Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Friday, December 27, 2013
Chefs Do That
There is the film that is and there is the film we secretly want it to be. There is the life we find ourselves in the middle of and the life we imagine it could suddenly become if only the right sort of jazz would play to go along with what’s in our head. Not long ago I ran into someone who I hadn’t seen in well over a decade and certainly someone I hadn’t spent any considerable time with since the 90s. Not an ex-girlfriend, just someone I used to hang out with. She has three kids now and seems happy. Time really is a son of a bitch, isn’t it. Naturally, this got me thinking about the 90s for a few minutes, when even if things weren’t really more innocent at least it seemed that way. It’s not like I knew I was going to get older or anything. Released in October 1996, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT was a pretty good movie for that decade. Action, violence, laughs, fun, no real consequences and a screenplay that sold for a record price. That was definitely going to go on forever, right? Right? Shane Black wrote that script which sold to New Line for $4 million, Renny Harlin of DIE HARD 2, FORD FAIRLANE and CLIFFHANGER fame directed and it plays now as what could be called the greatest Joel Silver film ever made not actually produced by Joel Silver (maybe it’s neck and neck with DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE) although I could believe that there’s a pretty good story behind why Joel didn’t get this one. I saw it in Century City on the Saturday morning of opening weekend with Larry King sitting right behind me. I liked it then, I like it now and yet I still can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t quite make it all the way around the bases, as if its director didn’t totally follow through on the potential in the screenplay the way Richard Donner did with LETHAL WEAPON or the way Black himself did years later with his own KISS KISS BANG BANG (both also set during the Christmas season, but you knew that). But I still think it’s kind of awesome, if I’m allowed to feel that way. Revisiting the film now, my mind hasn’t really changed all that much but if you want to do nothing but praise it I’m not going to stop you. I’m not even going to make an assumption that you feel the way I do about it because, after all, everyone knows that when you make an assumption you make an ass out of you and umption.
Samantha Caine (Geena Davis) is a normal schoolteacher living in a normal small Pennsylvania town with daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima) with everything about her life utterly normal except for the fact that she has no memory from before eight years ago, right when she was pregnant with her daughter. Just when a nasty car accident results in her displaying certain abilities that had never been evident a one-eyed escaped convict shows up out of nowhere looking for her and she dispatches him with abilities she didn’t even know she had. At the same time, low grade private detective Mitch Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson) who has been hired to investigate her past, uncovers a few leads. Aware that things might not be safe at home, Samantha takes off with Hennessy in search of some answers only to find them in the form of her true identity, that of a government assassin known as Charley Baltimore who is only all to ready to leave her invented identity behind only certain people may not be willing to let that happen so quickly.
There’s so much in here that I like and yet I still can’t help but focus on a few things. Simply put, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT is a movie with a phenomenal main character in a pretty cool pulp storyline placed into a production that I wish just felt a little more solid as if they didn’t always have the money to get certain things onscreen in the best possible way. I can remember people back in the 90s pointing out how New Line films always seemed to feel a little lacking in production value (David Fincher is one of the few who made it work for him when he directed SE7EN) and that very thing could be said about THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT which as enjoyable as it is still has a fairly low rent shot-in-Canada feel that is considerably different than the vivid Los Angeles of other Shane Black screenplays. Maybe this is a byproduct of the snowbound setting (it would make for an appropriate pairing with Frankenheimer’s REINDEER GAMES, anyway) but with a variety of empty back roads, locations that feel a little too chintzy and early digital effects that haven’t aged so well I can’t help but wonder if someone like Joel Silver would have insisted on more of a slick big studio quality control feel all the way through.
The pacing is an issue as well with scenes not always flowing into each other correctly through some abrupt transitions, like the early car crash which is extremely harrowing in how the action is staged and is of course meant to be the first thing that brings Charley out of Samantha yet the event feels so isolated from everything else around it that it’s almost as if the movie isn’t even aware of this. Structure-wise it’s an odd thing where even though it’s a mismatched buddy movie we never get to see the two people actually meet since it presumably happened before the start of the film and I also wonder if maybe the introduction of Craig Bierko’s bad guy should have been held until he pops up in the railroad station bar to keep the suspense going at that point. For that matter, the lead character of Samantha/Charley has so many possibilities that I wish the film did more with her in the second half before moving onto the overlong machinations of the climax. Maybe I just wish it wasn’t a buddy movie (terrific as Samuel L. Jackson is). Maybe it’s a case of a lead character (or dual character, as the case is) who I wish was in a different movie altogether. I don’t know. The pieces are there and the story always keeps moving forward with as much bombast imaginable but they don’t always feel like they go together entirely right.
Having said all that, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT does contain some of the best pure filmmaking that Renny Harlin has ever achieved, particularly when compared with the blockbuster DIE HARD 2 which feels better produced (by Joel Silver, of course) than actually assembled. Even if I am nitpicking, I really do think this is his best start-to-finish work with continuous invention at hand as the pace builds and even if Harlin isn’t the greatest action director in history he knows how to make every one of the sequences here click along (even the climax is pretty terrific, as overlong as it might be), he knows how to sell them for their worth and get the punchlines to land correctly so the laughs are as big as possible. You can really sense the pleasure he’s getting out of framing his then-wife in as iconic a way as possible which freshly reminds me how it’s a shame that this film pretty much marked the end of Geena Davis as a movie star. She just throws herself into this fantastic role completely, her eyes always working the scene through both halves of her character. Strange as it is to say and it probably points out how many old movies I’ve been watching lately but during this viewing I couldn’t help but imagine THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT as a vehicle for someone like Joan Crawford and it just reminded me of how rare it is for a film such as this to feature such a powerful female lead. Plus, what was the last new movie that you could imagine Crawford starring in? Sandra Bullock in GRAVITY? Jessica Chastain in ZERO DARK THIRTY? Even leaving out genre, just how many other writers are crafting this sort of juicy part for actresses these days?
It makes me wish that some of the story held together better and ultimately it doesn’t have the weight that something like LETHAL WEAPON had with its Shadow Company Vietnam backstory that helped sell what made Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs the lethal weapon that he was. There’s an intriguing pre-9/11 plot involving government agents trying to stage a catastrophe code named “Operation Honeymoon” to keep their funding coming—actually, all the government characters here are either evil (the bad guys) or simply ineffectual (like the President, played by THE GODFATHER PART II’s G.D. Spradlin) but not very much of it sticks even with a now-surprising reference to the 1993 WTC bombing. The movie has the right amount of entertainment value but it feels like a number of enjoyable parts that kinda-sorta go together as opposed to a satisfying and complete narrative. There are far worse things I could say about this movie, any movie. Some remain great no matter how many times you see them. Some are pretty good and when you revisit it, wondering why you haven’t seen it for a long time you realize the reason is that it’s simply pretty good and unfortunately doesn’t reach any further heights than that. Maybe what makes them even more frustrating is when you think it had the potential to be better than that.
If the film isn’t as great as I want it to be deep down, I won’t say that about Geena Davis who is the best thing in it giving a performance that still might not have gotten an Oscar nomination even if the film had been better (since, after all, this sort of movie usually doesn’t) but she would have deserved it. It largely plays as a transformation of what we expect as a ‘Geena Davis’ role into something else altogether and it absolutely works, she’s completely dynamite more than fulfilling Godard’s line about how all a movie needs is a girl and a gun. Samuel L. Jackson, in addition to being an excellent foil for her, digs into the part just as he does with his Tarantino films, clearly loving getting to play this guy and wearing his 70s wardrobe. As a character Mitch Hennessy is pissed off about a lot of things but his own self-deprecation allows him to just lay down in the street after Charley has pushed him out of a moving car and you can feel Jackson’s own confidence in letting that scene play out, that he understands the feeling of just simply wanting to stay there. If the film had been a success leading to sequels I wouldn’t at all have minded one with just his character. It’s also a pleasure to watch Brian Cox (actually, the few moments we get these two guys bouncing off each other has its own pleasures as well) as the exposition-spouting Nathan Waldman who has some of the greatest Shane Black dialogue imaginable and only makes me wish that there were more of him in the movie. A lot more. Jackson and Cox are the two strong males here and it makes sense how none of the others seem quite worthy of Davis. Craig Bierko is just the right sort of douchebag while still coming off as a genuine threat and Tom Amandes as Samantha’s boyfriend Hal has what is possibly the most thankless male role in a movie this side of Efram Zimbalist Jr. in WAIT UNTIL DARK but considering all the thankless female roles in action films this doesn’t bother me at all.
It’s also a film that has a clip from THE LONG GOODBYE spotted on a TV as well as all that cool 70s soul music adding to the vibe so I can’t be too hard on it. THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT did ok but not great at the box office ($33 million domestic) so that wasn’t enough to withstand the encroaching tide of Michael Bay movies to come. That this followed up the massive flop of CUTTHROAT ISLAND from the previous year didn’t help the director-star combo either—Geena Davis didn’t appear in another film until 3 years later in STUART LITTLE, a film which was hardly dependent on her marquee value, while Harlin’s next was DEEP BLUE SEA also in ’99 (their divorce became final in 1998). The name Shane Black didn’t appear on the credits of any film for way too long to come after this although he did throw some pretty great parties at his house. I even got to go to a few back then and may have exchanged a word or two with him in a crowd but never got a formal introduction. And I got to see this movie sitting in front of Larry King who, if you’ve seen it you already know, turns up in a cameo near the end. That was an odd sensation. But in thinking about how fun those days were while still not being perfect I’m reminded how a friend of mine immediately after seeing it mentioned that the very last scene is missing a final line, one which he felt was obvious. And even now as I watch the end of the movie I still think that line really needs to be in there. So, close but no cigar. But I still like THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. It’s still a fun ride. A reminder of the 90s, like how I even wrote my own female assassin script way back then. Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to read it. Those days were fun while they lasted. Even if they weren’t always what I wanted them to be.