In Which Chefs Do That
There is a feel to the actioners of the 90’s that is oh so special. The move away from 80’s lunkiness to a sleeker, more stylish approach to the genre. Trading in muscle men for everyday workaday heroes in extraordinary situations. Morphing slammed to the head action with an attempt at panache, imbuing images with as much flair as possible to hook the mind of the short attentioned. Taking the most advanced filmmaking technologies, both practical and digital, and applying them to the highest level of spectacle.
These are the hallowed realms of Point Break, Speed, Con Air, the Die Hard sequels, and Face Off. A place of grandiloquent goofiness that sometimes codified the ideals and principles of the era. For where better to find what was coursing threw the psyche of the culture than digging through its delicious junk; finding something as oddly endearing as The Long Kiss Goodnight.
The Long Kiss Goodnight is the brainchild of 90’s garbage man extraordinaire Renny Harlin (purveyor of such fine flicks like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, and Deep Blue Sea) and screenwriting maestro Shane Black; whose poison pen and knack for plotting helped reinvigorate many an action genre. The two together is both perfect and unnatural. Harlin, ascending to the top of big budget schlock, and Black with his wisecracks have bore out a movie of moderate incoherence, some overblown fun, and more than a hint of pathos to be felt around the Holiday season.
The Long Kiss Goodnight follows Sam Kate (Geena Davis). An amnesiac woman with a happy life. She’s got a cute daughter, a down the road pleasant boyfriend, and a job teaching the little ones at a school. All that changes when she suffers a traumatic car accident that resurfaces memories of her previous life as notorious super-spy Charly Baltimore. That combined with schlubby P.I. Mitch Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson), bringing in the trail of her past, and a couple of hitmen sent on her tail, causes her to fully emerge from her memories as the ass kicking agent of yore. Just in time to stop a nefarious plot during the holidays and save her kid.
As mentioned the combo of Harlin/Black is unfortunately not a match made in heaven. For all the thrillingly over blown action to come, Harlin is not a director of actors. Offering them no real space to become comfortable with Black’s looping dialog. One liners fall deathly flat, and what should be charming banter based on the people onscreen frequently comes off as needling and tired. A force for a laugh because we’re all having fun here.
But that tone adds something to the movie. Revealing a distinct texture in the fissures, for what should be poppy and filled with zest has more than a dose of acridity. A feeling of regret and loss at the world that one currently exists in, and the distinct touch of remorse that a competent women is constantly forced to choose between domestic life and the working one. For Sam/Charly is a fascinating being. As Sam she is a person who has found distinct meaning in her amnesiac life. Certainly the past gnaws at her, but her child, job, and boyfriend are satisfying to one end or another. But in the 90’s nothing can be settled, one must fight from the structures of the moment to draw up the grievances of the past for true purpose.
And so Sam picks at the edges of the past and comes to the inevitable truth of the time. The violence of the moment is all unfinished business from the Cold War. Loose ends refused to be tied up, and friends joining enemies for the sake of a few bucks. For the grand and pernicious conspiracies drudged out of Charly’s memories are those of jilted National Security folks. The people who defined themselves in the seeming unending conflicts of the past to line their pockets and bolster their position. Now the baddies are left to scramble and gin up their own controversies: bombing the WTC in’93 to grease the wheels of funding from a president who ‘gasps’ wants to give it to health care.
This sense of being adrift in a world that doesn’t have a need for your elegantly transfers to Charly. She’s the spy of another era, and when thrust into the context of the Go-Go 90’s her life is pointless with the once exception of the unfinished business that allows her to exist. When the full personality of Charly comes forth her strutting cool girl badassness is undercut with a regret. She knows she can lose her domestic life, and as much as she wants to deny it, her family means a lot to her. So now she must play the work addicted parental figure, a person drawn away from business when the call of the yuletide cheer is denied.
Davis is the true linchpin for making any of this feel real. Her idyllic home is neither too idyllic nor unnecessarily bogged down in the mundane. Sam has agency in her life as a mother and a teacher, and fully embraces it. The slow build up of spy shit is played more for sadness at what’s leaking away. Once Charly emerges it starts as a tough talking stereotype, before integrating the life she lived into it, becoming a whole human being.
But being a woman involves so much sacrifice and pain. And while that experience is outlandishly presented here (with climactic fireball explosions that only the 90’s could provide), it rings true with that Christmas melancholy that Black loves to revel in. There’s meaning to be found in The Long Kiss Goodnight, even through all the fireworks.
Odds and Ends
- While I’m mostly positive here, this is still Black’s weakest film from his original run as a hot shot screenwriter. You can tell he was about to burn out big time from this, and Harlin is no Donner or McTiernan no matter how hard he tries.
- There is a bit early on where Davis throws her kid out of a whole in the wall and into a tree, and it’s truly a hilarious piece of overblown filmmaking.
- As much as I’m loathe to partake in the “guilty pleasure” mindset, I can’t in good sense say I like the films of Harlin, but there are endearing enjoyments in the likes of Cliffhanger and Deep Blue Sea
I need two more Holiday themed or Holiday adjacent films to cover this month. Let me know what they could be in the comments.