Before we begin, let’s take a moment to clarify that headline: The Long Kiss Goodnight is not a masterpiece. Sorry to break it to you, Renny Harlin, but your finest work falls just short of Lawrence of Arabia and all those other films about schoolteachers discovering their killer pasts. Harlin’s career is full of highs and lows, including last weekend‘s The Legend of Hercules, but everything about Harlin’s “style,” from even his lowest points, came into focus for 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight.
When Harlin’s name shows in the opening credits for his quasi-spy thriller, a grenade appears, appropriately (and visually) declaring this is the director’s most explosive outing yet. Harlin maintains a jovial energy through the film’s entire runtime, but much of the its success is attributed to screenwriter Shane Black. Black’s sensibility rings loud and clear underneath Harlin’s bombast: a dark sense of humor, an unlikely duo at the center, inventive set pieces, and clever setups and payoffs.
Structurally his script is exceptional. Character introductions come and go — all of which are done with wit and efficiency: Samantha Caine’s (Geena Davis) narration; Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson) and Timothy (Craig Bierko) on the job; and Dr. Waldman (Brian Cox) frustrated by a dog licking its behind. Black and Harlin tell us who these characters are in an instant. It’s a set up that establishes its conflict and leads at an unstoppable pace.
Even with the brisk storytelling, these characters are given room to breathe. Some of the film’s best scenes are with Henessey and Caine talking in a car, whether about a woman’s form or Henessey’s own dark past — the two characters are connected by their past and parenting. If this odd couple simply chatted over coffee for two hours, The Long Kiss Goodnight would still be a ton of fun.
That’s the sign of a great action movie: the characters are as watchable as the gunfire. But thank God for all the shooting this film has, because each set piece is immensely gleeful.
Having seen nearly all of Harlin’s films, if Henessey put a gun on me, I’d be hard pressed to remember one of Harlan’s set pieces from start to finish. Flickers of airport shootouts from Die Hard 2 to LL Cool J running from a shark in Deep Blue Sea come to mind, but that’s about it.With that said, every shootout and explosion in The Long Kiss Goodnight makes an impression. The first fight alone has the weaponization of a lemon meringue pie and, best of all, there’s a character revival that makes little sense, but is all the better for it.
Henessey surviving all those bullet wounds was actually Harlin’s idea. Test-audiences responded so negatively to the character’s death that he revived Jackson’s character in reshoots. Some critics could accuse Harlin of pandering, but so what? It’s called “crowd-pleasing” for a reason. In this instance, Harlin gives the audience exactly what it wants, but his bowing to a negative test screening didn’t stop him from making unexpected choices along the way.
For the most part, Harlin is a journeyman director. His filmography is made up of routine choices, with the major exception of The Long Kiss Goodnight. The film has its appealing aesthetic and pleasing set pieces, but Harlin isn’t afraid to embrace the nastier side of Black’s writing. Caine’s rape joke would never sneak its way into a mainstream release today. Not only that, minutes following that joke she warns a kid smoking that she’ll “blow his fucking head off.”
Caine is by no means a commercial protagonist. That’s likely not the reason why the film wasn’t a box office hit, but in today’s climate, Caine would have been written as a vanilla clean heroine. She wouldn’t have to redeem herself, her child wouldn’t be put in danger, and we wouldn’t ever see her smoke a cigarette. Unless you’re the villain, you’re probably on the patch in today’s world.
What’s most compelling about Caine, even after her transformation back to her past life, is her vulnerability. Nowadays fear means a hero has to call it quits in the second act before making the inevitable decision of jumping back into the ring, but that wasn’t the case for The Long Kiss Goodnight. Caine expresses fear about her beautiful face being blown off, and yet that doesn’t stop her from heading into a death trap to save her daughter.
Black and Harlin consistently focus on the personal stakes at hand. A chemical bomb is thrown into the mix, but that turn of events takes a backseat to Caine, Henessey, and Caine’s daughter. This decision is somewhat surprising, as Harlin isn’t exactly a character-driven filmmaker. He stepped outside of his box, in that regard, with The Long Kiss Goodnight — which he’s been doing as of late, to varying results — and, with Black’s script, why wouldn’t he? It’s the best script Harlin’s ever worked with, and it’s a shame the two haven’t collaborated since.
This is Harlin’s defining film for many reasons: Davis and Jackson’s immediate chemistry; the inventive set pieces; and a long list of quotable one liners. The Legend of Hercules director has never managed to top himself when it comes to The Long Kiss Goodnight, but that’s no easy task. This is Harlin’s masterpiece, however we’re defining that, and it will probably remain the best work of his career.