REVIEW: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) is school teacher suffering from retrograde amnesia. When she is involved in a car crash, she begins to experience flashbacks to an earlier, more violent life. Meanwhile Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), a private detective hired to investigate Samantha’s forgotten past, hits on a link to her past – and that link puts Samantha back onto the radar of the government spy program that tried to kill her eight years earlier.

The Long Kiss Goodnight is a 1996 action film starring Geena Davis and directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin. A year earlier they had collaborated on the disastrously unsuccessful pirate film Cutthroat Island. That makes this second collaboration something of a surprise: a surprise that there was studio still willing to bankroll their film and a surprise that where Cutthroat Island was a creative misfire on almost every level, The Long Kiss Goodnight is a generally effective and entertaining B-grade potboiler.

A lot of the appeal does come down to Davis and Jackson. Jackson is, ultimately, doing what Jackson most regularly does – although in this case his cocky, foul-mouthed bravado masks a much more overwhelmed and vulnerable man who is severely out of his depth. It is, however, Davis’ film through and through. For the film’s first two-thirds, she gets to two play two starkly different characters: one a loving and gentle mother and school teacher, and the other a cold and cynical professional killer. The interesting material comes in the film’s final act, in which the rival personalities of Samantha and Charly must be reconciled together and a unified woman finish her story – both competent killer and loving mother in one. It’s not subtle stuff, but then The Long Kiss Goodnight is not a subtle movie. Davis gives a performance that is pitch-perfect for the film’s pulp sensibilities.

It is great to see a hard-edged action vehicle with a female protagonist. While Davis and Harlin had already developed one with Cutthroat Island’s Morgan, with The Long Kiss Goodnight they showcase someone much more potent and interesting for the viewer. In the context of mid-1990s American action cinema, she is a particularly textured and intriguing heroine. She does not have to choose between being someone’s wife, or someone’s mother, or a trained secret agent. She gets to do it all, and it feels perfectly natural.

With a background of covert operations, a corrupted American government, and illegal assassinations, writer Shane Black wisely uses it to flesh out a series of action sequences and chases. They’re effectively staged, well choreographed and deliberately quite shark and bloody. All things being equal, if you are going to direct a film with a lot of violence and death it’s worth showing off that such acts are unpleasant and awful. To me The Long Kiss Goodnight manages to be blunt without being sadistic. Its action hurts.

Davis and Jackson get the support of a hugely talented cast, even if their roles are comparatively functional and slight. Craig Bierko is nicely unlikeable as Timothy, Charly’s ex-lover dispatched to have her killed. Brian Cox is typically coarse and ill-tempered as former contact Dr Nathan Waldman. Smaller roles are taken up by the likes of David Morse and Patrick Malahide; talented actors that can always be relied upon to bring depth and nuance where the script perhaps does not entirely provide it.

It’s easy to dismiss The Long Kiss Goodnight because it’s a loud, brash action film, but I honestly think that would be a mistake. Renny Harlin is not the world’s accomplished action director, and not by a considerable margin. His chain of mediocre films, including Die Hard 2, Cutthroat Island and Deep Blue Sea, is testament to that. For one film, however, thanks to a strong script and great performances, he really managed to pull out a quality movie. The Long Kiss Goodnight is a hell of a good time.

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