Renny Harlin's 1996 film The Long Kiss Goodnight is worth taking a look at right now for a few reasons: it was released 20 years ago this year, it's a classic Christmas action film up there with Die Hard, and it's one of the underrated gems of its genre.
Shane Black was paid $4 million for his terrific script, and Harlin had hopes that his then-wife Geena Davis would become a bankable action star. However, Harlin's 1995 flop Cutthroat Island cast a long shadow, and The Long Kiss Goodnight underperformed. Although it has its vocal champions, including Priscilla Page, the film languishes in relative obscurity - but here are five reasons why it deserves a place in any action fan's heart.
It's a Landmark for Women in US Action Films
At the centre of The Long Kiss Goodnight is the performance of Geena Davis. She plays Samantha Caine, the amnesiac Pennsylvania schoolteacher who discovers that she is in fact Charly Baltimore, a CIA assassin believed dead by her employers. Thanks to the way the role is written and to Davis' terrific performance, The Long Kiss Goodnight becomes probably the single best American action film fronted by a woman. Davis almost plays three roles: not only Caine and Baltimore, but also the synthesis of those two personalities, who becomes the film's true heroine. Throughout the film, Davis handles both the action sequences and the quickfire humour perfectly. It would have been a treat to see her reprise the role or return to the action genre - but the film's underperformance precluded that.
Originally, the character was intended to be a man but Black eventually realised that the role only truly worked as a woman, and this realisation is key to the film's magic. In 2007, Davis created her Institute on Gender in Media and continues to be one of the most prominent champions for better representation of women in film. For his part, Black explained in a May 2016 interview that his film Iron Man 3 had its female villain removed and other female characters made less prominent due to Marvel's concerns over toy sales. Clearly, there's a long way to go - but The Long Kiss Goodnight remains the strongest case yet for better roles for women in action films.
It's One of Samuel L. Jackson's Very Best Roles
On more than one occasion, Samuel L. Jackson has described his part as Mitch Hennessy in The Long Kiss Goodnight as his favourite role - and it's easy to see why. Shane Black's dialogue is perfect for Jackson's comic talents, as is the character of Hennessy - a washed-up, ex-cop, ex-con PI reduced to petty grifting who develops a heroic streak. Private investigators are a favourite of Black's. He's featured them in The Last Boy Scout (1991), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), and The Nice Guys (2016), but armed with some amazing lines, Mitch may be the best of them all.
As with the film's lead, the supporting role of Mitch was originally very different. It was intended to be a white, Jewish character who would die during the film. Jackson heard about Black's script, and campaigned for the role; his desire to be in the film is surely reflected in his memorable performance. Crucially, the relationship between Davis and Jackson works beautifully on screen - perhaps the best comic moment is when Caine takes Hennessy to task for his ogling of a female jogger. "You can see those coming round the corner!", Mitch protests, "you got time to comb your hair!"
Thanks to Shane Black, It Might Just Be the Funniest Action Film Ever
Few writers have mixed action and comedy as effectively as Shane Black has done. His $4 million script for The Long Kiss Goodnight was modified significantly by uncredited scriptwriters, but his unique touch is still all over the fininished film. Mitch Hennessy is a classic character in the usual Shane Black mould; a kind of loser with a strained relationship with his family but armed with a sharp wit. Jackson's character gets a lot of the best lines, but Brian Cox also has a brilliant time playing a former handler of Baltimore's, the laconic Dr. Nathan Waldman. His introductory scene is pure gold: distracted at the dinner table by his wife's dog, Waldman issues a deadpan rebuke: "He's been licking his ass for the past three straight hours. I submit to you that whatever he is attempting to dislodge is either gone for good... or there to stay."
The film's comic credentials are cemented by other excellent small scenes, such as CIA officials being given a dressing down by a pissed-off president played by G.D. Spradlin, and Hennessy's appearance on Larry King - during which he deploys a nuclear-level dad joke.
It Preceded Bourne - and Beat Him at his Own Game
In 2015, Elizabeth Day suggested to Geena Davis that she could be the female Jason Bourne. "I was!" Davis replied, "in The Long Kiss Goodnight."
The comparison makes perfect sense: like the successful Bourne series (continuing as of 2016), The Long Kiss Goodnight focuses on an amnesiac secret agent trying to establish the facts of their past - and stumbling on CIA corruption at the highest level. In fact, TLKG covers this ground much more effectively. While the Bourne series is weighed down by its stoic "realism", Harlin's film has far more personality, humour and much stronger action scenes. Brian Cox turns up in both TLKG and The Bourne Identity as a CIA official - comparing the two performances is like night and day. Of course, while Charly Baltimore enjoyed just one outing, Bourne continues apace - despite effectively telling the same story over and over again.
It Features One of the Biggest and Best Explosions - Ever
In the visual language of action films, explosions are often essential elements. These days, truly great pryotechnic explosions have given way to tepid computer-generated spectacle which is cheaper and safer, but far less exciting.
The Long Kiss Goodnight, though, is a product of the heyday of explosions in the '80s and '90s. Its climactic kaboom is one of the most glorious ever caught on film and seems to go on forever. Flaming cars rain from the sky, an entire bridge is turned into matchsticks, and even the big bangs in Terminator 2 and Speed are left in its smoking wake.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.