast includes Judi Dench and Cherie Lunghi, while Ian McKellan - to whom falls the film's most bizarre and underdeveloped role - drifts in and out vaguely as a raffish gentleman-tramp.

n All films open tomorrow

Sheila Johnston