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Shane Black’s Long Kiss Goodnight

Hi everybody!  This isn’t my usual spot, but Mr. Sweeney’s out this week for very forgivable reasons.  It’s not my story to tell, but let’s just say there’s about to be a slight uptick in the world’s population, and leave it at that.  Since he didn’t want all y’all Morlockians to have to endure the indignities of a missing post, or a rerun, I’m filling in for the day.

And with the recent release of The Nice Guys, I’m in a bit of a Shane Black reverie.  It cast my mind back to the 1997 action thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight and a certain scene that, to my mind, encapsulates everything you need to know about contemporary commercial Hollywood cinema. If you had a space alien, or some Rip Van Winkle type, who wondered “what’s the deal with movies these days?,” you could just fire up the DVD player, scan forward to this scene, and let ‘er rip:

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We have Geena Davis as amnesiac spy Charlie Baltimore, an elite assassin who lost her memory following a botched attempt on her life, and who woke up believing her cover story of mild-mannered schoolteacher Samantha Cain. She’s hired low-rent private detective Mitch Hennessy (Samuel L. Jackson) to help her reconstruct her missing past, and now the two of them are trapped in a New Jersey train station under fire from anonymous bad guys. The adrenaline of the crisis helps awaken the Charlie part of Samantha’s psyche, and she quickly takes charge of the situation—until a grenade lands in front of her and Mitch. There are only seconds left, they are trapped in an upper floor hallway between a dead end on one side and a horde of machine-gun-toting killers on the other. Game over?

Charlie starts running towards the window with Mitch, furiously firing her hand gun to shatter the glass. The grenade explodes, and now they’re racing the shock wave of the explosion. As the fireball expands behind them, they leap through the window and start to plummet to the ground below—at which point Charlie starts firing her machine gun at the ice (previously established to be thin ice) so they land safely, if unhappily, in the icy lake. Singed and cold but otherwise unharmed, they emerge from the frozen water—but the receding crisis has taken Charlie’s memories with it, and Samantha is at a loss to what just happened. “I saved you,” Mitch deadpans, “It was great.”

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This scene bears no discernible relationship to anything approaching the lived reality of its audience. Its ignorance of physics, ballistics, gravity, and basic human psychology is absolute. But, who cares? This is delirious fun—if you don’t enjoy watching this kind of absurd nonsense then you don’t enjoy life. It is a superbly well-crafted piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment in a film packed with such fist-pumping “hell yeah!” set pieces. In other words, deeply stupid and very smart at the same time. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Hollywood filmmaking courtesy Shane Black.

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Several years ago some acquaintances of mine tried to launch the theory of ecrire, as a counterpoint to auteur theory. Ecrire posited that the most important creative voice in the making of any given film was the screenwriter, not the director. Their theory and their chosen pretentious term for it failed to catch on (and it isn’t hard to see why—just watch a selection of movies and their remakes to see how wildly different levels of quality can be teased by different directors from virtually identical scripts) but I do have a soft spot for the idea.

Shane Black is a great example of ecrire theory. This is a man who has left his fingerprints in one form or another on an astounding list of blockbuster hits: Predator, Lethal Weapon 1 and 2, The Last Boy Scout, The Last Action Hero, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Iron Man 3. His latest film, Nice Guys, is out now. Some of these films were very profitable, some were exceedingly popular, and some were both (see especially the Lethal Weapon films). The distinction between successful and popular is important—there are some movies that make a lot of money without ever being liked very much by anyone, and there are films that burrow into the memories of their fans and remain beloved cultural touchstones for generations but which never quite made their economics work. To do both means you leave a deep and lasting influence on the film industry—studios will bankroll more of what you’ve done, and will bankroll copycats, while the kids who see your films will someday grow up to make films inspired by your work.

Shane Black cracked that secret code, and made films that were both—but let’s be clear I am talking here broadly about his contributions as a screenwriter. Some of these films he also directed, but not all of them.

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As a writer Black has several recognizable characteristics. The guy loves buddy cop films—and even if sometimes the characters aren’t cops per se, they function in that same narrative space. He also has a strong sense of humor—albeit a very vulgar humor at that. His works have a swaggering masculinity to them, bordering on misogyny, with female characters often treated as dehumanized sex objects, and the brunt of crude sexual jokes.

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Which means that as fun and as funny as his scripts are, they also have an unavoidable ugliness to them. And this ugliness tends to be casual, incidental, peripheral–it’s not that he’s chosen to write about ugliness to make some kind of point, he’s just thoughtlessly including that ugliness in his depiction of the world.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Shane Black—I mean, obviously it is, I can’t expect to say Black writes casual misogyny in a thoughtless way and not have it be taken as a criticism of the man. But it isn’t meant as a criticism of Shane Black individually—this is an endemic problem to modern Hollywood, and he is neither the first nor the most significant example of it. It’s like deciding you won’t watch any films by John Landis because you don’t like movies made in color. Yes, John Landis makes films in color, but gee, a lot of people do, why you pickin’ on him?

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With Shane Black, the thing is he is a terrific screenwriter. He writes with wit and color and a masterful understanding of pacing and tone. I noted above that by virtue of being both commercially successful and popular, he has left a deep influence across the industry, and that means there a lot of Shane Black-wanna-bes whose half-baked also-ran scripts serve as points of comparison by which to appreciate what Black does so well.

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So, case in point number one: the action scene I described above. It is full of action movie cliches—outrunning an explosion, for one. Somehow having time to react and perform some insanely precise set of actions in a fraction of a second (like shooting out the ice while you fall a couple of stories towards it). The off-the-cuff quip spoken right after the action subsides (“I saved you. It was awesome.”). These tricks are now the bread and butter of big action movies—but they generally lack the same charm that Black brought to them.

It’s a fine line between absurd implausibility and ridiculous impossibility—and since CGI has made it easy to put ridiculous impossibility on the screen, too many films these days opt for that route. But something like that machine-gun-addled plunge towards the ice as the fireball licks their heels is the right balance of memorable visuals, visceral thrills, and creative invention without totally sacrificing the audience’s investment in suspension of disbelief.

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If you’re still not persuaded, let’s look at another scene from later in the film. Charlie/Samantha has been captured by the bad guy (David Morse) and is being tortured. She is tied to a water wheel, and is being periodically submerged in freezing water (again!) to coerce her to reveal what she knows. At the start of the scene, David Morse’s character says that a woman is most beautiful when she’s in pain—a creepy remark that implicates the audience in the sexualized violence to come. We’re on notice that if we find anything aesthetically pleasing in the following scene, we’re sadists like Morse.

Except then Black undercuts that—if Morse is hoping to see Charlie/Samantha in pain, he’s going to be denied. As we’ve learned by now, moments of stress help bring the suppressed Charlie Baltimore persona back from Samantha’s unconscious mind, and there’s little more stressful than being tortured by a man who has promised to kill you.

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It’s here that Shane Black’s trademark vulgar humor comes into play. Just a few minutes earlier there had been a scene where Charlie’s mentor (Brian Cox) mentioned that he keeps a gun holstered in his crotch, because he knows other men are uncomfortable touching another man’s groin so enemy agents often miss this weapon during pat downs. In just a single line of dialogue, Black handed over some important exposition in a memorable way that established how Cox’s character might still have a gun on his person even after being killed by the baddies, and how Charlie would know exactly where to find that gun.

So, all Charlie needs to do is reach into her mentor’s pants and grab that gun, and exact her revenge on the super villain. Problem is, the process of reawakening her Charlie-ness used up most of her time underwater, so she needs to get dunked again. The scene has shifted its weight to where we know the hero wants the villain to keep torturing her—she actually needs to goad him into torturing her some more so she can have the chance to defeat him. Instead of watching her in pain, we watch her control the situation and win.

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I’ve gotten pretty deep into this blog now talking about a movie with a female action hero without really commenting on that fact. There are very few female action heroes—Sigourney Weaver in the Alien films, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, Michelle Yeoh playing second fiddle to Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan respectively in Supercop and Tomorrow Never Dies… It’s a rarefied enough field that having Geena Davis play a proto-Jason Bourne in 1997 is real novelty.

And her presence helps temper the inherent misogyny of Black’s writing. Because, honestly, even though he has written a crackerjack female action hero script, it’s still a typically sexist Shane Black production. But Geena Davis changes that calculus.

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I’ve always had a thing for Geena Davis. She has a charming off-kilter sense of humor that is of a piece with the kookiness of Jeff Goldblum or Michael Keaton, both of whom she co-starred alongside before. I found this distinctive, since so many other actresses were forced to equate “goofiness” with “airhead.” It was refreshing to have a comic actress who seemed smart and capable. On top of that, she has been a feminist activist—and an advocate for increasing female representation in movies and TV.

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As it happened, however, Davis’ then-husband Renny Harlin was just as keen to establish her as a viable action star, and he cast her in two action movies produced in 1997. The Long Kiss Goodnight was a modest commercial success (it didn’t lose money, at least), fairly popular with audiences, and generally well received by critics. By itself it made a credible case for Davis as the next Bruce Willis, the next Arnold Swarzenegger. But, Harlin also cast her in Cutthroat Island. Unlike Long Kiss Goodnight, Cutthroat Island was a commercial flop, disliked by audiences, and savaged by critics (I haven’t seen it and am not commenting on its merits directly, merely how it was received at large). Its failure interrupted Davis’ ascendancy as an action movie heroine, and the mooted sequel to Long Kiss Goodnight remains unmade.

Too bad Harlin didn’t hire Shane Black to write Cutthroat Island.

20 Responses Shane Black’s Long Kiss Goodnight
Posted By Jonathan Barnett : May 24, 2016 3:26 pm

For the sake of exchanging ideas, there is an 1980s comic book titled “Somorset Holmes” that may have been an “influence: on THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. The link suggests some comparisons to MULHOLLAND DR.

https://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/446412.html

I missed out on LONG KISS but I have enjoyed every movie that I have seen with Black’s name affixed.

Posted By doug : May 24, 2016 4:35 pm

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was hilarious.

Posted By AL : May 24, 2016 10:25 pm

David: After reading this wonderful article, I no longer feel embarrassed about secretly having THE LONG KISS GOODBYE on my list of Guilty Pleasures. Thank you for this emancipation…

Posted By Tom S : May 25, 2016 3:32 am

I will say, that for all that Black doesn’t seem to be able to avoid some fairly nastily sexist jokes and exploitation, he never seems to have the outright hatred for women that some of the dumber exemplars of Hollywood filmmaking do- Michael Bay in particular, who has all of the illogic with none of the joy (outside of the Rock)

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : May 25, 2016 8:24 am

If there is an “inherent misogyny” in THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT my wife has never picked up on it, because she loves the film and was the one who turned me on to it. Or maybe she just loves the visceral pleasure of Geena Davis wiping up the floor with about a hundred different men who can’t even begin to compete with her (and that includes director Renny Harlin).

“I let you touch me, Cowboy. I think I’m going to need a bath.”

And then comes all the shooting…

Posted By swac44 : May 26, 2016 1:02 pm

If anyone wants to visit that train station in the scene that David describes, it’s located in Hamilton, Ontario. A friend of mine took me to see it once on a tour of the city that also included some prime locations from the Bob & Doug MacKenzie comedy classic Strange Brew. I love the film, especially Geena Davis, who I’ve been a fan of since her TV sitcom days (anyone remember Buffalo Bill?), and it looks like she’s got more feature roles coming in the near future now that the children from her current marriage are in their teens (regular TV work seems to be more amenable to family life). Looking forward to seeing her in films again.

Really enjoyed The Nice Guys, I was also a fan of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but found the misogynistic streak running through The Last Boy Scout grating. Maybe director Tony Scott, not the subtlest auteur out there, pushed it over the top, but I’ve been thinking about giving the film another look. Black goes a long way towards undercutting that tone in his new film by giving a lot of screen time to the precocious teenage daughter of Ryan Gosling’s hapless P.I., winningly played by Angourie Rice. I could totally see her starring in her own vehicle (movie or series) as a teenage Nancy Drew in 1970s Los Angeles. How about it, Hollywood?

Black’s bio credits a childhood love of pulp fiction, like Mickey Spillane and the Matt Helm books, as a big part of his inspiration, which seems obvious from his films, and supposedly he’s going to take a stab at getting one of my childhood favourites, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, back on the big screen. I don’t know what kind of market is out there for it, but I ate up those books like candy when I was 10, and I trust Black will do a better job than George Pal did with that property 40 years ago.

Posted By robbushblog : May 26, 2016 3:01 pm

I greatly enjoyed THE NICE GUYS. I wish it was doing better at the box office than it is currently doing. I have been encouraging everyone I know to go see it.

THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT is also great fun. I haven’t seen it in years and have been thinking about seeing it and KISS KISS BANG BANG, which was also a lot of fun, again. Hopefully, Black will earn enough goodwill from THE NICE GUYS to get Doc Savage movie off of the ground. If anyone could do it justice, it would be him.

Posted By swac44 : May 26, 2016 3:31 pm

He’s also looking at reviving the Remo Williams franchise that began and ended with that fun Fred Ward/Joel Grey movie. I’m all for that if they get the tone right.

Posted By George : May 26, 2016 7:55 pm

I had a great time watching THE NICE GUYS yesterday. It was a throwback to the mid-budget, R-rated action/comedy movies that don’t get made made much anymore. Crowe and Gosling were both good, but the film was stolen by Angourie Rice, who plays Gosling’s 13-year-old daughter. She deserves her own movie.

When I read the very hostile reviews of NICE GUYS on IMDB, I knew it would probably be a good movie. The teenage boys who post comments at IMDB have awful taste in movies; if they pan something, I immediately want to see it.

Posted By George : May 26, 2016 8:03 pm

The Black-written LAST BOY SCOUT has long been a guilty pleasure of mine: a movie that is indefensible on moral and artistic grounds but is a blast to watch.

Posted By Blakeney : May 26, 2016 8:35 pm

Treating female characters as dehumanized sex objects isn’t “bordering” on misogyny. It’s misogyny. Should we turn a blind eye to it because a lot of people in Hollywood do it? Or because there are worse examples, like Michael Bay? No.

Not long ago, crude stereotypes were seen as good entertainment value. These caricatures were regularly featured in films, in radio, and in advertising. Doubtless they were offensive. But it was prevalent and everyone was doing it, what was the big deal? All in good fun. Except to those being dehumanized. Thankfully stereotyping is now largely considered unacceptable when it comes to race, religion, or sexual orientation. But women are still fair game. Gender prejudice is no different from any other prejudice. It’s time it was called out for what it is, and people stopped making excuses for it.

Posted By George : May 26, 2016 10:34 pm

Sometimes I’m not sure which is worse — the stereotypes of the past or the enforced political correctness of today, in which only straight white males can have negative traits.

I’m afraid that if we shun all movies with gender, racial or ethnic caricatures, a huge portion of film history will have to be erased. Not to mention old radio and TV shows, comic strips and comic books, etc.

Posted By robbushblog : May 27, 2016 4:11 am

Sexualizing a female is not misogyny. There is no hatred of women necessary to sexualize a female. All it takes is the thought that it might titillate. Men like to look at pretty women, and very often they like to look at pretty women who are naked. Hate is not necessary. I wish people would stop trying to redefine words.

Posted By George : May 27, 2016 8:43 pm

I agree with you, “robushblog,” but over the last decade or so, feminist critics have turned “the male gaze” into a virtually criminal act. It’s not criminal, and I’ve known plenty of women who enjoy looking at men (with or without clothes), too.

Posted By Doug : May 27, 2016 10:29 pm

Any one who gets their sensibilities twisted up in a knot over misogyny should probably not watch “Shoot ‘Em Up” starring Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci and the great Paul Giamatti.
But everyone else should see it at least once.

Posted By Blakeney : May 28, 2016 5:21 am

Sexual attraction is not misogyny. Sexual objectification is. There’s a difference.

And you don’t have to be a feminist to see it.

Posted By PEThomas : May 29, 2016 8:03 pm

If you ever decide to try and sit through Cutthroat Island just know you’re watching the film that broke up the Harlin-Davis marriage. Not because of its critical drubbing and box-office failure, but because GD literally walked in on Harlin in flagrante delicto with one of the extras. Just a little TMZing for ya.

Posted By Tom S : May 31, 2016 2:40 am

Treating female characters as dehumanized sex objects isn’t “bordering” on misogyny. It’s misogyny. Should we turn a blind eye to it because a lot of people in Hollywood do it? Or because there are worse examples, like Michael Bay? No.”

Well, that’s certainly true, but I think the question is more whether or not Black is doing that- and I think he tends to ride the line in a fairly self conscious way. His Iron Man 3 gave Pepper Potts a lot more agency and shit to do than any of the previous ones did, and in several of his movies (including The Nice Guys, actually) women (or little girls, in this case) are the only characters with any kind of real moral compass without being two dimensional representations of virtue, and he tends not to buy into the ideology that sexualized women aren’t really human (Misty Mountains, a porn star, is given a family, a background, and a sense that she had hopes and dreams and a personality, despite dying before the credits roll in The Nice Guys.)

That said, he’s still not amazing- there’s a fair amount of ugliness on display towards women in his movies, and he doesn’t seem to be able to resist putting most of his better lines in the mouths of men. I don’t know that ‘dehumanized sex objects’ is a fitting description for anyone in anything he had real creative control over, though.

Posted By robbushblog : May 31, 2016 3:23 am

Unless the definition of misogyny has changed, sexual objectification of women is not misogyny. Misogyny is the hatred of women. A misogynist might sexually objectify women. A person who loves his wife or girlfriend may occasionally objectify his wife or girlfriend. Misogyny and objectification do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.

Posted By Tom S : June 1, 2016 10:45 pm

Haha, no, the act of turning a human being into an object- objectifying them- is a form of dehumanization, which is well within the definition of ‘misogyny.’ It is not the only form, but it is absolutely a form.

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