A Love Letter to The Long Kiss Goodnight’s Acerbic Heroine on Ice

Year: 1996
Runtime: 121 minutes
Director: Renny Harlin
Writer: Shane Black
Stars: Geena Davis, Samuel L Jackson, Yvonne Zima, Craig Bierko

By James Cain

It’s an ice-cold Christmas Eve in an idyllic American town. While the denizens busy themselves with festive celebrations at the church, CIA bastards aim to kill a local housewife and are kidnapping her young daughter to do so. Thing is, said housewife is Geena Davis, and she’s skating across a lake full-pelt while firing a very big gun. And she’s written by the ultimate Yuletide filmmaker: Shane Black; a winning combination that led to one of the all-time great female action heroes for “The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996).

Hollywood did Geena Davis dirty. Released less than a year before “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, pirate-centric flop “Cutthroat Island” (1995) proved to significantly derail Davis’ career, with the star never truly living up to the promise afforded by “The Fly” (1986), “Beetlejuice” (1988), “Thelma & Louise” (1991) and, yes, “A League of Their Own” (1992). For those who like noir pulp, action and Christmas – never mind a mix of all three – “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is the ultimate Geena Davis movie.

Samantha Caine is a teacher living the good life in New Jersey with her adorable daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima) and smitten boyfriend Hal (Tom Amandes). Samantha suffers from movie amnesia, only remembering as far back as the day she was washed ashore while pregnant eight years earlier. Soon into the film, our hero gets a head injury that starts to bring back skills and memories of her past life – the life of a spook and killer called Charly Baltimore. 48 hours later and she’s broken through the ice, immersed in the sub-zero world of espionage villainy with only wisecracking crook/private eye Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson) along for the ride. And even more disconcerting, with each day that passes, our hero becomes less Samantha and more Charly…

Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) Copyright: New Line Home Entertainment

“The Long Kiss Goodnight” is very rough around the edges, making you pine for 90s action directors like Richard Donner, Tony Scott or, these days, Shane Black himself.”

Simply put, Geena Davis fucking rules in this movie. Shot by legendary DP and director Guillermo Navarro and scored by the masterful Alan Silvestri, she slowly turns from startled everywoman to a stone-cold fox; six feet of charismatic cool and killer moves. Black’s script could have come across as genuinely problematic with a less confident actress: Charly Baltimore’s wisecracking trades heavily in misogynistic language and the tropes of toxic masculinity, but Davis sells every line like a badass. For example:

Hopeful man: Good evening, pretty lady. How ’bout some company?

Charly : No thanks. I’m saving myself ’til I get raped.

Geena Davis and Craig Bierko in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) Copyright: New Line Home Entertainment

Davis’ mean-spirited, humorous snarl sells a hundred lines like this throughout “The Long Kiss Goodnight”. Even now in 2020 it’s rare for a woman to get to play a truly acerbic action hero, which is a shame, because Geena Davis telling a teenage neighbour boy “tell anyone you saw me and I’ll blow your fucking head off” is transcendentally pleasurable.

If there’s one weak link with the film, it’s director Renny Harlin. Davis was married to the Finnish hack at the time, and while it ensures that Samantha / Charly is lovingly shot (including a bit of nudity that feels just a bit unnecessary), this does feel like a well-acted (Jackson and the supporting cast are cracking fun), well-written film in search of a good director. While the “well that was a bit shit” moments are sparse (one moment where our heroes outrun a grenade explosion is simultaneously stupid and misunderstanding of how both grenades and running work), “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is very rough around the edges, making you pine for 90s action directors like Richard Donner, Tony Scott or, these days, Shane Black himself.

“So in watching “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, you’re not just enjoying a damn good movie: you’re being an amazing feminist and you should be very proud of yourself.”

Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) Copyright: New Line Home Entertainment

And if we’re being honest, Black’s script does seem to equate a woman having an eclectic sex life with self-destruction, though this conservative viewpoint does ultimately lead to the idea of Samantha/Charly finding a happy middle-ground (Black also manages to make the protagonist’s maternal priorities sympathetic, and not cloying or patronising like many films do: “No, baby, you’re not gonna die. They are.”).

“The Long Kiss Goodnight” performed poorly at the box office. While the failure of then recent Davis / Harlin flop “Cutthroat Island” couldn’t have helped, Black put part of the problem down to moviegoer sexism (“No!”, you cry in genuine shock). One of the reason why In Their Own League is so vital is that, yeah, that still rings pretty true in 2020. Heck, Black himself had to change the sex of Iron Man 3’s villain to male – ladies even struggle to bag the badguy roles! So in watching “The Long Kiss Goodnight”, you’re not just enjoying a damn good movie: you’re being an amazing feminist and you should be very proud of yourself.

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