Cinemalphabet: L is for The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
The 1996 Geena Davis action vehicle is a lot better than you’ve heard, while still being as bad as its legacy suggests. Often when one questions why there aren’t more femalecentric action vehicles The Long Kiss Goodnight gets bandied about as though simply mentioning the film ought to be the last word in that conversation. The film’s problems have little to do with its female lead and lots to do with the problems found in a lot of disappointing films, namely the plot isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Before there was Evelyn Salt there was Charly Baltimore. Not the flame haired rapper, but the super assassin alter ego of a frumpy teacher named Samantha Caine. Davis draws influence from her similar performance in Beetlejuice to make Samantha distinct from her sassier, more lethal alter ego, whose penchant for bleach blond hair, smoky eyeliner and frosty pink lipstick is at odds with Caine’s more staid aesthetic.
One of my chief problems with the “Bourne” trope is how long it takes the lead character to realize they used to be a bad ass killer for hire. Sitting through scene after tedious scene of the protagonist parsing together the strands of their fractured identity is more painful than any torture they are subjected to which usually results in all their super spy skills coming back to them in an instant. Or as Roger Ebert puts it:
Certainly it’s a clue to her past life when she kills a deer by breaking its neck with her bare hands. And how about the kitchen scene when Samantha chops a carrot as if she’d never seen a knife before, and suddenly Charly takes over like a human Veg-O-Matic, pulverizing vegetables and then for her encore throwing a tomato in the air and skewering it to the wall with a deftly-thrown knife. “Chefs do that,” she explains to her stunned daughter and boyfriend.
One of the strangest things about the film is I simply don’t know how to take it. It has a lot of humor provided by the strong chemistry between Davis and co-star Samuel L. Jackson as a shady, low budget private eye, Caine/Baltimore hired to help her uncover her past. Oh yeah, did I mention Caine/Baltimore has a touch of “amnesia’ rendering her unable to remember anything about her past except at one point she got knocked up and gave birth to a daughter named Caitlin. Living an idyllic life in some nameless, forgettable New England hamlet with a handsome, kind hearted boyfriend and her daughter, I wondered why she even cared about the past. Whatever it was – being a spy on the run from the powers that be – it was probably better off if she’d just let all that go. Of course, that probably would have been a lot easier if some government spooks hadn’t descended upon her quiet hamlet to kill her and her family.
So much care and attention is given to Davis the action star that the plot and character development are somewhat of an afterthought. Action films lacking plot development are certainly no novelty, but it does feel jarring to make a such a big deal about the fabulous actionista Davis and then give her very little of substance to do. Sure there are action sequences reminiscent of Renny Harlin’s (the director and Davis’ then husband) Die Hard 2, but for the most part they only highlight everything else that’s lacking. The supporting performances are solid, but by no means spectacular (with the exception of Jackson and the ever reliable David Morse) and the film sags in the middle before dragging itself slowly towards its inevitable conclusion. Geena Davis is the best thing about the film and is truly an action hero, but sadly this film doesn’t deserve her.
That said, the film had me at Sam Jackson singing:
I see you, Raymond J!