Blasts from the Past

Screenwriter Shane Black may have received the record sum of $4 million for writing The Long Kiss Goodnight, but the movie itself is a fairly silly piece of work. This is the sort of fantastical farrago that relies on contrivance and coincidence the way most of us rely on oxygen. It is a movie in which dozens of innocent bystanders get mowed down in the crossfire between good guys and bad guys while the police remain as visible as leprechauns. And it is a movie that preys mercilessly on our most paranoid suspicions about what rogue CIA operatives might be willing to do to manipulate public opinion.

If you're willing to accept all of that, you can have a guilt-free good time with this popcorn action flick. The only real problem is, throughout the movie, there are scenes that people on both sides of the camera clearly intend for us to take seriously. Long Kiss Goodnight is on much safer ground when it sticks to being nonsensical. And Geena Davis is much, much more effective in the lead role when she doesn't try to be anything more substantial than an action-movie goddess.

Davis plays Samantha Caine, a small-town single mother who has a lovely home, a darling young daughter, a sensitive boyfriend and a satisfying job as a grade-school teacher. What she doesn't have, unfortunately, is any recollection of the life she used to live. For eight years, she has suffered from amnesia. And even though she has hired several high-priced detectives to dig into her past, none of the investigators have come up with anything. Poor Samantha. She doesn't realize that sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

It isn't until Samantha suffers the trauma of an automobile accident that she begins to recall bits and pieces of her former life. First, she surprises herself with her ability to speedily slice and dice vegetables in her kitchen. Then she impulsively tosses the knife at a cabinet on the other side of the room. Bull's-eye! Maybe, she figures, she used to be a chef. But then, just a few scenes later, in that very same kitchen, she manages to kill an intruder with her bare hands.

Enter Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson), a low-rent private eye who dresses like the hero of '70s blaxploitation movies. With Henessey's help, Samantha learns the worst about herself: her real name is Charly Baltimore, and she used to be a first-rate assassin for a CIA unit known as the Chapter. Her former allies thought she died eight years ago. Not surprisingly, they are less than happy to discover they were mistaken.

Quicker than you can say "Jane Bond," Samantha transforms herself back into Charly, a bottle-blonde vixen with a bad attitude and a killer instinct. This allows director Renny Harlin, Geena Davis' husband, to showcase his statuesque spouse in a number of pulse-pounding, logic-defying action sequences. At one point, Charly shoots two carloads of heavily armed bad guys while she skates across a frozen pond. At another point, she takes out a half-dozen or so assassins in a dark alley while maintaining a running argument with Henessey. In short, Charly is so nimbly and ferociously lethal, she makes the heroine of La Femme Nikita look as formidable as a high school cheerleader.

Most of the comic-book mayhem in Long Kiss Goodnight is subdued by contemporary standards. And just about all of it is mindless fun. Davis and Harlin may have stumbled badly with Cutthroat Island, their last collaboration, but they bring out the best in each other here. Harlin is particularly good at emphasizing his wife's impressive physicality, whether she is hanging from bridges, diving through windows or looking delicious in a clingy white slip while being interrogated by a villain. Unfortunately, Harlin also has Davis contort her face, bulge her eyes and generally behave like a B movie madwoman whenever Samantha looks into a mirror and sees Charly grinning back at her.

Much better are the intentionally funny scenes in which Davis and Jackson develop a sarcastic give-and-take. Unlike some other recent movies that have paired a white heroine and a black hero -- anyone remember The Pelican Brief? -- Long Kiss Goodnight does nothing to douse the sexual tension between the two leads. Indeed, Harlin even goes so far as to include a scene in which Charly, eager to use Henessey in a plan to trap the bad guys, tries to seduce the private eye. Henessey's blunt-spoken response to her come-on is alone worth, if not $4 million, at least the price of a movie ticket.

The resurgences of John Travolta, disco music and the Brady Bunch aren't the only signs that the '70s have returned with a vengeance. Now the Gene Hackman Movie of the Month Club is once again in full operation. Just a few weeks ago, Hackman appeared as a Nobel Prize-winning doctor with a penchant for testing theories on human guinea pigs in Extreme Measures. Even while that movie lingers at area theaters, Hackman has returned for yet another above-the-title billing in James Foley's The Chamber, based on John Grisham's novel by the same name.

This time, Hackman is Sam Cayhall, a grizzled redneck who has spent nearly two decades on Mississippi's death row for the 1967 bombing murders of two small children. Cayhall honestly did not intend to kill the kids -- he simply wanted to trash the office of their father, a Jewish lawyer devoted to civil rights cases. But he's too set in his racist ways to express many apologies for fighting what he continues to view as the good fight. He still takes unabashed glee in making hostile comments about blacks and Jews. And he is scarcely less contemptuous of the pro-bono lawyers who have struggled to keep him alive for so long.

Cayhall is the sort of ornery cuss who delights in dragging other people down to his level, particularly when he can force them to confront their own hypocrisies. During his first meeting with Adam Hall (Chris O'Donnell), a 26-year-old Chicago-based lawyer who's newly assigned to his case, Cayhall makes a point of inquiring about the number of women and African-Americans in the young man's firm. When Hall admits that the overwhelming majority of his partners are white men, Cayhall grins. "I've always been embarrassed," Cayhall says mockingly, "to be represented by such blatant bigots."

But Hall refuses to be put off by Cayhall's baiting. And he vows to save the cantankerous old man from the execution that is less than a month away. Because Cayhall happens to be Hall's grandfather.

During the past three years, John Grisham has seen his name appear in movie credits almost as frequently as Gene Hackman. The author's best-selling novels have inspired such blockbusters as The Firm, The Pelican Brief and, most recently, A Time to Kill. But The Chamber is a slightly different story. Grisham himself has described most of his other books as "simple formulas of innocent people caught up in a conspiracy." With The Chamber, he said in a 1994 interview, he wanted to try something that was "not as plot-driven," that was "much more about the people."

And this has led to a movie in which much of the action takes place in the meeting rooms and death-row cells of Mississippi's Parchman Prison, as Cayhall and his grandson plot legal strategy and, more important, evoke the ghosts of the past. There is a halfhearted attempt to impose a plot that involves an ambitious governor (David Marshall Grant) who may or may not issue a clemency decree and a shadowy villain (Raymond Barry) who may or may not be responsible for the murders Cayhall supposedly committed. Director James Foley does a reasonably efficient job of introducing these elements. And the movie as a whole has flashes of intelligence and sardonic wit. Somewhere around the midpoint, however, it's very clear where The Chamber is going. And it takes a long time to get there.

O'Donnell is earnest as Cayhall's grandson, but it's Hackman who dominates the action, even during those long stretches when he's not on-camera. Looking frailer and older than he ever has before, he gives a masterfully understated performance as a man who has never been much good at anything besides hating. Even as the hours tick by before his scheduled execution, he continues to savor the taste of his own bile. The Chamber makes no excuses for Sam Cayhall. But it makes you understand him more than he ever understood himself.

The Long Kiss Goodnight.
Directed by Renny Harlin. With Samuel L. Jackson and Geena Davis.
Rated R.
120 minutes.

The Chamber.
Directed by James Foley. With Chris O'Donnell and Gene Hackman.
Rated R.
110 minutes.

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