Film Advent Calendar – Day 18: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
And so we come to the King Of Christmas trilogy section of our Film Advent Calendar.
Everyone knows that Shane Black sets all his stories at Christmas, don’t they? Well, some of them at least (in fact, it’s six, Ed.), so for the next three days we’ll be looking at three of those and today I begin with not only one of my favourite Christmas films, but one of my all-time favourite films, period.
Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight was not a major hit for New Line, only making a modest $85m at the box office (on a $65m budget), sitting it squarely between Matilda and Striptease in the final chart for 1996. And whenever I mention it most people are vaguely aware of it but have never seen it. So my hope is that this write up might rectify that!
Let’s begin with the story – I’ll do my best to keep it spoiler free, but the twists and turns come so thick and fast that I can’t make any firm promises.
Schoolteacher Samantha Caine has been living the near-perfect life in small-town New England. There’s only one problem – she can’t remember anything beyond eight years ago. We first meet her playing Mrs Claus in the town’s Christmas parade and soon after we cut to her seemingly flawless family enjoying a Christmas party with her friends. As the song says, it’s nearly like a picture print from Currier & Ives. But small-town America doesn’t tend to fare well in Christmas action films (You’ve seen Gremlins right?) and it’s not long before Sam’s past catches up with her and the bullets start to fly.
Enter Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L Jackson), a low rent, sleazy PI, and the only one Sam can afford, having wasted all her money on more expensive ones who failed to uncover even a hint of her background. By sheer dumb luck, Mitch unearths a single, vague clue which leads the mismatched pair on a wild goose chase across North East USA, and which reveals a terrifying threat which goes all the way to the upper echelons of government.
The slow return of memory is a well-trodden path which we’ve seen before in the likes of Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity and Robocop but what separates this out from the crowd is Shane Black’s other speciality: mismatched duos who exchange quickfire witty dialogue (see also Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero etc). The banter between them as they drive around New England bickering is a joy to listen to.
What makes this stand out from other buddy movies is that here we get a twist which radically alters the dynamic of the film at the halfway point. The returning memories essentially swap the white knight/damsel relationship between Sam and Mitch, but what doesn’t change is their chemistry and growing friendship. And it’s a lovely relationship where you really see the mutual respect and trust evolve and grow as the film progresses.
Another thing Black does well is his villains. He seems to specialise in the trope called The Dragon (where the henchman is the most memorable, threatening villain – think Joshua in Lethal Weapon, Milo in The Last Boy Scout or Benedict in Last Action Hero). Here we have Leland Perkins, the government official pulling all the strings ably assisted by the former terrorist Mr Timothy. The dead-eyed, psychopathic performance makes me wonder why Craig Bierko didn’t go on to greater success in movies (I’ve only seen him in one other movie – the virtual reality thriller The Thirteenth Floor and of course he was Lister in the ill-fated Red Dwarf USA). And Timothy fires out the one-liners too – a particular favourite is when a henchmen say “I think I’m dying” to him over the radio and he responds “Continue dying. Out.”
As I write this I am watching A Good Day To Die Hard (because apparently, I don’t like myself very much) and it makes me sad for a day when we had enigmatic and charismatic crooks in movies.
‘Tis The Season!
And of course, it’s very Christmassy! We get snow (lots of it), a nativity play, ice skating, Christmas parades bookending the film, a countdown to midnight on Christmas Eve, carol singers in peril and a very inventive use of fairy lights. Overall, it’s a witty, exciting sleigh ride of a film with action, adventure, peril and laughs-a-plenty. Give it a shot. You won’t regret it.
Additional: In the background of one early scene you hear a rendition of Jingle Bells performed by barking dogs (kid’s don’t half listen to some weird music). I’ve since found out that this track is called Jingle Bells Boogie from the album Christmas Unleashed by Jingle Dogs.
You can listen to the whole album on Spotify. It’s an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
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