The Long Kiss Goodnight
Samantha Caine, a happy schoolteacher, wife, and mom, is what used to be called a nice girl. She’s goofy and flighty, her hair spilling over her shoulders in gentle maternal curls. Charly Baltimore, a remorseless government spy, is every inch a bad girl. She drinks, smokes, sleeps around, wears her hair short and blond, kills practically everyone she meets, and — worst of all — she says bad words. Except for the profanity and the dye job, Charly is a female James Bond. Is there any common ground between these women?
There is and there isn’t. The sly joke of The Long Kiss Goodnight, of course, is that Samantha and Charly are the same woman (Geena Davis). Samantha, you see, has had amnesia for eight years and settled into her new domestic identity. Her violent past as Charly the assassin is lost to her. But not for long. The movie, it turns out, has a better joke in store: Charly the pulp-fiction hit-woman is more “real” than the peaceful Samantha, who never really existed.
Samantha/Charly is an intriguing creation, and it’s too bad her creator, Shane Black (who also wrote Lethal Weapon), couldn’t have devised a better story for her. The plot is more of the same government vipers, ticking bombs, and cars bursting in air. Charly is pulled out of retirement when a former enemy spots Samantha on TV (in a Christmas parade, yet) and pays her a visit. Luckily, Charly’s old tricks come back to Samantha when she needs them, and she takes off with cynical detective Mitch (Samuel L. Jackson), who knows her only as “Amnesia Chick.”
Mitch is a solid (if underwritten) role for Jackson, who scores most of the movie’s laughs with his increasing befuddlement at Amnesia Chick. Bits of Charly begin to surface in Samantha, until finally Charly takes over. This vastly increases the amount of Steve Buscemi-type punishment Mitch takes from the villains trying to kill Charly. He also gets a few lumps from Charly herself. “I liked Samantha better,” Mitch gripes.
I liked them both, because Geena Davis is engaging and funny no matter which woman she is. She pulls off some Samantha-to-Charly transitions (and vice versa) that rank among the finer acting moments of the season. She’s chilling when Samantha is with her little daughter and unconsciously lets a little cruel Charly slip out. And Davis’s flashes of soft-hearted Samantha when she’s cold-blooded Charly are wonderful. “Wanna get a dog?” Charly chirps before setting off a huge explosion.
As much as I enjoyed The Long Kiss Goodnight, I can’t help sniffing some traces of sexism. When was the last time a male action hero was torn between family life and killing? Okay, True Lies is the exception. But where is the heroine who can just be a fighter and killer, no questions asked? [EDIT: This was written before TV’s Xena and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention Kill Bill.] Movies like this and Point of No Return bend over backwards to assure their male audience that it’s all fantasy, that violence is alien to “normal” women. Or maybe this mother-vs.-assassin conflict is a welcome dab of complexity to the familiar kaboom genre. And Geena Davis’s warm, witty performance takes the sexist curse off it. The nice girl and the bad girl, as in real life, can be the same woman.