When two-bit hood Johnny (Mulroney) is caught and held prisoner at the club of Seldom Seen (belafonte) while he decides how to 'punish' him, Johnny's girl Blondie (Leigh) kidnaps a laudenam addicted politician's wife in the hope of blackmailing him into acting for Johnny's release.
Having re-established himself after a fallow ten years as a creative and commercial filmmaker, Robert Altman has been using his clout to get made the kind of movies which made him at once the single most interesting American director of the 1970s, and increasingly box office poison. Kansas City, like Pret-A-Porter before it, is likely to baffle and alienate audiences who came in on Altman with The Player and Short Cuts, but will impress and satisfy those who have been following him since the days of MASH, The Long Goodbye, Nashville and Three Women.
Kansas City seems to be a genre movie - it's set in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1934 and features gangsters, hard-boiled dames, gunplay and jazz. However, it stands movie cliches and conventions on end, layering in the political material that has informed Altman's oeuvre from Nashville to Tanner 88, as the story of tough cookie Blondie (Leigh) and her kidnap of laudanum-chugging society wife Carolyn (Richardson) is played out against a violently corrupt election.
Blondie's heist-man husband Johnny (Dermot Mulroney) has stuck up a black gambler en route to a high stakes game run by gangster Seldom Seen (Belafonte). As an all-night jazz jam session plays on and drunks are rounded up to stuff ballot boxes, Seldom Seen ponders on a punishment extreme enough to settle things with Johnny. Meanwhile, Blondie drags the dizzy Carolyn around the city, pressurising her bigshot husband (Michael Murphy) to intervene.
Many will find Kansas City unbearable, because Leigh (with a mouth full of jagged teeth and a permanent snarl) and Richardson (who totters along in a druggy stupour), give brilliant performances as extremely unpleasant characters. Furthermore, the ending is a real slap-in-the-face downer. But if you can get past that, this is the real stuff.