A violent and fantastical actioner about the potential for good and evil within the human character, "The Long Kiss Goodnight" has a jokey good time with its outlandish pyrotechnics and offbeat character interplay.

A violent and fantastical actioner about the potential for good and evil within the human character, “The Long Kiss Goodnight” has a jokey good time with its outlandish pyrotechnics and offbeat character interplay. Bouncing back from their joint belly flop on “Cutthroat Island,” director Renny Harlin and star Geena Davis supply a rambunctious physicality, wrapped in a breezy attitude, that will keep the popcorn crowd munching away happily. Davis’ mainstream drawing power will truly be tested by this kissing cousin to “La Femme Nikita.” Solid, if not boffo, B.O. seems indicated for what is by far New Line’s biggest-budget production to date, while foreign prospects look hefty.

Shane Black’s screenplay, much touted at the time of its record specscript sale for $ 4 million, certainly supplies the requisite count of (mostly anonymous) bodies biting the dust — and snow. But the usual cynical and numbing feel of such concoctions is partly mitigated by the off-center camaraderie between Davis and co-star Samuel L. Jackson, and even more so by the simplistic but effective central metaphor that plays with the appeal of, and potential for, violence, evil and mayhem among even the nicest, most law-abiding persons.

At the outset, Samantha Caine (Davis) is seen as the ideal mom to her 8 -year-old daughter, Caitlin, in an ideal New England small town. But in movies such as this, picture-perfect towns and families exist only to be threatened and despoiled, and so they are when Samantha’s home is attacked by an unsavory man from her mysterious past, a past she can’t remember due to an amnesiac block.

But this is literally a tale of The Killer Inside Me, as Samantha turns out to have been a highly trained government assassin in her previous life, an ultra-professional operative presumed dead but now highly feared by her former colleagues in the Chapter for knowing too much about their nefarious activities.

A tale of dual pursuit ensues, as Samantha hooks up with low-rent detective and former jailbird Mitch Henessey (Jackson) to seek out the full truth about her murky personal history, only to be threatened every step of the way by pretty-boy government hit man Timothy (Craig Bierko) and his treacherous intelligence chief, Perkins (Patrick Malahide).

Samantha’s skills, and awareness of her previous identity, return to her in stages. Shocks such as the one she receives in a preposterous, leeringly tantalizing scene in which the heroine, clad only in a white slip, is tortured by being tied to a water wheel and rolled underwater, tend to bring out her killer instinct. But exactly halfway through, her old inner self having reasserted itself, she transforms completely into Charly the tough chick she used to be, a bottle-blonde more resourceful than James Bond.

After Charly and Mitch succeed in eluding the renegade government men, Timothy kidnaps Samantha’s little daughter, putting Charly in a spot since she has decided to forget that Samantha ever existed. Every one’s toughness is continually tested until everything converges in a giant nocturnal set piece at Niagara Falls, where the soured spies intend to stage a terrorist-type bombing and blame the Arabs for the sake, of all things, of winning more funding (whatever happened to good, old-fashioned secret slush funds?).

Through it all, Samantha/Charly is subjected to more perils than Pauline, with the waterwheel episode serving as a mere warm-up to scenes in which she takes down a gang of armed men in a back alley, out-duels some bad boys in a car while racing them on ice skates, extricates herself and her daughter from a locked freezer (while adorned in a clingy white T-shirt) and finally shoots it out with Timothy, on board a chopper, while dangling from a wire on the Friendship Bridge over the Falls.

With the help of his stunt and special effects teams, Harlin delivers more than enough goods to satisfy genre fans, so main question is whether a female action hero, and Davis in particular, is ready to be embraced by the huge public the film is clearly targeting. Outside of the “Alien” sci-fiers, recent history is litered with commercially disappointing attempts at putting a woman at the center of hard action, including the “Nikita” Americanization, “Point of No Return”; “Barb Wire” and “The Quick and the Dead.”

Davis fills the bill of a smart, tough, capable femme operative as well as anyone could. Playing a lifelong loser with a lively sense of humor, Jackson lightens the proceedings in a welcome manner, while Bierko makes you want to punch his smug face whenever he appears.

While muscular and visceral, the visuals lack elegance or a real sense of style, with somewhat muddy lighting and drab winter settings not helping. Alan Silvestri’s score is heavier and more bombastic than the tone set by the script andactors.

The Long Kiss Goodnight

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Forge production in association with Steve Tisch. Produced by Renny Harlin, Stephanic Austin, Shane Black. Executive producers, Tisch. Richard Saperstein. Michael De Luca. Co-producer, Carla Fry. Directed by Renny Harlin. Screenplay, Shane Black.

Crew

Camera (CFI color, Deluxe prints; Otto Nemenz Cameras widescreen), Guillermo Navarro: editor, William C. Goldenberg; music, Alan Silvestri; music supervisor, Bonnie Greenberg; production design, Howard Cummings; art direction, Steve Arnold, Dennis Davenport; set design, Tom Doherty; set decoration, Michael Taylor; costume design, Michael Kaplan; sound (Dolby SR, SDDS), Doug Ganton; special visual efects, Jeffrey A. Okun; digital visual effects and computer generated imagery, Todd-AO Digital Images; stunt coordinator, Steve M. Davidson; assistant director, Bruce G. Moriarty; casting, Mary Vernieu, Ronnie Yeskel. Reviewed at New Line screening room, L.A., Oct. 3, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time:120 MIN.

With

Samantha Caine (Charly) - Geena Davis
Mitch Henessey - Samuel L. Jackson
Perkins - Patrick Malahide
Timothy - Craig Bierko
Nathan - Brian Cox
Luke/Daedalus - David Morse
President - G.D. Spradlin
Hal - Tom Amandes
Caitlin - Yvonne Zima
Trin - Melina Kanakaredes
Earl - Alan North
One-Eyed Jack - Joseph McKenna

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