Harlin: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Few 90s films are as lurid, extravagant, maximalist and restless as The Long Kiss Goodnight, a transition point between the classical action film and a more cybergothic mode of action that would reach full flower in The Matrix. Renny Harlin was a master at queasily combining different tones and genres under the umbrella of action, continually expanding his films until they seemed to contain every conceivable Hollywood experience. The Long Kiss Goodnight is arguably his masterpiece, extending action so far that we glimpse something beyond the lexicon of action cinema – a new digital space that changes the meaning of action itself. In that sense, The Long Kiss Goodnight is partly a eulogy for action cinema, but also a hyperactive effort to glimpse what might lie behind the action horizon, and the next decade of Hollywood.

The Long Kiss Goodnight was also Harlin’s final collaboration with his (then) wife Geena Davis, as well as the last film in what might be described us Davis’ classic period. Thelma & Louise set the bar for a new kind of feminist Hollywood, yet still feels anomalous to this day, since the cinema it challenged us to imagine in its iconic closing scene never really came to pass. The Long Kiss Goodnight may be the closest we came, or the closest Davis came, providing her with one last great feminist role before she diverted her activism behind the screen. In that sense, it forms a middle term between Davis’ role in Thelma & Louise, and her foundation of the Geena Davis Institute for Gender Equity in Media, since this was her next public appearance after Harlin’s film, with the exception of her bit parts in the Stuart Little trilogy.

As a result, The Long Kiss Goodnight straddles two worlds – Davis as actor, and Davis as activist – just as we meet Davis’ protagonist, Samantha Caine, in an indeterminate zone between present and past. In a chirpy voiceover, Samantha explains that, while she may live in a cosy Pennsylvania town with her partner and daughter, her life is far from normal, since she can’t remember anything prior to the last eight years. Nevertheless, she’s managed to build a wide circle of friends, colleagues and neighbours during that period, while also maintaining a healthy relationship. The fact that she was two months pregnant with her daughter when she woke up without a memory means that this part of her life also has a comforting completism to it. She never knew her daughter in her old life, so she’s been able to start afresh with her, even if she can’t recall who the father was, or how she came to be pregnant in the first place.

There’s something absurd about this very premise, making it hard to nail down the tone during these opening scenes. At times, Harlin seems to be presenting us with an amnesia comedy, or even a feel-good mystery – you could almost see it turning into a Hallmark movie where the father is revealed at the end. That’s not to say that Samantha isn’t curious, but that her curiosity has largely waned by the time that we meet her. Over the years, she’s hired a variety of professionals to help her track down her past self, but they’ve faded away, leaving only Mitch Hennessy, a local private investigator played by Samuel L. Jackson. We first meet Mitch in the guise of a plain-clothes policeman, shaking down a sex worker and her client, but it turns out the sex worker is his colleague, and that it’s all a scam, begging the question of how much he can actually do to help Samantha – and whether she even cares by this stage.

That all changes very suddenly, however, in a rapid convergence of events – the first of many such convergences across the film. First, Samantha crashes her car in the woods, while driving a neighbour home. The neighbour, an old man, tries to grope her, meaning that she doesn’t see an elk standing in the middle of the road. When the car flips over and catches on fire, the man perishes, but she finds herself surprisingly adept at fleeing the vehicle and making her way home through the snow. This event already seems somewhat overdetermined – surely only the groping scene, the car crash, or the fire was necessary – but it’s compounded by two more jolts to her identity. We quickly cut to an unnamed prisoner, who catches a glimpse of Samantha in a Christmas parade from his recreation area. He immediately makes an urgent phone call, evoking a shadowy network of connections as Mitch, Samantha’s investigator, gets his first good tips in years – a credit card with her name in found in a widow’s apartment.

These three events all seems to activate a new kind of body for Samantha, who finds her muscle memory returning before her psychological memory. This manifests itself first and foremost as a new threshold for pain and endurance – and a new expectation when it comes to other women, and to their bodies. When her daughter Caitlin slips over on the icing rink, Samantha simply tells her that “life is pain,” and instructs her to get up. Later on, she’s chopping up a carrot in the kitchen, and jokingly fondles it while her partner is watching on. No sooner does she engage in this phallic play, though, than she finds herself maniacally chopping the carrot at superhuman speed. There’s a symbolic castration at play here, but it’s not entirely clear who it’s aimed at, since her partner certainly isn’t a threat to her autonomy.

This escalation of body powers is so fast, and so dramatic, that it seems to activate superpowers, producing an action lexicon where there’s no clear distinction between reality and hyperbole, sincerity and self-parody. Harlin seems less interested in the tonal consistency from scene to scene than in building up enough energy and momentum to ensure that tone doesn’t matter. In the process, the film becomes a kind of exercise in inane consumption, an affront to good taste, proliferating out into a series of grotesque culinary tableaux during these opening scenes. Samanatha doesn’t just maniacally cut carrots, but puts a pie in the face of an FBI agent, while the President first mentions her in the midst of a turkey dinner.

It’s only a matter of time before Samantha hits the road with Caitlin and Mitch in tow, quickly meeting up Dr. Nathan Waldman, a government contact played by Brian Cox, who informs her that she’s a Cold War sleeper agent, “the kind of violent operative that has since been eliminated from our ranks.” Cox has exactly the tightly controlled inanity to be the main expositor of this backstory, and he’s basically killed off once he delivers it, leaving Harlin to explore the ramifications of Samantha’s status, rather than waste any more time on making it plausible. To some extent, the situation is plausible simply by virtue of genre, since the return of Cold War objects and people was a common trope in 90s cinema. Francis Fukuyama famously noted that Americans saw the Cold War as marking the end of history, meaning that the Cold War came to stand for the possibility of history, and thus futurity, in these 90s films.

Yet no film captured Cold War detritus as an incentive to futurity quite like The Long Kiss Goodnight, where Samantha never feels dated, historical or antique. From the moment she discovers that her real name is Agent Charly Baltmore, she starts to become a cyborg, while Harlin also evokes a new cybergoth world emerging from the 90s feel-good textures of the opening act. The atonality of that act starts to make sense now as the by-product of a new kind of virtual space that is clamouring to make itself felt, but that hasn’t yet assimilated to (or concealed itself within) the “real” world that Baltimore has been inhabiting as Samantha. Instead, this cyberspace announces itself through sudden bursts of sound and action, ultra-violence lapsing over into digital space – or ultra-violence as an incursion into digital space.

That produces strange ruptures and fissures in tone and affect during the second act, and these momentarily offets the Christmas sheen that overlays it all. Yet this atonality ends up working brilliantly for a Christmas film, or at least puts a radical new spin on the Christmas film, painting the holiday season as a time of year when two different realities sit uncomfortable alongside each other – the materialism of the consumerist world, and its endless array of trinkets, and the ethereality of the religious holiday itself. In The Long Kiss Goodnight, Christmas becomes an ontological schism, a canvas for Samantha as she transitions into Baltimore, an an amplification of the way her body refuses a regular tonality.

At the same time, these scenes are like witnessing the first emergence of the Matrix. In the Wachowskis’ film, released three years later, we hear about the early days of the Matrix, when it was clunkier, and closer to analog technology, light years away from the polished version that Neo encounters. During this original Matrix, there were constant fissures between the “real” world and the Matrix world, meaning that the Matrix first emerged as precisely the atonal digital disruption of embodied space and time that we see here. You can also see the stylistic influence of Harlin on the Wachowskis – the outsized guns, the leaps through space, and above all, the incipient flo-mo style. This is especially evident in the combat scenes, but it suffuses the entire film, which often seems to be fusing different timerates in the same instant, presenting us with figures who are inhabiting the same space, but are somehow speaking, acting or simply existing to the beat of entirely different drums.

We see this proto-Matrix aesthetic in Harlin’s taste for free-falls into semi-fluid zones of abstraction. In an early scene, Baltimore jumps out of a second-floor window, and hangs mid air, before shooting down at a pure white field of space below. This white field feels like the progenitor of the Matrix, which we only directly “see” as a blank void in the first Wachowski film. The real enemy in The Long Kiss Goodnight is also a matrix, an abstraction, solid and fluid, embodied and ethereal. As Baltimore continues to shoot downwards, the white mass grows closer, until she breaks through it and we realise that it is a lake that has just frozen over in the Christmas cold – liquid and solid at the same time, and immune to direct combat.

These free-falls tend to correspond with rapid shifts in perception, and all serve to amplify Baltimore’s cyberbody. In the key flashback scene, we see her leap off a clifftop into a roiling CGI ocean, after stabbing her main antagonist in the eye. Then, in the key transformation scene in the present, her pursuers chain her to a wheel, and periodically roll her into a vat of water, torturing her for information, and then for sheer pleasure. As Harlin shifts between the mechanical (analog) minutiae of the wheel, and the amorphous (digital) murk of the water, Baltimore learns to masochistically welcome her particular Matrix as an opportunity for transfiguration. You could say that this is the moment when Samantha becomes Baltimore – when she emerges, it’s as if she’s been bathed in a cybergoth fluid, become post-human.

Even when Samantha has transitioned to Baltimore, this emergent cybersphere continues to rupture and ripple through the syntax and structure of the film. In one scene, Harlin returns us to the “realism” of the first act, with an establishing shot of Samantha’s house, only for an axe to immediately smash down in front of the frame, jarring our sense of immersion and atmosphere. The axe seems to suggest that regular cuts are no longer sufficient to capture this nascent cybergoth realm, as Harlin relies more and more on moments of overdetermined convergence in lieu of regular editing. Everything continues to come together at once, fusing physical and psychological planes into a new hyperreality. At one moment, Mitch realises Samantha is in danger, only for his thoughts to suddenly take form as a looming helicopter.

In other words, Harlin periodically injects an atonal intensity into his first two acts that doesn’t entirely make sense until this cybergoth world starts to solidify. Samantha’s time on the wheel is the pivotal point, although we never see her first expression of her superpowers as she escapes from the torture device. Instead, Harlin cuts to Mitch, cowering, naked, in striated light, terrified for the first time in the film, as he waits for Samantha to free him, and then meets her as Baltimore instead. This scene draws heavily on the iconography of slave dramas, especially scenes set in the hull of slave ships, suggesting the cybergoth femme signals a new liberation for black folk too, presumably because she discards the body of middle-class white womanhood – or accelerates it into the palpably artificial peroxiding Baltimore now sports.

That’s not to say that Baltimore is simply a white saviour either, since her transformation produces a new and more urgent rapport with Mitch – a professional-erotic synergy between a black man and a white woman that was quite rare for this moment in Hollywood. No doubt, in the wake of Se7en, directors and audiences became fascinated with wise black detectives (usually Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman) offering their preternatural powers of perception to younger white ingenues. By contrast, The Long Kiss Goodnight exoticises whiteness more than blackness, turning whiteness itself into a parodic fetish object as Baltimore announces her change to Mitch by metaphorically taking his virginity. Recalling an anecdote in a Harold Robbins novel about a man who bit a woman’s ear to distract her from the pain of deflowering her, she flashes her breasts as she rips off Mitch’s bandages, fusing pleasure and pain into a Foucauldian sexual communion that doesn’t require direct contact.

It’s a wonderful comic touch that this transition from bourgeois housewife to cyberfemme comes via Harold Robbins, the novelist sine qua non of middle-class angst. Yet this tipsy reversal is part of a broader change, at this point, in the spatial scheme of the film, which starts to catch up with the emergent cyberworld for the first time. This whole scene takes place in a futuristic hotel room, with a variety of unusual fixtures, but one especially striking feature – aquarium windows, thin planes of water filled with rising bubbles. It’s like being in a giant flute of champagne, a space commensurate to the film’s buoyant, intoxicating energy. But this constant flow of bubbles also prefigures the vertical streams of data that form Neo’s (and the audience’s) first encounter with the Matrix. Where Samantha was manically shooting down at the frozen lake, Baltimore reclines amidst water moving upwards, just as the film as a whole is now more comfortably suspended in the midst of this emergent Matrix.

Among other things, this entirely displaces white men from Harlin’s action lexicon, which is now an alliance between a cyberfemme and an Afrofuturist. Both Baltimore and Mitch are out of place when they return to stake out her old suburban home, and she laughs approvingly when he compares the setup to Driving Miss Daisy after she temporarily asks him to take the wheel. The action reaches a new peak of surrealism now, as “real” and digital space converge, careening the two protagonists into ever crazier trajectories and propulsions. In one scene, Mitch spills out of the car and simply lies in the middle of the road, trusting the other cars to move around him, prescient that is no longer entirely embodied as he once was. In another scene, Baltimore chases her targets along a highway – but on the adjoining river, where she ice skates in time, swerving and curving with a hunting rifle slung over her back, like some weird new iteration of Santa Claus, a feminist action heroine who still feels futuristic in 2021.

These crazy trajectories, and vertical propulsions, culminate with the third act, which takes place at Niagara Falls. We arrive at Niagara via another convergence, rather than a regular establishing shot – a cascade of downward trajectories that mirror and amplify the drop of the falls. First, we see a helicopter peeking over the rim, then we see Baltimore and Mitch stumbling-sliding down a wooded slope, and finally we shift to a whole convoy of snowmobiles careening down a hill. The tone has now stabilised, but retains all its volatility, as Harlin presents us with the last option for white men in this denuded action space – terror.

In one of the eeriest moments in all action cinema, as well as one of the most convoluted Cold War narratives, we learn that Baltimore’s back story intersects with a secret government body whose latest plan is a reprisal of the 1993 World Trade Bombings. Since the CIA is finding it difficult to get funding, and secure the approval of the American public, this government body has decided to effectively outdo the 1993 attack with an even grander terrorist spectacle, and blame it on Muslims to quell the public horror. The film’s cyberworld emerges at the precise moment that the government decides to stage this second attack on the World Trade Centre, as Harlin lights on terrorist spectacle as the place where reality as we know it is most likely to overlap with this emergent cybergoth sphere, this new and terrifying horizon of mediation.

During these last scenes, Baltimore becomes a kind of cybersaviour, a good ghost in the machine, the doppelganger twin of Natasha Henstridge’s character in Species. Her training means that she is in a unique position to quell this terrorist attack, which she combats first and foremost by reclaiming the perceptual field of the film as her own. As a result, there’s lots of direct eye contact and brutal eye violence during this final act – Baltimore shoots a guard in the eye while Mitch looks on through night binoculars, and then convinces one of the operatives that he’s the father of her daughter by enjoining him to look her straight in the eye. Yet the film is ultimately disinterested in his parentage, dismissing it as a narrative ruse as Baltimore reinvents motherhood as a lesson in cyberfemme ingenuity, using Caitlin’s doll and retainer to work her way out of the hotel basement where they are being kept prisoner.

This hotel is the most corporeal space in the film – a grand old structure with machinery everywhere – and yet the government is using it as hub for producing virtual space in the form of terrorist spectacle. While Samantha busts her way out MacGyver style, she remotely directs Mitch like he’s a gaming avatar, while covering him with her rifle. We see a total collapse of real and digital space now, a new sense of precarity to space itself, as one character after another is flung, propelled or ejected through open air – most memorably Mitch, who careens out of the hotel window and sails straight through the neon sign outside, as it literally entering a new medium, or acquiring mediating powers, through this trajectory.

In other words, the film’s spatial scheme both consolidates and self-ruptures during this final sequence, roiling us into a sublime showdown on the Canadian border, just above Niagara Falls. Throughout film history, directors have turned to the Falls as a way of evoking shifts in media and perception – and The Long Kiss Goodnight is especially indebted to Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, which fixated on the vertical sightlines of the tourist precinct to eulogise the decline of Technicolor and the emergence of a new televisual media economy. Harlin is also fixated on the arrival of a small screen world, the small screen of computers, and like Hathaway he also tries to create a kind of climactic cinematic spectacle here, a vision of analog cinema encountering its own apocalyptic annihilation in the face of an inchoate digital sphere.

No surprise, then, that this conclusion draws heavily on Apocalypse Now, and revolves around arguably the most spectacular helicopter sequence since Apocalypse Now. Harlin’s risk plays off, since this sequence truly has to be seen to be believed – it’s an apex of 90s maximalism, full of crazy ascents and descents that elasticise the Matrix as far as it will go. In particular, you can see the impact of the pivotal scene where Willard reaches, and surpasses, the last manned checkpoint before Kurtz, yet even that seems minimal compared to Harlin’s vision, which fulfils Coppola’s ambition of creating something somehow more than a film – of parlaying film into whatever medium lay beyond film, a medium that he also glimpsed somewhere in the proto-digital chaos of the footage coming from the war front in Vietnam.

Harlin’s conclusion also seems to leave the realm of film altogether, presenting more like a ride, a game, virtual reality, or some other future form of digital entertainment – a wild concatenation of helicopters, flares, electric wires, suspended bodies, and rainbow lights, culminating with the Rainbow Bridge exploding into space, as everything in the frame is subsumed back into the cascading motion of the falls. And all of a sudden, we’re in a future the film can’t visualise or conceptualise beyond a brief drive to Baltimore’s new house, in the country, where she’s reunited with her partner and her daughter. This indeterminate final space echoes Thelma & Louise, driving us into a future that the film can’t formulate, and that we still find hard to formulate in our own time – a genuinely digital feminism, of the kind that Davis pioneered through her social media platform and its mediation of the patriarchal “real”.

Within the world of the film, though, this ending is mainly defined negatively – as something utterly incommensurate with the Bond-styled silhouettes of the opening credits, whose preposterous fantasies of women feel even deeper in the past by the time that Baltimore has been activated. Samantha is a name, but Baltimore is a place, a real place – and the film exists at that cusp between the real places where we see it, and the virtual spaces where we mediate and circulate it, in an inchoate zone between screen and world that makes it the perfect middle term between Davis’ role as Thelma, and her life as a media spokeswoman.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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