Within my lifetime, we’ve gone from, “Oh my God, Christmas movies!” to “God, Christmas movies suck,” to “Did you know Die Hard technically counts as a Christmas movie?” to “Stop writing the same damn article every year about how Die Hard’s a Christmas movie! Or at least just write one and keep reposting it, like the Onion does with its mass shooting story.” But on the horizon, I see something different stirring. After all, Iron Man 3 is also technically a Christmas movie. And it’s success led to a temporary rediscovery of the work of screenwriter Shane Black. The fact Shane’s directing the next Predator movie as we speak will hopefully lead to another.
To help that along, today we’re looking at my favorite Shane Black movie by a wide margin – The Long Kiss Goodnight. Cast your minds back to 1996, kids – and if you weren’t even born yet, try to imagine it. The most boring presidential campaign in my lifetime is slowly grinding down. Batman Forever is only a year old and its reputation hasn’t even suffered from a paint-by-numbers sequel yet. And Shane Black is still “The Lethal Weapon Guy,” in public. In private, he’s recovering from the trip through Hell on Earth that was making 1993’s “The Last Boy Scout” – a movie whose production was so fraught, it ended friendships, both personal and professional. So Black’s halfway through writing this movie about a super-spy getting pulled back in to stop their former bosses from staging a false-flag terrorist attack…and he realizes things would work a lot better if he made the super-spy a woman…
Enter Geena Davis and director Renny Harlin – both of them recovering from the colossal failure of justly-forgotten pirate movie Cutthroat Island. Both were looking to make a movie for reasons other than contractual obligation. Geena wanted to escape the standard career track of the time, which railroaded actress after actress from TV Comedy to Feature Comedy to Romantic Comedy to Oscar Bait Drama to early retirement, lest you spend your 30s playing some other, younger, hotter person’s mom, which is usually the pits. Harlin wanted to cement himself as an action movie director…and you can see his ambitions all the way back in Nightmare on Elm Street 4 if you get over that one’s place in the decline of that series in particular and slasher movies in general. Hell, you can see it in his first feature, Born American, if you can track that down. Or you could watch one of his action movies that’s actually…ya know…good.
Meet Samantha Cain, then – small town schoolteacher with movie amnesia, an eight-year-old gir, and a nice boyfriend. She even played Mrs. Clause in the town Christmas parade and her opening voice-over monologue informs us that she’s almost given up trying to find out who she was in her former life. It’s best to live in the present, anyway, am I right? Then, one night, Sam hits a deer…and personally, I feel like pouring a forty out for that poor buck: dude survived both gun and bow season only to get GTAed by a schoolteacher. There’s no justice in this world.
Sam survives the swan dive through her own windshield…but as her black eye fades, the person she used to be begins to reassert herself. Good thing, too, since an ex-con who caught her Mrs. Clause act on TV escapes from prison and invades her home with a shotgun. She kills him, no problem, but the whole experience is a big fucking freak-out. So she teams up with low-rent private eye Mitch Henessey (played by Samuel L. Jackson, as if you didn’t already know) to go on a little Christmas road trip, investigating the only lead they have about her past – a suitcase full of random crap from her former identity’s last known address.
There’s a sniper rifle under all the clothes, along with a post-card and a name: Dr. Nathan Waldman. Waldman tells Sam that her true name is Charlene “Charly” Baltimore, former super-spy assassin, working off the books and out of the State Department. Nobody says the letters “CIA” in this movie, but they are very heavily (and rightly) implied. She caught a bullet to the back of the head on her last op – hence the amnesia. And now her last target – some dude named Daedalus – is so concerned about her re-emergence that he’s not go problem shooting up train stations in the middle of the day. He and his Number One Guy, Timothy, have a plan in the works – something called Operation Honeymoon – and their very high-placed friends aren’t about to let any Pennsylvania schoolteachers fuck it up now.
Nineteen ninety-six was also one year after GoldenEye revived the James Bond franchise after a seven-year gap – one of the longest in Bond history. The Long Kiss Goodnight certainly sounds like an Ian Fleming title, and Charly has all the Bond signifiers: the preference for vodka; the weaponized sex drive; the disdain for non-spies (including her own civilian identity). And, over the course of this film, she learns disdain for her fellow spies as well, which is only healthy. She’s even described with the same phrase M used in GoldenEye: as a “relic of the Cold War.” “The kind of violent agent that’s since been purged from our ranks,” as her former boss, Mr. Perkins, puts it to the president. And then the most unbelievable thing in the fucking movie happens: a sitting president actually dresses down an “intelligence community” lanyard dick over his agencies various failings. “You throw this crap in my lap and then ask, ‘Where’d all our money go?’ Well, can you say ‘health care?’” LOL. No, President Spradlin, I can’t. Not unless it comes packaged with some evil bullshit designed specifically to fuck over poor people. Like, “We’ll make it so they can’t deny you coverage, but still allow them to charge half your monthly income for ‘privilege’ of a $5000 co-pay.” Some great choice like that. But, as Charly says to Sam’s daughter, Caitlin, when Caitlin fractures her wrist trying to ice skate, “Life is pain – get used to it!”
I make a distinction between the two characters because I’m an old-school Hulk fan. I know the signs of a split personality that’s not really all that split when I see one, and…Mitch Hennessey makes this point about halfway through, after a few actions scenes have caused Charly to fully re-emerge. “Samantha had to come from somewhere,” and of course she did. Sam Caine is the super-spy’s secret lust for normalcy incarnate – a theme that runs through most super-spy literature that doesn’t go for the meta-question of “what’s even normal?” Charly and Sam clash in a desperate attempt at self-preservation, because both need to go on a fraught, action movie journey in order to realize the real truth: that they must merge, form an unstoppable force, and then be able to fist-fight the Finris Wolf.
Mitch Hennessey’s got a subtler version of the same deal going on. He’s an ex-cop – an ex-dirty cop no less – who became a PI once he got out the joint and he’s been slumming it ever since, working the usual PI staple: cheating spouses. At the beginning, the Case of the Amnesia Chick – as he and his secretary call Sam – is little more than a distraction from the distrust of his ex-wife and the everyday routine of shaking down cheaters. He joins a long line of Shane Black-penned cops who get roped into extraordinary action movie situations, for which they are completely unprepared…Well, okay – maybe the line isn’t that long. Or maybe it just looks shorter because so many of them are played by either Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson.
I always preferred Sam Jackson to either of them. He’s always a treat, but Sam Jackson with a Shane Black script behind him is like one of those suped-up, nitro-enabled racing cars from the Fast and the Furious. Same could be said for Geena Davis, who usually gets all the best lines in whatever she’s in…but pair her with Sam Jackson and make her the protagonist of a Shane Black film and its like swimming in a sea of good lines – an embarrassment of good-line riches. Their comedic chemistry carries this movie on its back, uphill, through a driving snowstorm. It is, literally, The Best. I wouldn’t mind an on-going series with these two traveling the world, stopping false-flag terrorist plots…but I know enough now to recognize when some stories should, rightly, end…Though, on the other hand, Mitch Hennessey was supposed to die in the original cut, but some anonymous, lone hero in a test screening somewhere allegedly stood up and shouted at the screen, “You can’t kill Sam Jackson!” In his book on writing – On Writing – Stephen King identifies this as the absolute worst thing about test-screenings: sometimes, a good idea actually comes out of them, and you never can tell until you’ve tried…
Not that this is perfect or anything. Villains are all pretty bland. Charly’s main antagonist, Timothy, is just another text-book sociopath, and the rest end up being stuffed suits out of Langley, VA – bland white guy capital of the world. The real elephant in the room is their Villainous Plot to bomb Niagara Falls, New York, during the town’s Christmas Eve parade. “We’ll blame the Muslims…naturally.” Mr. CIA says to Charly. And if you ever wondered why 9/11 trutherism and various and sundry other dumb ass conspiracy theories have gained such pubic prominence during our lifetime…well, one reason is, it’s incredibly easy to find pop culture artifacts that re-enforce your favorite conspiracies. Especially from the 90s, when (for lack of a better word) mainstream culture discovered all the fucked up shit people actually believe in real life. A novice media critic might thank the X-Files, or Sightings, or Alien Autopsy or decades of sensationalist bullshit “news” program for all this. But, of course, those were only reflections of an underlying reality, which is far weirder than anyone with a straight media job is willing to confront. Truth is, the various “Intelligence” agencies that spy on us all the time, everyday, for what they say is our own good, didn’t even need to orchestrate a false flag terrorist attack to justify their incredible over-reach into every aspect of our lives. All they had to do was be inept enough to let one happen – which is easy, since most of them are died-in-the-wool dumb – and be ready to take advantage of it. The rest of us have no recourse…save for checking in on other dimensions – where a single, working-class mom and the PI she hired defeated them with whatever weapons were at hand. Along with their implacable ability to escape from fireballs.
Seriously, this is a movie where Geena Davis takes out a car full of bad guys by ice saking across a frozen lake, pistol in hand, scoring at least three headshots. Fireballs aside, the action’s crisp and well-shot, with minimal cutting and good scene geography that readily established. Plus there’s all that resonance for real-world events, even now. Why isn’t this movie more famous? The obvious movie critic answer is, “Because Cutthroat Island left such a bad taste in people’s mouths the previous year.” After all: same star, same director. But I don’t actually know anyone who even saw Cutthroat Island when it came out, in theaters or on video. Hell, even I forgot it existed until Lindsey Ellis reviewed it…Christ, that was five years ago now, wasn’t it?
We could always blame pro-critics of the time. Roger Ebert called this a “cinematic comic book,” wasting a good phrase at least ten years before he’d really need it…not that he knew. “The target audience is apparently 14-year-old boys and those who have not forgotten how to think like 14-year-old boys…” Oh, Roger, you poor, cloistered bastard. I miss you. I miss how you used to have no fucking idea how bad things actually were out here. Like, those 14-year-olds? They were all at home watching Happy Fucking Gilmore at the time…though a few of us were trying to get our friends to watch this random ghost movie called The Frighteners, insisting that the dude who directed it – some New Zealander named Jackson – was going places. Not that anyone listened, because no one really listens to critics. “Jackson? You mean like Michael and Janet?” No, I mean, like, he directed the most disgusting fucking zombie movie you’ve never heard of – Dead Alive. “Ugh…zombies. Bo-ooring!”
The world has, pretty obviously, turned a bit since then. So maybe it’s time for Long Kiss Goodnight to get the love it justly deserved. Show it to your friends and family this Christmas, with at least one critic’s blessing. Whatever that’s worth. Or you could just watch Die Hard again. It’s still good.