The Long Kiss Goodnight
Reviewed in January 2012 / Click Here to Comment
Written on the occasion of Geena Davis's 56th birthday.
Director: Renny Harlin. Cast: Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson, Craig Bierko, Yvonne Zima, Tom Amandes, Brian Cox, Joseph McKenna, David Morse, Melina Kanakaredes, G.D. Spradlin, Patrick Malahide, Alan North, Dan Warry-Smith, Sharon Washington, Edwin Hodge. Screenplay: Shane Black.
Twitter Capsule: Bold idea strains with jokey tone. Real assassin is Harlin's helpless direction. Also, who killed Geena?

Photo © 1996 New Line Cinema
The Long Kiss Goodnight runs on two ambitions. One is to deliver unto the multiplex our first female, sharp-shooting, bomb-building, ice-skating, death-dealing, school-teaching ninja assassin. Probably you could strike any one of those adjectives and "first" would still hold; if you take out "female," you've still got "ice-skating" and "school-teaching" hanging around as kickers. The other ambition is to make us giggle—not outright laugh, but giggle. The second goal should feel undermining of the first, like a kind of backdoor sexism. Amid the current release of Haywire, coming shortly after Colombiana, etc., etc., we'd like to think that a gun-toting female action-hero shouldn't require the bet-hedging release valve of nudging us to chuckle at her. Happily, this blending of tones isn't really a problem for The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the film's combined pedigrees suggest it could never have taken any other shape. Shane Black, who famously pulled down $3 million for this script, has never written anything without a certain veneer of wit, however dry or soggy. Renny Harlin made a movie about brainiac, semi-mechanized sharks who get fed up, so they start eating everybody. You don't make Deep Blue Sea if you're Bruno Dumont, or even John McTiernan. And then, of course, there's the film's unlikely Valkyrie, Geena Davis, who cracks plenty of goofy smiles in most of her movies, even finding some honest laughs in The Fly. So a breakthrough in gender- and genre-casting, played with bullets flying in a field of flowering camp? From this crowd, that's no insult, and no surprise.

The surprise and also the disappointment of The Long Kiss Goodnight is much simpler, and less politically inflected: it's badly made, or too close to badly made. Harlin has described this repeatedly as his favorite among his own movies, leaving aside the ones that shoulda been contenders for that honor (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) and those that absolutely shouldn't (Driven, Cutthroat Island, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane). Still, he seems helpless at negotiating a frame or at balancing the film's tones, which wind up feeling misguided instead of ambitious. The Long Kiss Goodnight is shot in 2.35:1, meaning that the image is more than twice as wide as it is tall, but look how often Harlin shoots in close-up. They aren't even the right close-ups. To explain why not, here is the most basic distillation of an ornate scenario. Davis plays Samantha Caine, a New Jersey schoolteacher who can't remember anything further back than eight years in the past, but who suddenly starts remembering that she was previously a CIA-trained killer, an expert with knives and ballistics and hand-to-hand combat. Her old enemies, both within the Agency and outside it, get a bead on Samantha's whereabouts at virtually the same moment she does. Soon, she's deflecting attacks on all sides, trying to finish (and remember) old missions and eliminate old antagonists, who are easy to confuse with old friends. She's also trying to figure out if she has any time to protect the vanilla husband and step-daughter she acquired in her "new" life in Jersey, or whether she's too pressed by other duties—or, frankly, whether she's not that interested. Amidst all that, she gets thrown together with comically low-rent private eye Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), to whom she may or may not be attracted, as Samantha or as Charly Baltimore, her CIA alter ego. Maybe she just feels like she's got too tough a road ahead of her to go without an extra pair of hands.

All of this is in the script, but not enough of it shows up in the performances, and that's partly because Harlin can't figure out what to put in the frame. When Sam/Charly (two masculine names for the price of one!) finds herself thrown together with Mitch, Harlin undermines any sense of discomfort or claustrophobia or even unexpected arousal by holding to so many enormous wide shots of the two driving in a car. When Davis, still in the long, woolly locks of the full-skirted schoolteacher, stares into a motel mirror and tries to figure out who she sees there, Harlin stays so far away that the subtleties of her gaze are lost on us, and the other 75% of the frame gives us nothing: fake wood paneling? the back of Davis's head? Then again, you get all the uninformative close-ups you might want of Davis and Jackson reacting to imminent threats, huddled enemies, and perplexing action scenarios that we might actually want to survey from a distance, to amplify tension and to facilitate our grasp of the shoot-out sequences that inevitably follow. Harlin gets even more lost among his gremlin's dozen of villains. Even the flamboyant ones, like Craig Bierko's scenery-gnoshing Timothy, don't attain a whole lot of personality, and forget the interchangeable, poker-faced suits, who include the President of the United States. The screenplay isn't particularly confusing, but Harlin makes it so, because he doesn't pull characters out of the background or the action when they need pulling out, and he doesn't make the film feel like it's moving forward in any way but lurching from sequence to sequence. Nor does he lay the groundwork for jokes, crises, libidinal advances, or high-stakes decisions that finally arrive with too little explanation, and too little vitality in the moment. And what on earth happened to the soundtrack on this film, which often looks badly looped and in one sequence even runs noticeably behind the image?

None of this means that The Long Kiss Goodnight isn't diverting, but that's all it is. At its most successful, the movie is even diverting from itself, by which I mean that the jokes that work best are those that are instantaneous and not particularly character-defined, or those that benefit from feeling a little rag-tag, popping in and out of the movie at unexpected moments. In the first category is the pure, kitschy delight of watching a one-eyed villain in a high-security jail bellowing like Grendel's Mother as he spots Samantha on TV, waving at suburban Jerseyites from a small-town Christmas float. Or Brian Cox's introductory speech about a dog licking its own anus too eagerly, which would serve as a brilliant self-parody of Brian Cox if he had really attained a recognized persona for the average moviegoer by 1996. These are classic, puerile, adrenalin-junky Harlin gags, exactly what you'd expect if you gestated the sense of humor of a mid-80s Schwarzenegger shoot-em-'up for nine months in a tub of cheerfully swilled and aggressively product-placed Finlandia Vodka. Tossing a 7-year-old through a newly blasted hole in the wall of your tin-sided split-level—by way of protecting her from certain death—is a similarly great Harlin one-off.

The verbal humor in lines like "Chefs do that" and "Come help me in the kitchen, and hurry, 'cause I forget where it is" are surely Shane Black's contributions, but they work because of Harlin's cock-eyed enthusiasm for the ridiculous, safeguarded from his larger problems of disorganization. He sustains a funny motif involving Christmas music and holiday kitsch, starting from a witty series of amnesia-themed and assassin-themed double-entendres at an early holiday party, and continuing through an early automobile crash that ends in a funny-creepy mercy-killing of a reindeer. We're no longer in the movie presaged by the incongruously elegant title sequence, with its palimpsest of signatures on negative-exposure film, and Alan Silvestri's score sounding more like Jerry Goldsmith than it ever will again. We're clearly in semi-spoof territory now, which more or less persisted as my favorite among The Long Kiss Goodnight's multiple, knotted strands. This vein of the film climaxes with a truly crazy, Last Circus-style spectacle in which Davis uses her split-second ingenuity to jerry-rig a pulley system of Christmas tree lights on a burning bridge, then hoists herself about a hundred yards in the air with her automatic rifle in hand, and hollers like a banshee while she takes a guy out, right from the open belly of a helicopter. The Gerber Baby-ish billboard in the background of this action freakout is a great touch.

Jackson, who has remained a regular player for Harlin, certainly thrives in the context of so much empty tomfoolery, because his unique brand of firecracker humor has never required a tight structure. The movie already thinks it's funny that a black man has been cast as a guy called Mitch Henessey. Jackson makes the joke even funnier by turning out in a green angora leprechaun beret and a Sleestak-colored turtleneck; his trademark Path Of The Righteous Man glare both invites and dares you to laugh at him, muthaf***a. When he's around, the movie's vacillations between cartoonishness and flat-footedness don't feel like they matter, partly because he seems to enjoy them quite a bit. Davis seems ready to go further with Jackson down this path; she's also eager, Astaire and Rogers-style, to give him sex in exchange for him giving the movie so much comic juice. I wish Harlin was more ready to help these two along. Instead, too much of the bad-ass stuff Davis does sidelines Jackson completely and, much worse, winds up looking silly or stupid instead of sexy or funny. (Ice-skating in slo-mo, rifle in hand, to beat the terrorists?). The screenplay morsels out to Davis some distaff, would-be catch-phrases of the "I'll be back" variety, nearly all of which are lame dick jokes of one kind or another, but too few of them seem inspired by Davis's own, unique brand of kooky intelligence. Her personality, as distinctive as it is, and quite regardless of her being married to the director, seems to barely inform either half of her dual characterization.

Davis takes so many risks in choosing and cultivating this role, so it's all the more disappointing that both Sam and Charly stay so vague, and that the surrounding film doesn't serve them nearly enough. The task, I think, ought to have been to nail down Samantha/Charly, giving her (or them?) plenty of color, and then to grow the movie from there, as Thurman and Tarantino seemed to do on Kill Bill. At the very least you'd allow for the kind of "mediocre movie, great character" responses from which viable franchises sometimes spring. Charly, however, doesn't feel like a great character trapped in an undeserving film, and neither does Samantha. I actually have trouble extrapolating either one of them to a better movie in my mind, because I still know so little about them, and all the most interesting stuff gets clouded or rescinded—like how surprisingly eager Charly is to shake off that suburban ball-and-chain, including her daughter, and resume a life that's more personally gratifying, premised on maintaining zero domestic ties. The movie seems guilty of its own kind of amnesia, repeatedly forgetting these kinds of character notes. The same fate befalls the glimmers of erotic spark between Samantha and Henessey (who openly prefers the schoolteacher to the warrior), all in the service of mid-grade shoot-outs, awkward torture scenes, misty profile shots of Davis in the nude, and melodramatic confessions to cackling, myopic baddies.

Charly may not care about little girls in the suburbs, but Davis famously does, and The Long Kiss Goodnight seemed to originate from that very conviction. Few actresses have thought so much about young female viewers and how they might want to picture themselves. Or, at least, few actresses have done more to put their smarts and their privileged access in the service of studying gender roles on screen and trying to nourish better alternatives within the Hollywood apparatus. She's really put her money and her time where her comic, deliciously bow-shaped mouth is. Best of all, in a way, is that this appealing and dedicated drum-beater for rangier female archetypes maintains such an expansive, unpriggish sense of all the things a girl might want to be, in life or in fantasy. She seems less interested in noble or "strong" role models than she is in adventure, ambition, and imaginative possibility. Davis has played a soap actress (in her underwear, admittedly), a dead person, an undead person, an alien's girlfriend, an insect's girlfriend, a dog's best friend, a mouse's mom (twice), a baseball player, a bank robber, a speechwriter, a news reporter, a pirate, an unwitting but increasingly eager outlaw, and here, an unwitting but increasingly eager assassin. That's quite a catalog, and it leaves out the money and the mojo she put up to get a lot of those movies made, plus the even rangier parts (like Loretta in Moonstruck, Lily Dillon in The Grifters, the lawyer in The Accused, the bus driver in Speed, Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, and Catherine Trammell in Basic Instinct) that she purportedly turned down along the way.

Do moviegoers in 2012 even remember what a box-office sensation Davis was for a short, happy time, even if she was never the absolute easiest actress to cast, and the vehicles sometimes turned out as hamstrung as The Long Kiss Goodnight—an exciting idea on paper, a succulently eccentric proposition with her name above the title, but an addled experience in the execution? The Long Kiss Goodnight happened 16 years ago, emerging as neither a hit nor a bomb, and people who like it have really cleaved to it. But in the timeline of Davis's career, that's a mere four films in the past. By the looks of things, the three interceding (Stuart Little, Stuart Little 2, Accidents Happen), while taking advantage of her remarkable geniality, require by far the least of her of any role she had since she was twelfth-billed and just getting started. Even her TV show, where she played a more convincing U.S. president than G.D. Spradlin does here, and despite the priceless speech she gave when she won her Golden Globe for it, seemed to evaporate over night despite decent ratings and strong-enough critical support.

My brain wandered as soon as The Long Kiss Goodnight was over, because as lightly engaging as the movie is, it doesn't leave your brain with anything else to do. It suddenly occured to me that if you'd asked me in the early-to-mid 1990s, "Who are the six smartest leading ladies currently working in Hollywood?" I'd have responded Emma Thompson, Jodie Foster, Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, Angela Bassett, and, if you privileged her interviews over her vehicles, Sharon Stone. I'm not married to this list, but these were the A-list ladies whose print profiles always made preteritive mention of Mensa, Cambridge, or Yale, often written by interviewers who confessed to feeling under-schooled or openly intimidated. By the mid-to-late 1990s, despite all six taking their blends of braininess, beauty, and idiosyncrasy in totally different directions, every one of their white-hot careers hit the skids at virtually the same time, in most cases quite abruptly. It's great that Meryl Streep survived all this, largely by keeping a very low profile during the bloodbath period I'm talking about, and that we have so many new actresses today who'd like to be "the next Meryl." But has anyone been encouraged to be the next Jodie, the next Susan, the next Geena? Is there a clear, surviving sense of what that would mean? And is there not any time left to take fuller advantage of the original Jodie, Susan, Geena, Sharon, Angela, and Emma, whom we barely get to see anymore? Actresses like these, especially from that generation, are starting to feel as rare as sharp-shooting, bomb-building, ice-skating, death-dealing, school-teaching ninja assassins.

If The Long Kiss Goodnight were more giddy or hard-hitting or funny or cool, I doubt I'd have been thinking about this, much less so glumly. But sometimes "focal retrograde amnesia," where you can remember the last eight years but nothing previous to that, isn't just a plot-point in a thriller—one that manages to be refreshingly unusual and crushingly average at the same time. Sometimes it's a diagnosis for an entire industry. Kiss has one of those insane Hollywood endings where the film works against every single prejudice of the town that produced it and epitomizes happiness, very blithely, as living in the middle of nowhere, giggling on a hillside, eating picnics for the rest of your life. You could say that Samantha Caine and Charly Baltimore are put quite literally out to pasture. The screenplay tries to convince us this is her/their own idea of bliss, but we don't believe it, and a final knife-toss at an unsuspecting cricket rewards us for not believing it, by way of a punchline. In the context of the film, it's one of those jokes about the genre that Harlin comes close to landing but isn't the right guy to really finish off—"And then we all ended happily, which is to say boringly, and we all missed our semi-automatics." The sadder realization is that Davis herself basically got left in the same pasture, and I think she meant to wind up there even less than her character(s) did. I mean, talk about a long kiss goodnight. The last thing I thought this movie would make me feel is depressed.

Of course, they say a sequel to The Long Kiss Goodnight is in the works. Whether Davis is involved I haven't quite figured out. But whether Davis herself gets a sequel, of whatever kind: that, I care about. Grade: C

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