Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley), a delicious but deadly young woman knocks out her criminal boyfriend Vince Miller (Michael Madsen) and takes off with the money they stole from the Mob. She then hires down-at-heel private eye Jack Andrews (Val Kilmer) to fake her death, feeding him a crock of bull about escaping her abusive ex. Jack falls under Fay’s seductive spell but when she skips out on him too, he pursues her, setting himself against the law, her psycho ex-boyfriend and the Mob.
The Eighties were bookended by mini-revivals of film noir, the first following Lawrence Kasdan’s snappily-scripted Body Heat (1981) while the second came with John Dahl’s debut as a writer-director. Kill Me Again made nary a ripple at the American box office yet sparked the neo-noir movement that grew to define independent cinema throughout the Nineties. Despite, or perhaps because noir was such a beloved sub-genre among the critical establishment, the film was poorly received at the time but won some influential admirers within the industry. Francis Ford Coppola was one vocal champion and went on to encourage his nephew Nicolas Cage to take the lead in Dahl’s superior follow-up, Red Rock West (1992).
Another possible explanation for the indifferent response might be that critics had a track record of hostility towards films pairing real-life married couples, in this instance Val Kilmer and then-spouse Joanne Whalley, billed as Joanne Whalley-Kilmer at the time. First glimpsed having his finger snapped by a couple of loan sharks, Kilmer is on solid mumbly form if a little too boyish. He does not have the miles on his face to wholly convince as a burnt-out private eye. It is almost a shame this film had not been made only a few years later when in the wake of stellar turns in Tombstone (1994) and Heat (1995) he gained a new layer of gravitas as an actor. It took a decade and a half before Kilmer essayed a genuinely memorable private eye as Gay Perry in Shane Black’s sublime Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). Mourning a dead wife and child, Jack Andrews’ broken heart invites our sympathy even as it makes him easy pickings for foxy Fay.
Working alongside co-writer David W. Warfield, Dahl concocts a plot that does a fair job raising the stakes for the increasingly unfortunate Jack but never really catches fire with that simmering sense of danger one associates with either vintage noir or more contemporary works like Blood Simple (1983) or The Square. Set in and around Las Vegas the film could have used a little more of its seedy neon glamour although Dahl’s background in graphic novels remains evident from the arresting, occasionally dreamy visuals. He lifts a handful of visual tricks familiar from vintage noir but is not too heavy-handed, creating a style that suits the story without crossing into the realm of parody. As implied by the title, characters here repeatedly resort to faking their deaths as a means of escape from a bad situation. This is tied into a broader preoccupation with the search for a second, even third chance in life that plagues the two leading characters.
The film established Dahl’s fascination and skilful depiction of wide-open desert roads over the more familiar urban claustrophobia of vintage noir (his films could almost be westerns), and small mid-western towns that become a refuge for alluring but amoral women. As played by an undeniably dishy Joanne Whalley, Fay Forrester proves more petulant and kittenish than sultry, hard-boiled femme fatale. Sort of the bratty young version of Linda Fiorentino’s redoubtable Bridget Gregory in Dahl’s seminal The Last Seduction (1994). By contrast, co-star Michael Madsen was clearly born to play this style of classic heavy, something he would prove time and again throughout the ensuing decade before his career went pear shaped. Ending on a nicely ironic note, Kill Me Again might not be an unsung classic but was a stepping stone towards greater things for John Dahl.