The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

D: Renny Harlin
S: Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson

The bidding war over Shane Black's bizarrely-entitled screenplay made larger waves than the release of the film itself, and is a prime example of how the deal drives the system in contemporary Hollywood. It is all about buying and selling the property, and The Long Kiss Goodnight was a package with promising elements, bought at great cost and sold with little regard for quality control. The result: mediocre response at the box-office where the punters had no idea of what went on behind the scenes and sensed only that no one cared about this movie when it was being made, only when it was being sold.

Davis plays a mild-mannered amnesiac schoolteacher living in a picket-fence paradise with a loving husband and cute daughter, who, after a traumatic accident, begins to remember her previous life as a cold-blooded assassin working for the U.S. Government. The private detective she's hired to investigate her past (Jackson) is then drawn into the fray as she goes on the run from old enemies, and he becomes her unlikely sidekick. Eventually all things come together as her past invades her present and her enemies threaten her family. She must decide just who and what she is and either let them die or save the day spectacularly.

So the scenario is a bit cheesy, but Black has managed to make familiar material seem punchy and original before (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout). With a good director, on this occasion it might have worked out again. But Renny Harlin to date has only made cheesy material even cheesier (A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Cutthroat Island), and he is unable to tune in the human dimensions (or the mordant humour) of the story and come up with the real throat-grabber which lurks in there somewhere.

The attention to physical detail and the extreme complexity of the logistics are characteristic of a carefully made big budget action movie. Harlin handles the action scenes well enough and the effects are generally good. But despite Davis' best attempts to inject moments of metaphysical self-reflection into her character and Jackson's frantic attempts to maintain his dignity, the human angle is not strong enough, and you care less for the characters' fates than for the eventual resolution of the narrative which will provide the minimal level of visual pleasure.

There's material enough here regarding gender, race, family values, human rights, and the nature of memory and identity to fill out some discussion time on a slow night, but none of it is well brought out. Simply to have these ideas present, or to have the characters mouth the dialogue as written is not enough. The film needed to focus on the issues at stake and draw the audience into the character's inner lives, not just attach thematics to the explosives and see if anyone noticed.

It was a growing interest in Bruce Willis' increasingly personal dilemma which gave Die Hard its emotional core. By the time we reached the climax, the relationships had gone from the mechanics of plotting to real human drama with the lives and identities of the central characters in the balance. Similar possibilities existed in the script for The Long Kiss Goodnight, but are not fully realised on screen. Harlin is far too concerned with making sure everything looks and feels authentic on the surface and that everyone has enough cuts and bruises to make it seem genuinely painful. He misses what's underneath, and what is happening to the characters as people, because ultimately, in his hands, they are not people at all.

It was precisely this directorial style which made Die Hard 2 into a violent, empty, live-action cartoon and made Cliffhanger closer to high camp than high adventure. Like so many Hollywood directors these days (yes, I am aware that Harlin is, in fact, from Finland, and is one of the country's few internationally famous directors: the other being Aki Kaurismaki), Harlin lacks the vision to transcend mere craft and make a film with more heart than guts. The result is that he pays homage to the tradition of studio-era programmers by making films which are mediocre Hollywood product, another digit on the production schedule released into theatres and onto video and onto satellite and finally onto commercial television with the regularity of a well-oiled distribution machine, as easily forgotten as the next and as easily dismissed.

This is disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. The result is that The Long Kiss Goodnight passes the time less painfully than most of its reviews would have you believe, but leaves you with very little interest in seeing it again.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.