Y'know how it is post-Halloween: maybe you only sort of feel like watching a Christmas movie, but don't wanna get all "TBS 24-Hour A Christmas Story Marathon" with it quite yet; you only wanna dip your toe into all the tinsel and twinkle lights. A lot of people would go Die Hard, some would go Gremlins, everybody's got a favorite. Mine? The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), an overlooked gem of the the alt-Christmas movie season.
This movie comes from writer Shane Black who 1) always sets things around Christmastime, 2) always has snappy dialogue and 3) I thought for a LONG time had written Die Hard because of reasons 1 & 2. What he actually wrote was Lethal Weapon which is totally set around Christmas and has snappy dialogue. The director, Renny Harlin had directed the second Die Hard and was at the time married to Long Kiss Goodnight star / my celebrity crush Geena Davis. Black's and Harlin's names show up at the end of the opening credits over shots of Christmas ornaments and a grenade respectively. There's such a perfect, if very specific, duality to those two images that I'm honestly surprised Shane Black has never had anyone armed with weaponized Christmas ornaments before (he may have). SPOILERS: there is a group* of carolers that are not quite weaponized exactly, but used as a Trojan Horse.
* If there isn't already a collective noun for carolers, might I suggest a scarf? It just sounds right, y'know? "Oh, honey look. There's a scarf of carolers outside!" Merry Christmas, English.
SPOILERS from here on out, if you care.
Long Kiss Goodnight follows Geena (Miss Davis if you're nasty) as school teacher Samantha Caine, living a Norman Rockwell life in upstate Pennsylvania with a fiancé, a daughter and no memories from before 8 years ago. Her opening voiceover tells us that she has, over time, stopped hiring the expensive private investigators and has moved down to the cheap ones, and has all but completely given up on finding the woman she used to be. She has "kissed her goodnight". Except what kind of movie would that be?
Three things happen to Caine all at once: she's Mrs. Claus in the town's Christmas parade (the first spoken line of dialogue is a teenage boy bystander yelling "Mrs. Claus is hot!"), she gets into a car accident which shakes loose some of her old personality and a pre-amnesia credit card turns up, leading one of Caine's aforementioned cheaper detectives to show up at her home. This detective is Samuel L. Jackson as Mitch Henessey, scene stealer.
Caine's Mrs. Claus ends up on the local news where she's seen by One Eyed Jack (Joseph McKenna) a hitman doing time in New Jersey who shows up at Caine's home, using that Trojan scarf to launch us into the film's first big action scene (unless you count chopping vegetables with intense skill as an action scene. I watch a lot of Food Network, so I do not). The action in this movie is great. Renny Harlin really does action well: focused, bombastic and stylish. At the scene's end Jack is dead, Henessey has arrived and Caine can't continue to pretend nothing's up.
Now, I'm not going to go beat-by-beat with you for this movie. I totally COULD, but if you haven't seen it, I'd really be doing it a disservice. You should see this for yourself. Again, Renny Harlin knows his way around action sequences and this movie has the type of action you don't see as much anymore: memorable.
With computer generated effects becoming more and more common, the tendency is to make everything huge; a spectacle, because there aren't the limitations that there are with practical effects-driven action. There is definitely an appeal there, but something as simple as Geena Davis ice-skating across a frozen pond, shooting at a car full of bad guys has stuck with me since I was a kid. A big part of that is the way these scenes and set pieces are executed, but obviously Shane Black can write. Besides the action, the dialogue in Long Kiss is incredibly great. Very quotable, especially Henessey, but early in the film Caine has a few quips that feel like extra Riggs dialogue left over from the first Lethal Weapon.
One thing I want to cover briefly is Brian Cox, always a welcome addition to any movie! Earlier, when I referred to Mitch Henessey as a scene stealer? That's still true, but Cox's Dr. Waldman steals the show. Back when Samantha Caine was a covert government agent named Charly Baltimore, Dr. Waldman was her handler. There is a moment when Waldman is describing a notably phallic doodle of Henessey's, and he holds it up so the audience can see it. It definitely does kind of look like genitalia. Henessey quips "That's a duck, not a dick." and your eyes go back to look again, and Waldman does too! Brian Cox always makes these little acting choices and that's one that really clicked with me and has made me laugh since I was a kid.
On the topic of kids, parenthood is a definite through-line in this movie. Charly Baltimore's rejection of Caitlin as being Samantha Caine's daughter and not hers is an emotional thematic reminder of the changes this character is going through. She doesn't just cut & dye her hair and start smoking (not to mention shooting people), she is denying a piece of who she is. "Sam Caine had to come from somewhere" Henessey tells her, "I think you just forgot to hate yourself for a while". Henessey too has issues with a son he's barely allowed to interact with, but clearly wishes things were different; "I've never done one thing right in my life. That takes skill".
Speaking of parenthood, I might as well mention that my mom loves this movie (she has very good taste). When I told her I was gonna be writing about it for Shitmas 2016, she was very excited. "I remember the soundtrack as being right on!" she told me. Her favorite bit comes near the finale: Geena Davis' Caine/Baltimore (it's hard to say which personality is running the show by this point) has been beaten up, blown up, shot, stabbed, I dunno... maybe poked in the eye? She's been through the ringer physically and emotionally and when she pulls daughter Caitlin out of the spot she's been hiding in, Caitlin whines "Mommy, I hit my head..."
This makes my mother laugh. Every time. Just does.
I could go on about Long Kiss Goodnight being ahead of its time with regards to female action stars (straight action, non-genre), how Sam Caine / Charly Baltimore is Jason Bourne before Jason Bourne (or before the films brought him to a wider public awareness anyway), or even about how David Morse is in it (David Morse is in it!) but I'll just urge you to watch it this holiday season and see what you think.
- Hunter Bush