Shane Black seems to have devoted the vast majority of his career to the endless quest to make action movies into R-rated Christmas family films and vice versa. It’s not even a debatable point but almost every film has been affiliated with (whether it’s script writing, directing or both) at some point has at least a reference to the yule time period and some kind of fractured family unit.
From Lethal Weapon to Iron Man 3, it’s been a oddly sweet habit that’s served him well, but perhaps maybe the most blatant use of these aspects is The Long Kiss Goodnight, a 1996 action movie scripted by Black and directed by Hollywood über-hack extraordinaire Renny Harlin that strangely managed to personify the term underrated.
Samantha Caine is a woman with a mysterious past. Found on a beach eight years prior with her head empty with amnesia but with her belly full of pregnancy, she’s managed to pull herself together and become a school teacher in an idyllic American town that makes your average Capra-esque burg look like cracktown USA in comparison and is currently raising her child, Caitlin, with fellow teacher and all round nice guy Hal. Meanwhile, after working through all the best private eye’s in order to shed light on her past, Samantha has now settled on hiring the shit ones, which brings us neatly to Mitch Hennessy, a skeevy P.I. who’s somehow managed to unearth some valuable details. It’s a good thing too, because whoever’s the Hell Samantha was before seems to have managed to make some pretty nasty enemies; one of whom tries to kill her at her house. Heading off with Mitch alone in order to find out who she is once and for all, it soon becomes fairly apparent that Samantha’s previous persona had some pretty fucking gnarly gifts, like being able to kill the living crap out of someone twice her size. This might have something to do with the fact that Samantha is actually Charly Baltimore, a remorseless, self absorbed killer for the CIA and the further down the rabbit hole Sam and Mitch go, the more her original memories return. Finding themselves in the middle of a full-blown CIA conspiracy and with Samantha become more and more like the sociopathic Charly every minute, Mitch is afraid that his life expectancy is at rock bottom, but when the architects behind this plot target Caitlin, the loving half of Samantha has to merge with the cold-blooded murder mindset of Charly in order to bring the sort of pain only a knife wielding mother can.
Long before Furiosa reved her engine, the Bride killed Bill or Black Widow did that flippy leg-scissors thing she does all the time, Charly Baltimore was the rather unloved missing link between those modern day female ass-kickers and the classics such as Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. Already on her first strike after the infamous failure of Cutthroat Island (also directed by her then-husband, Harlin), the world actually missed a trick by not giving Gena Davis more action roles after TLKG as she puts in exemplary work as both sides to her character’s psychological coin. Sweetly frumpy as the vunerable Samantha Caine but legitimately terrifying slaughtering various stuntmen in her bleach blonde hair and raccoon eye make-up as Charly, Davis puts in an impressively physical performance and is a legitimately believable action star.
If Davis is a neck snapping revelation, then Samuel L. Jackson seals the deal with the magnificently self loathing Mitch. Black has a penchant for writing washed up, burnt-out heroes (Give a moody hello, Martin Riggs and Joe Hallenbeck) but Jackson brings his usual shouty bluster to the character, not to mention sporting a stunning array of pimpwear. Watching him haul on a pair of hideous tartan slacks to the tune of Lady Marmalade is an experience that is nothing short of fucking resplendent and his fuzzy green flatcap is out of this world. Their double act is a winner, but then a buddy movie from Black rarely turns in anything less than solid gold and if the scripter’s claim that they rewrote his script to the point where he was essentially just paid for the jokes may be cynical, but it proved to be money exceedingly well spent as The Long Kiss Goodnight remains staggeringly quotable to this day with one liners so meaty you could chew on it like shoe leather. Chucking out the awesome one liners like Oprah Winfrey gives out free cars, Black doles out cracking dialogue to EVERYONE which must have been exceptionally fun to say.
“I ain’t handsome, I ain’t rich and the last time I got blown, candybars cost a nickle.” Drawls Jackson at one point and when Craig Bierko’s chillingly charming villain pulls a knife on Davis she sneers “Oh honey, only four inches?”, “You’ll feel me!” Is the achingly cool response.
Another memorable aspect of the film is the
CIA’s plan to commit terrorist atrocity on American soil in order to scare up a bigger budget that plays amusingly like a 9/11 conspiracy theory; it’s even MORE weird when you consider it was made in 1996 – did the CIA rip off Black: answers on a postcard please… (Actually, you know what? Don’t).
The plot and characters may be by Shane Black but the extraordinarily overblown action sequences are pure Renny Harlin who exuberant stages set pieces that are as preposterously awesome as they are complete and utter bollocks (Sorry Renny, exploding handgrenades do not create a wall of fire that roars through corridors like Independence Day). That being said, he gives proceedings a nicely hard edge – everyone smokes like laboratory beagles and the leads soak up an alarming amount of supposedly mortal wounds – and it has a knowing tongue wedged in it’s cheek: the climactic truck detonation is so large and loud, it not only probably made God drop his mimosa in shock, but it audaciously clears the movie of every lingering plot thread it may have had dangling. However, Harlin’s frenetic need to be as explosive as humanly possible trips him up from time to time with the occasional bad visual effect and at one moment he even has Davis recreate the surfing-on-an-overturned truck gag from Terminator 2 virtually shot for shot (did no one bring it up during pre-productionat all?).
The very definition of an underrated 90’s action classic, The Long Kiss Goodnight, much like The Last Boy Scout (Black’s earlier bombastic collaboration with Tony Scott) was a dollop of buddy movie pulp that was screaming for a sequel that never surfaced, but is a very funny and solidly dependable potboiler who’s liberal spraying of bullets and wisecracks mean it’s always shoved in my player the very second it hits december.
So if you haven’t sampled it’s seasonal charms, now might be a good time to give a wave hello to a kiss goodnight.