Renny Harlin’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is a gawky, relentlessly earnest patchwork of a movie, cobbled together from film noir, action-adventure, psychological horror, street-smart comedy and touchy-feely sentimentality.
Amazingly, it works - thanks to a luminous lead from Geena Davis and a show-stopping funny man-under-pressure portrayal from Samuel L. Jackson.
Director Harlin has learned plenty in his dozen years as an action-thriller specialist. For every couple of hits such as “Die Hard 2” (1990) and “Cliffhanger” (1993), Harlin has had a dud such as “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” (1990), and somewhere along the line the Finnish-born filmmaker has picked up on what sails and what sinks.
Popular acceptance may be another matter, but as sheer energetic filmmaking goes, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” works dandy. Davis’ character is introduced as a long-term amnesia case, comfortable with what little she remembers - a name and a background in schoolteaching - and determined to move forward.
But screenwriter Shane Black (of “Lethal Weapon”) is not about to let such a character off the hook so easily. Flashes of buried memory begin to surface at awkward moments, unnerving Davis’ loved ones and hinting at revelations that people might be better off not knowing. Meanwhile, a shabby private eye (Jackson), whom Davis has enlisted in a seemingly futile hunt for clues, turns up a possible breakthrough.
“The Long Kiss Goodnight” is at its best during the first few reels, when Davis presents a haunted soul, torn between a search for middleclass security and the ghost of what must have been a brutal past. She can only guess at her age, and at the identity of the father of her child. She considers herself reasonably young and healthy - but what about the scars that cover her body?
The truth behind those scars - no fair telling too much - requires that Davis leave her comfortable middle-class life behind (just as Christmas approaches) to seek out certain people who seem connected to times gone by.
There is the matter of an apparent marriage-to-be, a wealthy father-figure and a scenic old Down East farm complete with torture chamber.
The winning consistency of the Davis and Jackson characters eases the transition into the explosive action; throughout, she’s no-nonsense and he’s a smart-mouth. Once a conspiracy is uncovered, it is only hours away from blast-off, and a mysterious (aren’t they all?) figure from Davis’ prior life will find a way to force a confrontation between the sides of her personality.
Harlin betrays his background in exploitation film (including one “Nightmare on Elm Street” installment) with an unabashed glee that borders on tastelessness. He dwells on horrific moments to jarring effect, but always rallies in honor of the intelligence of his players and his audience. His orchestration of the stunts and firepower is thrilling, but it is as a director of human emotion that Harlin really succeeds.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Long Kiss Goodnight” Locations: Lincoln Heights, North Division and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Directed by Renny Harlin; starring Geena Davis, Samuel L. Jackson Running time: 1:58 Rating: R