In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1986 and seven from 1996 (the extra in this month’s double-feature column). The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
From the jump and not by design, December “Class of …” entries have featured films lasting about three hours (or more) and starring Robert De Niro and / or Al Pacino.
But Pacino was in post-Revolution repose by 1986 and 1996’s City Hall is neither epic nor interesting. De Niro options run longer, but the most intriguing are either Oscar-nominated no-nos (The Mission) or shockingly Oscar-nominated no-nos (Sleepers).
Besides, 2016 has been a helluva year, and frankly, I’d rather riff on two favorite climactic explosions and the 1996 films that are life-support systems for them.
Ka-boom is from The Long Kiss Goodnight, as evil U.S. anti-terrorist agents try to frame Muslims with a false-flag attack to foment fear and funnel funding their way. Ka-blam is from Broken Arrow, in which a power-mad crazypants gets his hands on a nuke. (Take heart: In each of these films, the bad guys lose. Badly. Messily.)
To be fair, Kiss has far more in its favor than merely destroying a bridge with a five-kiloton fireball so powerful it could seemingly render Niagara Falls a quarry. Any vehicle not instantly vaporized rockets skyward, dropping like horse-powered hail in the path of our heroes trying to drive across this bridge before it disappears.
As this is a Shane Black script, the scene features a preternaturally precocious little girl and Charly Baltimore (Geena Davis), her amnesiac spy mom who just got her gunslinging groove back. As this is a Shane Black script, the girl entreaties the driver — a near-mortally wounded private dick named Mitch Henessey (Samuel L. Jackson) — to not hit the cars. As this is a Shane Black script, it netted the writer a cool $3 million. As this is a Shane Black script, it takes place smack dab at Christmastime.
On the last score, Kiss is the most holistic embodiment of Black Christmas (as it were). The movie is populated by people yanked out of their comfort zones into a sort of complacent malaise they don’t fully understand. They just happen to be crackerjack assassins, arms dealers or government handlers. In Mitch’s case, he’s dashing through the snow in a no-heat shit-box sleigh. Plenty of folks pack a trunk of regrets at the holidays, but they drive home … not into the heart of a conspiracy plot.
For once, Black’s penchant for Christmas isn’t merely window-dressing. He understands the sometimes wearying grenade-shrapnel shell-shock of Christmas — and how claustrophobically cloistering with loved ones often can only expand the blast radius. “May the best of your past be the worst of your future,” one character toasts. On the surface, it’s a snazzy sentiment to say the best is yet to come. Twist the knife as Black does, and it sounds like your best is behind you and you know it.
Fret not if I’m making The Long Kiss Goodnight sound like an unnecessarily somber affair. As this is a Shane Black script, the bad guy quips about Baywatch Nights and has entrance music that’s simply a whammy-bar guitar note. As this is a Shane Black script, Charly outpaces motorized vehicles while speed-skating, an explosion rockets Mitch out a window and through a neon sign with nary a scratch, and a morbid “Welcome to Canada” sight gag offers a dead man aflame and dangling from a rope underneath the sign. As this is a Shane Black script, there’s a random scene in which a dog attempts to dislodge something from its ass.
In other words, as this is a Shane Black script, this is a great time that’s unrepentantly grisly and gleefully misanthropic. It’s also the second, and more successful, of two attempts from Davis and then-husband director Renny Harlin to usher in the Oscar winner as an icon of female action. The first was, of course, Cutthroat Island, a movie so phenomenally unsuccessful it sunk Carolco Pictures and likely had the nabobs at New Line nervous about the $65 million they gave them for this. Kiss likely lost money, too, in the long run, but it’s also sort of purposefully shabby — a far cry from the blow-it-all bombast of Cutthroat.
“You seem kinda … low-rent,” Charly says at one point to Mitch, but she might as well knock down the fourth wall with a wink. The visual effects looked a bit wormy and cheap even back then, a hole blown in a wall looking like cigarette burns on the film print writ large. Then again, if this mash-up of spycraft sophistication and gumshoe grime looked even remotely more polished, it would simply feel wrong — all slickness, no soul.
At the movie’s outset, Davis goes by Samantha — who remembers nothing of her life prior to gaining consciousness in a storm and finding out she’s pregnant. Years later, Samantha has become a schoolteacher in small-town Pennsylvania with a loving boyfriend (Tom Amandes) and daughter, Caitlin (Yvonne Zima).
Mitch is among several detectives Samantha has paid to turn up the stones of her past. She’s right. Mitch is low-rent — introduced posing as a cop, paying drunken homeless men to play his “partners” and entrapping a horndog under surveillance with his comely assistant. And then there’s his eloquently profane threat. Because it’s Sam the Man, we know Mitch is unlikely to truly break bad. But we’re just skeptical enough that he might sell Samantha out if things go south; maybe his pathological obsession with doing just one thing right is but a shtick for the many soon-to-be-disappointed people in his life.
Regardless, Mitch catches a break in Samantha’s case at about the same time she breaks her face. Driving home from a Christmas party, Samantha hits a deer and is thrown through the windshield into a snowy glen. Here, amid fire, snow and steam, Samantha’s blood-drenched head makes her feel reborn, like a Sam Peckinpah loon wandering onto a Thomas Kincaid-designed soundstage and more than willing to snap that wounded deer’s neck. Soon, Samantha is slicing and dicing vegetables like a professional chef (in a musical montage from composer Alan Silvestri that appropriately sounds straight out of a Miller-Boyett credits sequence). It’s a sneakily great scene after what we learn about her, for we retroactively wonder just how many fingers this woman has julienned. But then Samantha starts hallucinating (in cheeseball nightmares that play like Harlin forgot he was no longer filming A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) and screaming at her injured daughter about how she should grow accustomed to “life as pain.”
The final straw arrives as an aggrieved associate escapes from prison and comes calling on Samantha with a combination gun. His arrival plays like John McTiernan’s Home Alone. Samantha eventually incapacitates him with a pie plate … licking the blood and meringue from her fingers. Black excels at hair-trigger intrusions of chaos on domestic order and how relaxed worlds can be flipped and turned upside down with roaring, raucous provocation.
Thus, Samantha and Mitch set out to find out who she really is — which is, of course, international super-assassin Charly Baltimore — and they run afoul of the most focused bad guy Black has yet written. Craig Bierko often plays some iteration of befuddled buffoon or bubbly bro. But as Timothy, the point man for Charly’s former unit, he’s all nasty business and rancorous quips — issuing profane, believable threats on what he’ll do to Caitlin if Charly doesn’t cooperate. Simply through body language, Bierko sells the moment Timothy realizes he gains the upper hand … and later the fear when said confidence is sapped.
The narrative thrust, of course, is how much of Samantha remains in Charly … or was there before Uncle Sam started molding her into a trained killer. Is her domestication a disguise or is it the militarization that’s a mask? Himself a parent, Mitch becomes more of an angel on Charly’s shoulder than you might expect. “Her personality had to come from somewhere,” he rationalizes about Samantha.
Second only to Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Davis and Jackson offer the most atypically fruitful pairing of Black’s true-blue odd-couple structure — bickering over misheard England Dan and John Ford Coley lyrics, bonding over bad pasts and blasting down bad guys. Charly regards knives with the affection of Sweeney Todd and can assemble sniper rifles in seconds. Mitch has to hum Bo Diddley beats as mnemonic remembrances for the stuff he’s got to do. We discover he really is capable of just doing one thing right: Not hitting the cars. (It’s a wonder to think the role wasn’t written for Jackson, but Black’s original conception of Mitch was a white Jewish man; oh, the hilarity if Matthew Broderick or Richard Dreyfuss, who were considered, had been cast.)
As distinctive as Harlin’s direction can often be, this is Black’s baby all the way. (No script doctor whom he claims worked on the story could ever extract him from this film’s bones.) The scene that best weds Black’s bristling humor to Harlin’s action craftsmanship is a train station escape that’s traditionally exciting and explosive, but not without appreciation for elastic physics and further emasculation for Mitch.
In a torture sequence during which the Charly side of Samantha is fully actualized and awakened, Davis plays the rediscovery with a sort of vulpine physicality — muscle memory flooding back in a king tide. The rubbed-raw circles on her wrists and ankles from the rope bonds she slips are like the only accessories she needs. Having rechristened her to resemble late-period Debbie Harry, Harlin frames Charly like a dragon in a dollhouse when she returns to the place Samantha calls home to search for a crucial key. Only because we see the steam of Charly’s breath during that speed-skating shootout are we even sure warm blood still flows through her.
There seems to be a key scene missing, in which Caitlin sees Charly for the first time and must weigh whether to trust her. It feels like a major misstep for playing into the choice Charly must make — embrace the warmth of family and friends or the cold, harsh, life-or-death logic of an assassin’s creed. But even if it feels like a couple of pages are missing from this dog-eared piece of Raymond Chandler-meets-Robert Ludlum pulp, you can pretty easily pick its plot points back up … or just kick back and wait for the next cool explosion.
That’s certainly the best way to enjoy Broken Arrow, whose only connection to winter is that it’s the season during which it opened. It proves that sometimes a crackerjack final act can shore up several reels of shortcomings. John Woo’s first effort as a parolee from Hollywood movie jail (post-Hard Target, nowhere near as terrible as you remember) beat 24 to the punch in harmlessly (but harrowingly) detonating a nuclear bomb on American soil. But that’s not the explosion worth loving.
When the nuke goes off, that’s just a proficient application of visual effects. When a helicopter explodes on a moving train — and a faceless lackey is flung through the air like a ball bearing from a dirty bomb, well … that’s the beauty of Woo’s batshit, breakneck blockbuster bombast before he blew it again (with 2003’s dismal Paycheck). Mind you, this isn’t the same chaotic, anything-goes sizzle as Hard Boiled, an occupational safety hazard as much as it is an action classic. But in stunt coordinator Brian Smrz (with whom he worked on the rest of his Hollywood films), Woo found a Western-world kindred spirit with whom to click. Smrz handled the train sequence — which singlehandedly saves the movie, and not just because it’s the moment at which Howie Long’s annoying meathead sidekick gets kicked off the train from a high precipice. (To see this sort of thing without any flair whatsoever, look only to Long’s Firestorm a few years later.)
Were there a sequence like the train siege today, it would be praised for its old-school practicality. The rest of it could just as easily go straight to video-on-demand today with, say, Taylor Lautner and John Cena. Instead, it’s Christian Slater and, in his first big-villain role, John Travolta as, respectively, Riley Hale and Vic Deakins — a pair of Air Force pilots tasked to fly a stealth bomber with a nuclear payload on a training exercise in Utah.
Unbeknownst to seemingly hapless Hale, Deakins has a complex plan to pilfer the nukes and blackmail the government with the threat of detonating them in the thick of civilization. (The title comes from what Graham Yost’s script calls a “Class IV strategic theater emergency” code for U.S. nukes gone missing.) Of course, it’s up to Hale and a perky park ranger named Terry Carmichael (Samantha Mathis) to stop them. It’s more amusing if you imagine Slater and Mathis as their characters from Pump Up the Volume now trapped in a life of civil service.
Slater persuasively whups some ass. Meanwhile, Travolta acts like a high-school junior getting to play the bad guy for the first time. This is not a bad thing. His exuberant exaggerations, which feel like a workshop for Face/Off a year later, are handily effective; you’ve certainly never seen anybody hold a cigarette quite that way before or since and few villains wax so rhapsodically about the percentage of Volvo stock they intend to buy. (A spot of trivia: The long-running movie news website Ain’t It Cool took its name from Travolta’s giggly-bro dialogue here.) The immediately recognizable, ragged rumbles of Duane Eddy’s solo guitar for his theme also give Travolta a boost.
There are no doves to speak of, but everything else from the Wooeuvre is here — double-fisted firepower, explosions from which the actors are clearly running away, standoffs with a wall literally bifurcating good from bad, fuck-or-fight close-ups. For better or worse, it embodies everything we expected of American action movies then. But again, cool explosions. Sometimes – only if for a night – that’s simply all you want for Christmas.