Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Every holiday season, there are always a group of movies I like to watch which I call “non-Christmas Christmas movies”. These are films which just happen to take place at Christmas, but do not have a plotline that’s directly related to the holiday, and, of course, some of my favourite films from this sub-genre include Die Hard and Gremlins. I’ve always preached my fandom for screenwriter-director Shane Black but, for whatever reason, the guy just seems to some sort of aversion to the holiday season. Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang were violence-filled stories that just happened to take place around Christmastime, and even though the finished film did not take place during the holidays, his original screenplay for The Last Boy Scout was yet another Yuletide tale of people trying to kill each other. However, his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight took things a step further by depicting a Christmas Eve where an eight-year old girl is kidnapped and almost frozen to death inside a freezer, and terrorists plan to set off a chemical bomb in Niagara Falls to kill thousands of people. After the success of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black became one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood and his script for The Last Boy Scout was sold to Warner Bros. for a then-record $1.75 million. However, his own record would be shattered in 1996 when he sold his screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight to New Line Cinema for a whopping $4 million, a record that still stands today. Sadly, while The Long Kiss Goodnight did okay at the box office, it was hardly a blockbuster hit and its final numbers probably did not justify the cost of the screenplay. Black pretty much dropped out of sight for nearly a decade before finally resurfacing to direct one of his own screenplays, which became Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. While The Long Kiss Goodnight did not achieve the success it deserved on its original release, it has built up a fairly devoted cult following and represents the type of witty, clever action film that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to make any more. You can debate all you want about whether this screenplay was worth $4 million, but it definitely provides a lot of top-notch entertainment.

It’s interesting to consider to think that the premise of a spy having amnesia was probably inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novelization of The Bourne Identity, but that The Long Kiss Goodnight predated the screen adaptations of the Bourne novels by six years. However, The Long Kiss Goodnight is much more humorous and tongue-in-cheek about the idea. The heroine of this story is Samantha Caine (Geena Davis), a seemingly ordinary mother and schoolteacher whose memory of her life only spans eight years. At that time, Samantha was found washed up on a beach in New Jersey, badly injured and suffering from complete amnesia. She was two months pregnant with her daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima), and had no memory of her past life and only a few clues about her true identity. Eight years after her recovery, Samantha has hired a low-rent private investigator named Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson) to look into her past, but is otherwise pretty happy and content with her new life. However, a bad car accident suddenly causes her to start having brief flashbacks to her former life and a fragments of her old persona gradually begin to resurrect themselves. This also happens to coincide with one of Samantha’s former enemies seeing her on TV in a local Christmas parade, prompting him to show up at her home to make an attempt on her life. Samantha and Mitch then both to decide to embark on a road trip to finally uncover the full truth about her past. Their trail lead them to an eccentric old man named Nathan Waldman (Brian Cox), who eventually rescues Samantha and Mitch from an assassination attempt and reveals that he used to be Samantha’s handler at the CIA. Before the accident that caused her to lose her memory, Samantha actually worked as a lethal covert government assassin named Charly Baltimore.

Samantha is shocked by this revelation at first, but gradually starts to regain her old skills as an assassin and comfortably slips back into her old Charly Baltimore persona. She wants to return to this lifestyle permanently and forget the past eight years even happened. This would involve her abandoning her daughter, but Mitch tries to convince Charly that the much nicer “Samantha Caine” persona was a closer reflection what her real personality should be. All these psychological issues are put aside, however, after Caitlyn is kidnapped by Charly’s former arch-nemesis, Timothy (Craig Bierko), and Charly is forced to rescue her and stop a potentially devastating terrorist attack. The Long Kiss Goodnight was directed by Renny Harlin, who had become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after action directors after such hits as Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Cliffhanger, but had just come off of making the disastrous pirate film, Cutthroat Island, one of the biggest flops of the nineties. No one has ever mistaken Harlin for being a great artist, but he does know how to make entertaining popcorn movies, and he is right in his element with The Long Kiss Goodnight. The film was made during the earlier days of CGI and some of the special effects on display look pretty lousy today, but the action scenes are still a lot of fun. However, what elevates The Long Kiss Goodnight from being just another brainless action film is the sly writing of Shane Black and the chemistry between the actors. Shane Black showed himself to be a master at writing interplay between mismatched characters in Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. The Long Kiss Goodnight is unique in that the mismatched buddy combo this time around are a man and a woman, and the woman is the much stronger character. The interplay between Samantha/Charly and Mitch is a treat to watch, thanks to the great chemistry between Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.

The Long Kiss Goodnight pretty much marked the end of Geena Davis’ career as a leading lady in Hollywood. She was married to Renny Harlin at the time and after their collective failure with Cutthroat Island, he was going to do his damnedest to turn his wife into a legitimate action star with this film. Sadly, the film’s lukewarm performance at the box office pretty much marked the end of that experiment, and Davis’ work in film and television has been sporadic ever since. It’s a shame because she makes a pretty kickass action heroine in The Long Kiss Goodnight and makes a convincing transition from being the sweet, ordinary Samantha at the beginning of the film to becoming the more hardened, dangerous Charly. However, the real star of the film and the glue that holds it together is Samuel L. Jackson, who is simply delightful as Mitch Hennessey. On the surface, the character of Mitch is a complete loser, but Jackson manages to make him immensely likable, and delivers Mitch’s wisecracks with such pitch-perfect timing that his dialogue often leaves you howling with laughter. Jackson’s work in The Long Kiss Goodnight is not the kind of performance that wins any awards, but it doesn’t contain a false note and does such a fine job of elevating the material. While his role isn’t very large, Brian Cox pretty much steals every scene he’s in as the cranky Nathan Waldman and, like Jackson, delivers his absurd lines with such perfect timing that’s impossible not to laugh. The brief interactions that Jackson and Cox have together are so hilarious that I would love to see an entire movie with these two actors playing off each other. Shane Black has always been good at writing descipable villains for his stories, and Craig Bierko does a great job at making Timothy a bad guy you love to hate. Oh, and it’s also worth mentioning that the motivation for the staging of Timothy’s terrorist attack is so that a corrupt government official can secure more funding for his agency. In other words, The Long Kiss Goodnight predates 09/11 conspriacy theories by five years!

Hmmmm, so does this meana Shane Black knew about the attacks on September 11th? Maybe THAT’S why he didn’t work in Hollywood for nine years! Okay, in all seriousness, it seemed that when The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight were originally released, some critics were so focused on decrying how Black didn’t deserve so much money for his scripts that they failed to notice how entertaining his films really were. Yes, no one would ever confuse the screenplay for The Long Kiss Goodnight with Citizen Kane, but it contains all the elements that Shane Black writes so well. The dialogue is sharp, the characterizations are wonderfully quirky, and the action scenes are often very clever. Black is particularly good at putting his characters into seemingly inescapable cliffhanger situations and much of the fun is trying to figure out how they’re going to get out of them. When Black resurfaced in 2005 to make Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, he used his film to gleefully poke fun of a lot of the action movie cliches he helped establish. While the film did garner critical acclaim, it received only a limited theatrical release and did not gross much money. Thankfully, Black has since been hired to write and direct the upcoming Iron Man 3 and it will be interesting to see him apply his quirky writing style to a comic book movie. Apparently, Renny Harlin is also planning a Long Kiss Goodnight sequel in attempt to revive his fledgling career, but since Black is not going to be writing it, who knows if it will be worthwhile? Anyway, The Long Kiss Goodnight does such a good job at appealing to its core audience that it’s somewhat baffling that it wasn’t a big hit. However, those who have actually seen The Long Kiss Goodnight really do seem to love it and it remains an underrated gem. So, this holiday season, if you’re tired of the usual holly-jolly Christmas fare, pop in this film and experience a Christmas Eve where Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson trade one-liners while wiping out terrorists.

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