Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

I loved this movie when I was in high school, but - despite having a copy - I haven't actually sat down and watched it in years. I'd more or less forgotten it was set at Christmas until I saw it on a list of holiday movies. I figured it would be cheating to count this as a "Christmas movie" and decided it would be a good time to re-watch it. Turns out I was wrong about it being a stretch: the holiday elements permeate the setting, tone, and music of the film. This is definitely a Christmas movie, and a fantastic one at that.

The Long Kiss Goodnight is directed by Renny Harlin, better known for Die Hard 2. The writing is credited to Shane Black (hence the Christmas setting, I suppose), though Wikipedia mentions there was some script-doctoring involved.

The movie is, among other things, absurd and implausible: if you can't suspend your disbelief, don't bother putting it on. But it's clearly not intended to be realistic. This is unapologetically pulpy: the laws of physics are suspended, and nothing has repercussions. But none of that matters, because the movie is just so damn cool.

Sure, the movie's cheesy, but it's also one of most fun action flicks out there. Geena Davis and Samuel Jackson are great together as an amnesiac superspy and worn-down private investigator. The movie sacrifices plausibility for entertainment, but it's surprisingly intelligent when it wants to be: for all its absurdity, the plot is incredibly complex, and the twists make sense even when the physics don't. This is essentially a love story without romance or a relationship; not an easy idea to deliver effectively, but they pull it off, largely thanks to clever writing. On one level, this movie can be viewed as indicative of 90's action excess: explosions that move just slow enough for characters to run out of the way, heroes who gun down dozens of enemies while casually sidestepping gunfire that miraculously always misses, and dialogue that clearly exists just to set up a one-liner or make someone sound cool: there's a reason Ebert didn't like it. But Long Kiss Goodnight owns those tropes in a way few of its contemporaries could. It rejoices in its genre and uses it as a setting, rather than a crutch. Plus the jokes are simply fantastic - and the Christmas ones are even better (I almost fell over laughing during the scene with the carolers, despite having seen it a half-dozen times already).

This is a great action movie and an even better Christmas flick. Highly recommended for anyone whose Christmas entertainment is otherwise lacking a sufficient body count.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Growing up, there were two action movies that defined the genre: Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. It's been at least a decade since I sat down and watched any version of Lethal Weapon. After doing so, I was immediately impressed with just how well Die Hard continues to hold up.

It's not that Lethal Weapon is bad. Actually, for its sub-genre, it's really good. There aren't a lot of buddy-cop action flicks from the 80's or 90's that hold a candle, and the ones that do owe a lot to Lethal Weapon's success. But at the same time, the movie is incredibly cheesy without having as much fun with that cheese as many of its imitators. There's still fun to be had in Lethal Weapon; just not nearly as much as I remembered.

Like Die Hard, the film is set at Christmas. But while Die Hard has fun with this juxtaposition, Lethal Weapon tries to use it to play up a sense of isolation and depression. A lot of Lethal Weapon is devoted to loss and suicide: for a while, the movie is essentially a noir. Holiday decorations and music are juxtaposed with the darkness around it. It's a fine idea, but the execution feels manipulative and obvious.

Besides, it all gets undermined by the excesses of modern action movies. The good guys are essentially bullet-proof, while the bad guys seem to fall on bullets (often to the irritation of the heroes, who'd really like someone left alive to interrogate). The plot is paper thin and essentially amounts to a trail of bread crumbs leading the protagonists from one set to the next. There are no repercussions for making mistakes that get bystanders or police killed, nor does there seem to be any kind of oversight.

Okay, I get that these cliches weren't as common when the movie was made as they are now. I appreciate that what the movie did right - namely, giving its heroes flaws, personalities, and developing their relationship - influenced a generation of action films. In addition, the movie sells the idea that the main action hero and the villain are actually insane. Kudos to both Mel Gibson and Gary Busey for creating that illusion: I totally bought it.

In the context of when it came it out, this is a really good movie. But more than twenty-five years later, that formula has been built upon. In my opinion, Shane Black's later scripts have been light-years ahead of this: Lethal Weapon can't hold a candle to Long Kiss Goodnight or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Die Hard is a historically important action movie that still completely holds up; Lethal Weapon is an important action movie that mostly holds up. There's still enough great character moments and funny situations to make it entertaining, but it certainly didn't age as well as the competition.