Every now and then, there comes a perfect cinematic union. Talented actors at the peak of their form, a whip smart script, and an innovative director all align in one beautiful project. In 1996, Geena Davis, still hot from Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own, and Sam Jackson, only two years out from redefining modern cinema in Pulp Fiction, teamed up with wildcard Finnish action director Renny Harlin to make an ambitious double identity spy flick. Add mountains of sly dialog from wunderkind screenwriter Shane Black and the result was the guns blazing, fast talking, ice-skating, criminally underappreciated masterpiece, The Long Kiss Goodnight.
For those unfamiliar, the plot goes as follows: cheerful, pie-making Samantha Cain (Geena Davis) has a wonderful life as a small town teacher and mother. The only trouble is everything about her life eight years prior is a blank. That is until a nasty car accident knocks loose a few forgotten fragments. Skills that she never knew about begin to resurface. So do old enemies. To protect her family, Samantha goes on the road with her bottom-of-the-barrel private detective, Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), in search of her past. It turns out that before Samantha’s cozy domestic bliss, she was a thoroughly badass government assassin named Charly Baltimore. A lot of people want Samantha dead for what she knew and what she might find out about a massive terrorist plot in the works. But the harder they come at her, the more Charly comes out. And Charly does not fuck around. Both Charly and Samantha will need to come together, though, in order to save her daughter (Yvonne Zima) and Mitch from the man looking to finish the job he started eight years ago.
Charlene Baltimore is, in my opinion, one of the most badass female characters ever; right up there with Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, and Imperator Kathy Furiosa. She’s smart, deadly, and tough as nails. Unlike her peers, though, she also has a wicked sense of humor and seems to really enjoy her work (that being killing people). She’s supremely confident and just a little bit cocky. It’s clear she can back it up, though. When a clueless would-be rapist pulls a gun on her, Charly thinks he’s part of a larger ambush and keeps looking past him. Just one guy with a gun is so insignificant to her that he isn’t worth her attention. She and Mitch talk like he wasn’t even there. As soon as she realizes he’s just some chump, she disarms him in a flash and uses him as a human shield when the real threat shows up. You almost feel sorry for the piece of garbage.
Another clear indicator of her epic badass status is the fact she gets to save Samuel L “Bad Motherfucker” Jackson over and over. Normal people don’t get to do that. It’s nice that he doesn’t get all bent out of shape about it. His character Mitch realizes he is in way over his head and puts all of his macho bullshit aside. Jackson manages to pull this off without making Mitch look weak. He maintains an aura of coolness, even while wearing some embarrassingly hideous clothes (borrowed from someone else, Pulp Fiction style). Mitch gets a few hero moments, and Charly would not have survived the movie without him, but Mitch wouldn’t have survived the first half hour without Charly. The partnership is one of the best things about the movie. Davis and Jackson have great chemistry, not romantically, but as partners. They are very comfortable together, joking sarcastically and giving each other shit about things. Shane Black is the king of mismatched buddy cop dialog, and Davis and Jackson play it out brilliantly.
Of course, Charly isn’t Charly at the start of the movie. Samantha’s transformation is the most interesting part of the film. It happens gradually. She’s thrilled when she realizes she’s good with a knife, thinking she must have been a chef in her former life. She slips into full drill sergeant Charly mode to inspire her daughter Caitlin to ice skate solo (“Life is pain, get used to it”), not knowing she broke her wrist when she fell. When super-psycho One-Eyed Jack shows up at her door with a shotgun/grenade launcher combo (showing the Shane Black Predator influence of putting guns atop bigger guns) she is just as freaked out and as clumsy as you’d expect of an average housewife in that situation. Once they go head-to-head in the kitchen, though, Samantha instinctively takes him out in a decidedly un-chef-like manor. After that point, Charly’s personality steadily creeps in. Her language gets saltier, she becomes more casual to the violence. Every time Samantha accesses her old skill set, Charly gets closer to the surface. The final breakthrough comes when Samantha is captured and almost drowned by Luke (David Morse), the man she thought was an old fiancé (he was actually her target for assassination, common mistake). As he tortures her by dunking her into freezing water, her memories come flooding back. Samantha goes into the water, Charly comes out. Luke becomes the ex-fiancé.
Charly wastes no time trying to erase all traces of Samantha. With a little blonde hair dye and dark make-up, she goes from smiling sweetheart to sexy badass. It’s sort of like Ally Sheedy’s makeover from The Breakfast Club in reverse. But Charly’s transformation doesn’t end there. Try as she might, she can’t bury the last eight years of caring for people and being loved. She has to reach out when her daughter or Mitch are in trouble. The mixing of her two sides creates the best version of Charly. It becomes her secret weapon against the main bad guy, Timothy (Craig Bierko). He has the same icy confidence as Charly, but he’s perfectly willing to blind and cripple a child to get what he wants. He only sees her new attachments as a weakness. To Charly, they are a motivation. Never come between a mama bear and her cub, especially when the bear is a highly trained assassin.
I like the way the new and improved Charly takes advantage of her secret Mommy skills. She speed skates across a frozen pond to gun down a car of bad guys (sort of like that Olympic event where they ski then target shoot, only better). She smuggles a flammable liquid in Caitlin’s squeeze-and-pee doll. As they are escaping a compound full of mercenaries, she comforts her daughter by telling her, “Oh no, baby, you’re not going to die. They are.”
Dialog is Shane Black’s weapon of choice, and rarely has it been sharper. Even the purposefully goofy bits are funny. Charly’s former handler, crusty old Nathan (Brian Cox) gets some of the best zingers. As Mitch is going on animatedly about having just jumped out a high-story window, Nathan replies “Yes, it was very exciting, and tomorrow we go to the zoo.” A couple of times the bad guys say something clichéd, but I’m not sure it’s just because they weren’t cool enough to get the good lines. The action is pretty solid for the time (post Die Hard, pre Matrix). It sticks to gunplay over fisticuffs, though Davis does get to perform a few fast, brutal take downs. Charly/Samantha is a very physical role, and Davis excels at it, using her height and grace to maximum effect. Harlin was so taken by her that he married her three years prior.
And no, she wasn’t a secret super spy.