The Long Kiss Goodnight Review
Well, most moviegoers have their preferred – their favourite – actors and actresses, and, after a while, it becomes apparent who your favourite directors are as well. But your favourite screenwriters? I’ve seen thousands of films and I still only know a handful of names. A personal favourite has always been David Mamet, although he is very polarising in terms of opinions on his work. Basically he can do excellent male, often military-themed, dialogue, but is less well equipped to handle the nuances of female interaction. Still, he’s done some of my favourite scripts, in a selection of little-known features: from Heist to the vastly underrated Spartan (one of the only decent Val Kilmer lead vehicles) – and, of course, the more famous Glengarry Glen Ross, and Ronin (one of the last decent De Niro movies in no small part thanks to the excellent script). Eminently quotable, Mamet’s work has always been very distinctive – “Either you're part of the problem or you're part of the solution, or you're just part of the landscape”.
There are only a few scriptwriters who are this witty, cool, and smart in their scripts, and, aside from Mamet, I also highly rate Shane Black. He’s one of those writers who is constantly hounded to write a new script; as clever and anecdote-laden as Joss Whedon’s work is wacky and pop-culture-tastic, but far less prolific. Which is a shame, because I can’t think of a single bad script from him. He did Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, that awesome early Bruce Willis actioner The Last Boyscout and, most recently, wrote and made his directorial debut with the modern noir-esque thriller Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, featuring one of Robert Downey Jr’s significant comeback performances. It’s absolutely packed with witty, smart, catchy and quote-worthy dialogue – “Did my dad love me? Well, he used to beat me in Morse code, so it's possible, but he never said the words.” Black’s actually been tipped to direct Iron Man 3 (and, I’d assume, write it, although that hasn’t been confirmed yet), but we’ll see how much changes between now and the 2013 release date.
There’s a distinct trend to Black’s scripts – a little comparison and you’ll find they all follow either a cop or an ex-cop-turned private detective, they all feature mismatched pairings, involve an important character being kidnapped (usually a child used to bait the leads) and, rather curiously, are almost all set at Christmastime. Yet despite following this very loose formula, they all come across as consistently fresh and exciting, seldom drawing direct comparison. Even Lethal Weapon 1 & 2 were fairly different efforts, and the noir-esque twinge to his latter efforts certainly gives them an unusual edge. Effortlessly witty, I have pretty-much all of his works (ok, so I haven’t added Last Action Hero to my collection, but that’s not really a fault of the script) and am always on the lookout for something new from him, even though it often takes the best part of a decade for a new project to arise.
Of course this was the case with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which was made some ten years after his previous production, the all-out action-thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight. Directed by Renny “Cliffhanger” Harlin, it starred Geena Davis, making for a surprisingly effective action heroine, as well as the eternally cool Samuel L. Jackson as her reluctant, unwitting partner. Barely breaking even at the Box Office, the distinctly R-rated (18-certificate here) actioner remains a very enjoyable movie, in part thanks to Sam Jackson, but mostly – and in spite of the fact that he has admitted that it has undergone some rewrite work – due to the words of Mr. Shane Black.
“We jumped out of a building!”
“Yes, it was very exciting. Tomorrow we go to the zoo.”
The story is kind of a cross between The Bourne Identity and Die Hard 3, introducing us to mild-mannered, distinctly aloof housewife Samantha Caine, who, despite her loving husband and young daughter, is a struggling amnesiac who just can’t remember anything prior to a terrible accident that took place some 8 years ago. When she’s spotted by an old acquaintance – who promptly tries to kill her – she teams up with hapless private detective Mitch Henessey in order to get to the bottom of what is going on. As her memories come back, so do her extraordinary skills as a killing machine, and, with the bodies piling up, the two uncover a native terrorist plot involving high-level government officials and the a group of assassins who may just be the closest thing Samantha has to “family”.
“I'm leaving the country, Mitch. I need a fake passport and I need money, lots of it.”
“Well why didn't you say so? Hold on a minute while I pull that outta my ass.”
I know it’s a pretty silly movie, a hefty chunk of action escapism peppered with increasingly ludicrous setpieces, but I really love The Long Kiss Goodnight. Director Renny Harlin was at the peak of his game back then (he recently did the solid but distinctly b-movie, almost DTV, 12 Rounds), riding the success of Die Hard 2 (one of the weaker entries, but enjoyably visceral nonetheless) and Cliffhanger (a tremendous Stallone vehicle), and capably handling the majority of the action sequences here. Sure, some of it goes over the top – even for him – but he is more than bolstered by the rest of the ingredients in this production.
Geena Davis may be best remembered for Thelma & Louise, but I think she had a great deal of fun here, in easily her most action-orientated role as the dual personality lead heroine – part housewife, part top assassin. She’s even pulls off sexy, and is pretty convincing at portraying both parts of her coin, albeit within the limited scope of this fairly lightweight action-thriller, and massively assisted by Shane Black’s script, here given that trademark touch of character narration. And Sam Jackson? Well he can make pretty-much any film he’s in instantly cooler. And he’s on absolute top form here with Shane Black’s words coming out of his mouth, at speed. The only thing I’m still curious about is how he looks older here, back in 1995, than he does now. Crazy.
Although it may be held together by a couple of great leads and some excellent dialogue between them, the colourful characters don’t end there, as we get a succession of interesting and very different individuals that pop up along the ride – from Brian Cox (X2, Red, Braveheart), as an enjoyably eccentric spy mentor, to relative unknown Craig Bierko’s, as a cold but charming black ops specialist; with even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from David Morse (Green Mile, The Hurt Locker). They all also benefit from Black’s witty one-liners and trademark interplay.
“There may be many reasons not to kill you, but among them is not that you'll be missed by NASA.”
One could easily argue that the combination of ingredients in this dish just shouldn’t work – some moments are taken to excess, holes permeate the plot and not all of the one-liners strike home – but somehow the ship, as a whole, manages to stay its course. And if you’re prepared to be reasonably forgiving, and suspend a hefty amount of disbelief, then this is something of an underrated 90s classic in terms of action and sparkly wit. It’s basically a great ride, which will have you chuckling, quoting and rooting for the good guys, enjoying the over-the-top stunts and munching at the requisite bucket of popcorn. It’s cheesy, for sure, and you’ll often just be waiting for the next witty line to pop out of Sam Jackson’s mouth, but thankfully they come fast and furious from start to finish. Not totally devoid of brains, The Long Kiss Goodnight is still undoubtedly an exercise of style over substance, but, unusually, it’s the style of the script – rather than the direction – that really keeps things together. I don’t know whether Shane Black will ever get to do the next Iron Man film, but whatever he pens next, I’ll be watching it. And, whatever changes may have been made along the way, The Long Kiss Goodnight remains quintessential Shane Black writing; a quality 90s action thriller which is hugely fun and relentlessly entertaining, and one of my personal favourites.
“Are you cold? Turn on the heater. It doesn't work, but it makes a very annoying noise that distracts you from the cold.”