Prior to The Long Kiss Goodnight, director Renny Harlin had crafted the multimillion-dollar pirate epic Cutthroat Island, which starred his then-wife, Geena Davis, and Matthew Modine. And though it has grown a cult following in the years since its release, the response that it got from both critics and audiences in 1995 was downright brutal. So when Cutthroat Island failed to make a dent at the box office, both Harlin and Davis decided to go with something completely different: an unapologetically R-rated action film set around Christmas (which, also failed to light the box office on fire, winning the consolation prize of a cult following… but that’s not the point).
In the movie, Davis plays Samantha Caine, a kind-hearted schoolteacher who lives with her boyfriend, Hal (Tom Amandes), and her 8-year-old daughter, Caitlin (Yvonne Zima). She suffers from focal retrograde amnesia, making her unable to remember anything about her life prior to the last eight thoroughly suburban years. When she gets into a horrible car accident, though, it unlocks all of those lost memories, slowly transforming her into the person she was before; something that saves her life when a gun-toting hitman arrives on her doorstep with every intention of killing her.
From there, Samantha and Mitch Hennessey (Samuel L. Jackson), a PI she’d hired to unravel the mystery, go on a road trip to dive deeper into the puzzle of who she used to be, and the answer is rather frightening: Charly Baltimore, a highly-trained assassin who worked for a black- ops division of the CIA, and who is now being hunted by her former employers, and by a terrorist-for-hire named Timothy (Craig Bierko). Timothy will stop at nothing to keep Charly and Mitch from uncovering a planned mass-casualty terrorist attack, balancing the need with his past relationship with Baltimore.
So, to recap, we’ve got Geena Davis kicking massive amounts of ass, Sam Jackson still fresh off the accolades from his performance in Pulp Fiction, and a plot with tons of action and intrigue. Oh, and Harlin’s high adrenaline bonafides as the director of big-budget action films like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger paired with a script from Lethal Weapon (and later, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) writer Shane Black. Add in the twinkle of Christmas lights and fresh snowfall and The Long Kiss Goodnight was perfectly engineered as a holiday feast for fans in search of something less saccharine, family-friendly, and moralistic than favorites like It’s A Wonderful Life, The Holiday, or A Charlie Brown Christmas. But it’s about more than punches and explosions.
Much like dramedies, which touch upon crucial social issues while making audiences laugh so that the drama is easier to watch and absorb, Christmas-themed action films from the ’80s and ’90s accomplish a similar purpose. The Long Kiss Goodnight, at its heart, is about Charly learning to love her daughter and embrace their life together, instead of focusing on the anger and regret she feels over losing eight years of her life and her independence. Die Hard is about John McClane realizing that he has failed to give his wife the support that she needs and deserves, and wants nothing more than to survive his encounter with these terrorists (or as Hans Gruber prefers to describe them all, exceptional thieves), so he can tell her that he’s sorry. Lethal Weapon shows us Riggs learning to bond with and care about Murtaugh and his family, and learning that suicide isn’t the answer to his grief. Even Batman Returns has Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Oswald Cobblepot creating their own separate personas as Batman, Catwoman, and The Penguin, which is a blessing in helping them embrace who they really are, but is a curse with how said personas prevent them from creating the lives for themselves that they need and want.
These films ground the spectacle of their action and endless quips in something that isn’t hard to link to the holidays. Namely, they let us learn about the importance of family (both biological and found), kindness towards others, and kindness towards ourselves while enjoying a beautifully choreographed action sequence that has Batman fighting the Red Triangle Circus Gang, or John McClane leaping off the roof of Nakatomi Plaza to avoid being blown up. Or Charly Baltimore going toe-to-toe with a knife-wielding Timothy, and teasing him about his dick size while doing so. So expand the argument on whether these films function merely as “alt” holiday options and remove the asterisk, because they can bring just as much comfort and joy as egg nog, ugly Christmas sweaters, and fully vaccinated kisses under the mistletoe.
‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’ is now streaming on Tubi.