Last week, I met up with a friend (and sometimes WMIF writer) who had just seen Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, a movie I previously raved about. “So, what did you think?” I asked, already sensing the answer based on her body language. “It’s fun, but it’s a mess,” was her response. She made special effort to emphasize that last part, as if to ask me, “Did you not notice all of the plot holes?”
She wasn’t really wrong, but Shane Black’s movies all have third-act problems. Plus, buddy comedies aren’t exactly known for their impeccable plots. Primarily, the buddy duo need to be fun together, and the central mystery has to keep you engaged, even if it doesn’t quite add up in the end. The Nice Guys has all of that plus several clever deconstructions of genre tropes. A mess? Maybe a little, at least once Kim Basinger shows up. But Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are hilarious together!
Later that night, I watched 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight for the first time. It’s another Shane Black movie, from the era when he was just a writer, not a writer-director. It stars Geena Davis as an amnesiac housewife named Samantha who turns out to really be a secret agent named Charly and Samuel L. Jackson as the private detective who’s just along for the increasingly bumpy ride. Basically, when bad guys glimpse Samantha in news coverage of a local Christmas parade (it’s Shane Black – of course it’s Christmas!) they panic over her re-emergence (they thought she died 8 years ago) and send assassins to finish her off. Their attack as well as a traumatic car crash shakes things loose, and Geene Davis goes all Jason Bourne on everyone.
It’s a lot of fun, but – and this is where I echo my friend’s Nice Guys criticism – it’s also a big mess. I’m still deciding if the fun outweighs the mess, though. While I mull that over, let’s put the film into its historical context:
Shane Black started his career as a 24-year-old nobody who sold Lethal Weapon as a spec script for a cool quarter of a million, kick-starting a short-lived era where many young screenwriters became insanely wealthy overnight. By 1994, The Long Kiss Goodnight sold to New Line Cinema for $4 million, a new record on the spec script market, one which stood for over a decade.
The Long Kiss Goodnight was the beginning of the end, though, not just for Black, who didn’t work again until 2005, but also for every other writer on the spec market. Too often, the studios paid out big bucks on scripts which never left development hell or, worse, turned into box office flops. The Long Kiss Goodnight, for example, certainly lined Black’s bank account, but it was a financial failure as a film, grossing $33m domestic/$89m worldwide off of a $65m budget. The Last Action Hero, released two years earlier, had also been based on a spec purchase, and look how well that turned out. How did it make sense to keep making such big investments on projects which returned such disappointing results?
Sadly, that’s not Long Kiss Goodnight‘s only legacy. Geena Davis had been trusted to anchor and open big-budget action movies two years in a row, Cutthroat Island in ’95 and Long Kiss Goodnight in ’96, both directed by her then-husband Renny Harlin. Cutthroat Island bankrupted its studio.Add in the concurrent failures of Sharon Stone’s The Quick and the Dead and Lori Petty’s Tank Girl and the business takeaway, fair or not, seemed to be that female-led action movies were an unwise investment, much in the same way Supergirl, Elektra and Catwoman are repeatedly cited by Hollywood execs (thanks to the Sony hack, we know this to be true) as exhibits 1, 2 and 3 in why you shouldn’t make a female-led superhero movie.
Though there’s been much progress in recent years (thank you, Hunger Games and Divergent, looking forward to Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel) we still rarely get female-led action movies. It’s gotten to the point that when they do come along they tend to be treated as novelty items, or, in the case of Ghostbusters, rejected sight unseen.
As we’ve all become more aware of the bullshit sexism undergirding many of Hollywood’s decisions, The Long Kiss Goodnight has enjoyed a bit of a re-appreciation, yet this is my first time seeing it. Geena Davis’ performance, the film’s clear strongpoint, stacks up nicely to what was then the gold standard for action heroines: Linda Hamilton in T2. Except it’s really more like Davis plays the Terminator 1 Sarah Connor in the first half of the film (when she’s just a soccer mom) and the Terminator 2 Sarah Connor in the second half (when she reverts back to being an assassin). That makes for an odd dynamic. We spend so much time with Samantha, who explains everything to us in an opening voice-over monologue, that we’re suckered into believing this is her journey. Once she’s gone, though, she’s gone for good. It’s as if Charly kills her and barely absorbs any of her maternal instincts.
Still, Charly is instantly badass, firing off one-liners like any other self-respecting 90s action hero, drinking and smoking like an old pro and rivaling James Bond in sexual aggressiveness. When she escapes a torture device and kills one of the head bad guys, the movie, in a rare example of restraint, knows we don’t actually need to see the massacre she’s bringing down on all of the henchman guarding Jackson’s character. We can glimpse all of it on the horrified reactions on his face, and believe every second of it.
But at a certain point, to be honest, I had no idea what was going on anymore. The plot somehow morphs into a conspiracy involving the underfunded CIA conspiring with the same people Charly was once ordered to kill. There’s something about a chemical bomb. The emotional throughline of whether or not Charly will learn to accept and love the daughter she had and raised when she was Samantha gets a bit lost in the twisting plot and never-ending action. Craig Bierko, of all people, is around as the sneering bad guy in constant need of a shave. I lost track of whether or not they explained why Samantha’s boyfriend completely disappears from the film.
In short, it’s a mid-90s action movie, one where “the dialogue serves only to separate and set up the action scenes” (hat tip to Roger Ebert) and the set pieces mostly happened in camera, not yet replaced by CGI. Outside of Speed and Die Hard with a Vengeance, I don’t know that I could really explain, off the top of my head, the master plans of the bad guys in many of the action movies of the era, like Broken Arrow, Chain Reaction, Eraser and Mission Impossible. But I definitely remember some of those big things blowing up real nice. Long Kiss Goodnight is really no different in that regard.
What sets it apart is its central twist on the familiar formula: In this movie, the girl is the hero, and the guy is the damsel in distress. They are technically a buddy duo, but it’s mostly her saving him while he cracks jokes. At one point, Jackson’s character sums up his plan of action (“Wait for you to save me,”) and you nod in agreement. In 1996, not very many leading men would agree to play that part, yet that’s historically been one of the only kinds of roles available for women in action movies.
What Long Kiss Goodnight taught me about Shane Black, though, is I prefer his newer work which tempers its action with genre inversion, be it an Iron Man 3 henchman shouting, “Don’t shoot! Seriously, I don’t even like working here. They are so weird,” or Ryan Gosling’s big “I am a good detective!” Nice Guys moment quickly turning into “Okay, maybe I was wrong about that.”
Outside of the fact that its main character is female, The Long Kiss Goodnight has none of that. It might nicely fill out a Shane Black bingo card – Christmas setting, private detective, convoluted mystery, soulful kid, a buddy pairing – but it feels more like a Renny Harlin movie, all over the top action, all the time. The way Charly repeatedly taunts Samantha through dreams, for instance, feel lifted more out of Harlin’s mind (think Nightmare on Elm Street 4) than Black’s.
That’s not to say Harlin’s supremely campy style doesn’t have its appeal. However, the comedy comes not from inversion but instead extreme exaggeration. For example, during the climax, Charly “uses a dead body as a counterweight to lift her into the sky above Niagara Falls so she can shoot it out with a helicopter under the ‘Welcome to Canada’ arch” (another hat tip to Roger Ebert).
Then I read this part of Kayti Burt’s recent DenOfGeek essay about the female empowerment in X-Men: Apocalypse and Hunger Games:
Coming out of Catching Fire, I remember being filled with a sense of giddy empowerment. I had grown up watching action and science fiction films, and could probably count on one hand the number of times a woman was given the hero moment, even less so when she was supported by a male protagonist in that moment — by a character who was asking to unleash her power versus trying to control it or, worse yet, using it in his own journey or heroism.
My male movie-going companion, who has overlapping cinematic taste with me, found Catching Fire repetitive — and not just within the Hunger Games franchise. He felt he had seen this narrative before. But, for me, and for what I expect was many female movie-goers, there was nothing repetitive about being given this moment of unabashed female power and heroism. I’ll let you know when it starts getting repetitive, Hollywood.
Maybe I’m like the male movie-going companion she referenced. Maybe I’m underestimating just how empowering it still is to see Geena Davis drive a semi-truck and snarl “Suck my cock!” while taking out the bad guys in Long Kiss Goodnight. Okay. Now that I’ve actually written that out and read it back, it does sound pretty awesome.
Is a fun, but muddled 90s action movie to be forgiven just because it has a female lead? That depends. How much fun is it? Well, didn’t you read that part about Geena Davis riding a corpse into the air and firing at a helicopter? That’s not exactly the level of ingenuity I now associate with Shane Black movies after The Nice Guys, but it’s still pretty cool.
What do you think? Have you seen The Long Kiss Goodnight and don’t know where I get off referring to it as a bit of a mess? Let me know in the comments.