It’s an inane premise: an amnesiac schoolteacher discovers she used to be an assassin, and must use her newly remembered skills to stop a terrorist plot in order to save her daughter. But The Long Kiss Goodnight is a 90s action movie, and inane premises are par for the course. In fact, despite significantly underperforming at the box office and being largely omitted from the canon, much of Renny Harlin’s 1996 film epitomises what was so great about this golden era of action cinema.
Shane Black was best known for writing Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout when he sold this script for a record US$4m, and it delivers his trademark combination of impressive action set pieces and sharp dialogue. It doesn’t matter that by the end, the plot is almost nonsensical – something about a government conspiracy at Niagara Falls? – because by this point we are completely invested in the survival of our two central characters.
Samuel L Jackson plays Mitch, a crooked cop turned low-rent private eye who pairs up with schoolteacher Samantha (Geena Davis) when her former assassin identity, Charly, starts violently reemerging. On the road looking for answers and finding mostly gunfights and explosions, Mitch and Samantha/Charly form the heart of the film in a mixed-gender take on the classic buddy cop formula.
Their chemistry is strong enough to overcome some dialogue misfires (remember when sexual assault was funny? Me neither) largely because their position as outsiders allows meaningful empathy to develop both for and between them. Jackson was at the peak of his powers here, having starred in Pulp Fiction, A Time to Kill and Die Hard: With a Vengeance all within the previous two years; watching him turn a sleazy hustler ex-con into a lovable underdog reminds me why he is one of the most beloved and highest-grossing actors of our time. (Tellingly, in 2018 he stated that The Long Kiss Goodnight is his favourite movie to watch of the 130+ he’s appeared in.)
The success of the film ultimately rests with Davis, who has to pull off the split-personality premise and also transform into a believable action hero. The 90s gave us plenty of far-fetched action set-ups that verge on camp in their execution, notably John Travolta and Nicolas Cage swapping faces in the outrageous Face/Off, but Davis boldly plays it straight.
Charly is the violent whore to Samantha’s Madonna, desperate to shed Samantha’s soft body, soft curls, soft heart. The emotional dilemma she faces when her daughter is threatened and she can no longer deny her maternal instincts transforms the film into a story about rejecting the dichotomy and forging a distinct path. By bringing considered depth to Charly, Davis turns the character into a damning indictment of the restrictive stereotypes applied to women on screens and in life.
Davis did most of her own stunts throughout the film, and she uses her physicality as another outlet for emotional expression. Initially, Charly’s aggression is as much an attempt to kill Samantha as an act of vengeance against all the men who wronged her, but it morphs into a primal protection of her child. With this, Charly takes her place beside Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor and Aliens’ Ellen Ripley as an iconic maternal figure whose violence is rooted in empathy as much as anger.
A transformation into feminist action hero makes perfect sense in Davis’s career trajectory, following on from her roles in adored women-led hits A League of Their Own and Thelma and Louise. It’s infuriating, then, that The Long Kiss Goodnight signalled the end of her career as a bankable star: with the possible exception of the Stuart Little films, Davis hasn’t headlined a movie since.
Instead, she has gone on to fight patriarchy behind the scenes, establishing the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004 to research gender and other minority roles in film and television and advocate for more on-screen diversity. Together with Thelma, this will likely form her cinematic legacy in the years to come, but her success in infiltrating the hyper-masculine realm of action movies should also be remembered. Once lost in the surfeit of late 20th-century action spectacles, The Long Kiss Goodnight emerges as a captivating example of the genre and a modest feminist triumph.