Inside a darkened bedroom in the middle of a blizzard, a little girl wakes from a nightmare in a bed “dappled with moon shadow” — but her mom is there to tell her she loves her, that no one can hurt her. As she falls back to sleep, the mother turns on a nightlight, revealing her blood-slicked arm and an MP-5 machine gun. This is how one draft of Shane Black’s script for Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight begins, the story of Samantha Caine (Geena Davis), an amnesiac enjoying her new life in an idyllic snow-globe town. But the murder and mayhem of her forgotten life as assassin Charly Baltimore begin to creep in, and Samantha confronts the past alongside private eye Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson).
Maybe we didn’t deserve The Long Kiss Goodnight. Twenty years later the film still feels overlooked despite being ahead of its time, an early answer to the call for great movies about compelling women. We certainly don’t deserve Geena Davis, who performed almost all her own stunts for this film, learned how to fire tactical weapons, even worked with an undercover operative. Roger Ebert had this message for her in his lukewarm review: “Geena, give yourself a break.” Although Samantha Caine and Mitch Henessey may have been able to outrun a fireball, they couldn’t escape the aftermath of Harlin’s Cutthroat Island, which bombed at the box office so badly that The Long Kiss Goodnight suffered for it a year later.
Renny Harlin blamed The Long Kiss Goodnight’s poor performance on confusing advertising, but Shane Black wondered whether it might’ve been more successful if it were about a man: “It might have made more money. They told me, ‘Don’t put a man in it.’” And the character originally was a man until Black realized halfway through writing the script that it would work better with a woman. That it only worked with a woman. Otherwise it was like any other amnesiac story. Black explained: “What I wanted to do is not be afraid to give a woman character as serious a role as I would a man character. The temptation is to keep a woman soft and fluffy. I also wanted to do a story about a mother and daughter, about a woman who uses her skills as a professional killer and mother to protect her child.”
Samantha and Mitch are Shane Black’s most damaged characters, but also his most resilient. The sadness of an earlier draft of the script is softened in the film: Mitch was sexually assaulted in prison, he regularly spoke to his dead mother, and Charly was molested by her father, witnessed his murder — and he died thinking she was responsible for his death. Even with this history cut from the film, these characters have had it rough. When Samantha was young she was recruited to be an assassin immediately after her father’s murder, and Mitch was a cop who went to prison, became a private eye who cons people, has a son who believes the toys his father gives him are stolen. Whether they know it or not, underneath their tarnish Mitch and Samantha want to help each other, to be better.
The tension at the heart of The Long Kiss Goodnight is between Charly and Samantha, the schoolteacher and the spy, two identities at war in one woman. Samantha wants to forget Charly, and Charly wants to eliminate Samantha. But these two selves bleed into each other, and even when Charly resurfaces, she can’t elude Sam’s goodness, just as Sam can’t stop Charly’s darkness from bubbling up. There were five or six rewrites of the script to accommodate a $100 million movie being made for $65 million, and one lost scene sees Mitch and Samantha driving past a diner surrounded by police, a hostage situation where the perp has a shotgun trained on a sixteen-year-old waitress. Samantha orders Mitch to drive to the nearest hill, assembles the sniper rifle from her old suitcase, and kills Mr. Shotgun. Even possessed by the cold-blooded Charly, the violence she inflicts has nothing to do with her, and everything to do with saving a teenage girl and a diner full of helpless strangers. In a scene that did make it to the film, a man called One-Eyed Jack (Joseph McKenna) tries to kill Samantha in her home. He shoots at her daughter Caitlin (Yvonne Zima), and Samantha reacts by tossing Caitlin through a hole blown in the wall into the safety of her treehouse. Her instinct is to protect her daughter, to protect an innocent girl.
Mitch Henessey is Samantha’s partner in this mess, the Willie Garvin to her Modesty Blaise. He helps her solve the mystery of her past and deal with the fallout, which includes a chemical bomb and the men who want her dead: an ex-employer, a terrorist, and her daughter’s sadistic father. Mitch is as complicated as Samantha, and it’s unsurprising that this is Samuel L. Jackson’s all-time favorite role. Mitch Henessey toes the line between good and bad — a cop turned criminal, a private eye conning his clients. But he’s also a father trying to earn his son’s trust and admiration, and he becomes the movie’s moral center, acting as Samantha’s conscience and trying to remember his own: “You can do this. Just do one thing right.”
Mitch originally died in the film, but test audiences reacted so poorly to Samuel L. Jackson’s onscreen death that Harlin resurrected him in reshoots. “That’s right — you can’t kill me, motherfuckers!” is Mitch Henessey’s declaration, but it’s also Samuel L. Jackson’s. Charly calls the President for a favor and Mitch appears on Larry King Live after the President singled out his heroism at a press conference, and Mitch tells one of the most dad jokes ever uttered: “I’m always frank and earnest with women. In New York I’m Frank, in Chicago I’m Ernest.” His ex-wife and son watch their television in awe. When Henessey dies in the script, Charly arranges for the police to tell his ex-wife and son that Mitch was innocent of the crime that put him in prison. The effect is the same in both versions: “In the eyes of a young boy, Henessey finds redemption.”
There’s camaraderie, even intimacy between Mitch and Samantha — they don’t mind confessing the extent of their damage to each other. In one version of the script, Samantha tells Mitch what she saw at the bottom of the ocean when she “elected to die despite clear orders to the contrary”: a little girl, herself at three years old, wondering how it had come to this. “Said when she grew up she was gonna teach school. She couldn’t wait.” She admits this to no one but Mitch — it took her eight years to admit it to herself. “Samantha Caine” may have been a cover Charly created as a spy, but Mitch understands she bought her own cover after her amnesia for a reason, even if she’s too conflicted to see the truth herself. He finds the torn photograph of her boyfriend Hal (Tom Amandes) and Caitlin in the motel-room trash, and when Charly tries to seduce him, he sees she’s trying to stamp out Samantha. Charly insists the schoolteacher was a fabrication, but Mitch knows “her personality had to come from somewhere.” He explains that Samantha Caine wasn’t an act: “You had amnesia and all, but I think maybe you forgot to hate yourself for a while.”
Charly is the self-loathing killer that Charlene Baltimore grew up to be, a protective persona that a wounded child created for herself and a product of the world of violence she grew up in — and Samantha Caine was the woman Charlene once dreamed she’d become. Charly tries to let herself die at the bottom of the ocean and Samantha survives and lives an eight-year-long fantasy, but she can’t keep the darkness at bay, and Charly returns, determined to erase Samantha Caine and her new life as the belle of the Christmas parade. Even though she created Caitlin, she rejects her daughter because Samantha raised her. But when they’re locked in a meat freezer, Caitlin saves their lives with a doll that Charly’s filled with gasoline, her retainer, and the matches she kept in her cast to light her mother’s way home. Charly weeps when she sees Caitlin still has the matches for the candle she gave her — with relief and with love for Caitlin. The moment she realizes she still loves her daughter is also the moment of reconciliation between Charly Baltimore and Samantha Caine.
When Charly shoots men armed with machine guns trained on Mitch, here’s how those men’s deaths are described in the screenplay: “The bad men go away.” The Long Kiss Goodnight is the story of Samantha Caine and Mitch Henessey making the bad men go away, becoming heroes in the eyes of children. And if Mitch is the moral center of the movie, Hal is its hope. Hal nearly dies because of Samantha, and he witnesses her kill One-Eyed Jack with a punch to the skull, a snap of the neck, a pie to the face — she even licks the cream. But he still tells her: “The person you used to be, whatever you find, I’m not scared. I never will be.” Underneath the snappy dialogue and the balletic violence, what Hal expresses to Samantha is the message of The Long Kiss Goodnight: that you can reconcile the warring and fucked-up parts of you, that you can forgive yourself the sins of the past, and that others will love you in spite of them.