Who is the real Samantha Caine? It’s the question that looms over The Long Kiss Goodnight, the 1996 shoot-em-up written by Shane Black and directed by Renny Harlin. For eight long years, Samantha (Geena Davis) has wondered this every time she looks in the mirror and sees a body riddled with scars she doesn’t remember getting. Is she just another mousy, small-town schoolteacher and mother who heads the PTA or was she once another kind of woman entirely?
With the help of a private eye (Samuel Jackson) — the cheapest one her money can buy — she hopes to finally learn just who that woman was that she kissed goodnight all those years ago. Only now, she doesn’t have much of a choice: she has to figure it out fast, because the clock is ticking and her dark past is about to determine the outcome of her future.
The history of cinema is replete with characters of split personalities and other psychological disorders and follies, from The Three Faces of Eve (1957) to Sybil (1976), and later, Fight Club (1999) which not only depicts dissociative disorder but demonstrates how one’s multiple personalities reveal the latent complexity of the character as a whole. While in The Long Kiss Goodnight Samantha is not afflicted with the exact same problem, the internal disassociation generated by her amnesia and the subsequent remembrance shape the course of events in an equally disturbing and powerful manner.
Samantha and her other half – the irascible contract killer known as Charly Baltimore – are presented initially as dueling personalities, competing for control over the same body. In our first glimpses of Charly, she is frighteningly vicious and unruly even, with bleach-blonde hair and eye makeup that looks like war paint. Should Charly fully take over, she may even be more of a threat to those around her than the hired assassins sent to take out Samantha before she can learn the truth. The unity of one such character and the suburbanite Samantha is seemingly impossible. However, Davis is tasked with the difficult job of reconciling the two, not only capturing Samantha as she shakes off her timidity and grows a backbone, but Charly too, as she gains a soul.
We see the softness drain from Samantha’s eyes when a would-be assassin bursts into her home, attacks her family, and almost finishes her off. In this moment of sheer terror, something snaps and the cold-blooded killer within is able to take over. Later in the film, we see all that warmth come rushing back, as Charly breaks down in tears when she’s unable — despite all her cunning and resourcefulness — to figure her way out of the latest death trap. Her sense of defeat floods over, until she gets a surprise from the last place she thought to look – from the little girl she’s spent half the film reluctantly saving and mothering. It’s an essential moment, demonstrating Charly and Samantha coexisting as one.
Black, who would go on to write and direct Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and the 2016 mystery-crime thriller The Nice Guys, packs the script with explosive turns and over-the-top action. The film is brimming with everything you’d expect from a mid-90s action flick – bombs, bullets and bad guys galore, and plenty of juicy one-liners most of which delivered to perfection by Jackson – but nothing is excessive. Every scene is intricately pieced together, with each devised to reveal something new. The sheer chemistry between Harlin, Davis and Jackson fuels the film and keeps it humming to such fine extent that it never feels overworked, not even for a moment.
In some ways, the biggest mystery about The Long Kiss Goodnight isn’t really who Samantha really is or how Charly’s dangerous past is bound to interfere with the present. Instead, it’s how this clever action-adventure never found itself a larger audience. The film offers a playful take on the The-Man-Who-Knew-Too-Much concept, but Black subverts it by centering all of the mystery around a woman here instead of a man. And not just any kind of woman, mind you, but a middle-aged one which, unfortunately, is not usually a winning draw at the box office for any kind of film, let alone an action one. Although innovative, The Long Kiss Goodnight couldn’t help but fall victim to the rule. It bombed at the box office domestically, raking in less than $35 million against a $65 million budget and making most of its money ultimately overseas. Still, its energy is undeniable, and so much of that can be attributed not just to its special effects, but to the nuanced performance delivered here by Davis.
With Davis at the helm, Charly and Samantha don’t feel like caricatures, which is an easy trap for an actor to fall into when playing split personalities. Instead, they emerge as two distinct halves that find their agency through the painful struggle of reconciliation.
They need each other, point blank. This synergy of consciousness gives vitality to the movie. Without the other, neither can survive the seemingly impossible set of obstacles that emerge as the film barrels toward climax. It’s only when both of them realize this – once Samantha accepts the power of Charly’s brutality and Charly, in turn, embraces the humanity that has kept Samantha anchored to the world – that the woman within finally taps into the purest source of strength there is: self-love and acceptance.
She then proceeds to kick a whole lot of ass. Really, what more could any action film lover ask for?