Lethal Screenplay

You have to admire Shane Black. The guy writes ludicrous, thoroughly implausible scripts that should be laughed out of existence based on their premises alone, fleshes them out with brainless banter and stereotypical characters, and then sells them for more money than many far superior independent films have for their entire budgets. Black had one bona fide hit with his first produced screenplay, 1987's Lethal Weapon. You could make a very persuasive case that the screen chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover had far more to do with that film's success than did the quality of the writing, especially considering the box-office performance of Weapon 2 and 3, neither of which was written by Black but both of which starred Gibson and Glover and comic foil Joe Pesci. But even if you give Black the benefit of the doubt on Lethal Weapon, his subsequent output -- The Monster Squad, The Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout -- still emits a stench unrivaled by that of any other screenwriter this side of Iron Joe Eszterhas, whose authorship of last year's execrable back-to-back dreck Showgirls and Jade set a new standard of screenwriting incompetence by which all bad scripts shall henceforth be measured.

Like Eszterhas, Black has never met an action movie cliche he didn't use -- and reuse, and reuse, and reuse. Penis-length jokes, misogyny, kinky sex, gay bashing -- all constitute fair game for these two hacks. It's almost like they have a private bet to see who can recycle the hoariest material and hawk it for the most money.

Black poses a serious challenge to Eszterhas's throne with The Long Kiss Goodnight, a preposterous spy flick for which he reportedly received four million dollars. Now, you can't blame Black for taking the money, but you have to wonder what was going through the tiny minds of the morons who shelled out that kind of dough for a movie about -- get this -- a frumpy, mild-mannered suburban schoolteacher and single mother who used to be a deadly, highly skilled secret agent and femme fatale. (She suffers from amnesia and therefore remembers nothing of her covert activities.) The bad guys left her for dead eight years ago, but one of these incarcerated ne'er-do-wells sees footage of her on TV playing Mrs. Santa Claus in a Christmas parade. The dude breaks out of prison, tracks her down, and attempts to finish her off, at which point the woman's long-suppressed fighting skills fortuitously reassert themselves. Stuff like that happens every day.

The schoolteacher's name is Samantha Caine. Her alter ego is Charly Baltimore -- a low-profile secret agent name if there ever was one. Samantha/Charly teams up with a hapless private investigator and petty scam artist named Mitch Henessey. Charly and Henessey go together like, well, perfume and cognac. Kinda now, kinda wow, kinda pow!

Geena Davis plays Charly; Samuel L. Jackson pours himself into Henessey. She's a chick and he's a dick but it still boils down to a bickering black-and-white buddy flick. From Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier through Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, few action film conventions have been as overused. Jackson, fine actor though he is, has made a minicareer of grudging salt-and-pepper partnerships, teaming with Nicolas Cage in Amos & Andrew, David Caruso in Kiss of Death, Emilio Estevez in the Lethal Weapon takeoff National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, Bruce Willis in Die Hard: With a Vengeance, and of course, John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. It's been nine years since Shane Black first trotted out the gimmick in Lethal Weapon. The Long Kiss Goodnight marks the third time (The Last Boy Scout matched Bruce Willis with Damon Wayans) in five screenplays that Black has gone to the well. So much for originality.

The movie defies probability at every turn; Charly and Henessey leap into one absurd predicament after another. Singling out a favorite is a difficult task, but the scene where a grenade explodes in a narrow corridor deserves special mention. Our heroes have time to trade wisecracks as they flee the fireball; naturally, the dynamic duo burst through a window just as the flames catch up. But wait! They were on the third floor; looming below is the rock-hard, ice-covered, bone-jarring surface of a lake. In midplummet, however, cool-hand Charly calmly uses her automatic rifle to shoot a hole in the ice. She and Henessey crash through and into the icy but cushioning water a split second later.

The Long Kiss Goodnight deserves some credit for having a female as the lead in an action movie. But Geena Davis? Didn't the producers know about Cutthroat Island? That film -- the most expensive flop in movie history -- starred Davis and was directed by her husband Renny Harlin, who also helms Goodnight. You'd think investors would be a tad leery about backing that team again, especially considering the screenwriter. Perhaps a movie about a female James Bond could work with, say, Linda Hamilton or Angela Bassett. But Geena Davis? She wasn't even the tougher half of Thelma & Louise.

The film's exuberantly unrealistic thrills and spills give the audience its share of unintentional guffaws; the pathetic dialogue generates even more. Sample exchange: "You're Waldman?" "No, I'm the Hills Brothers bean buyer." And one nefarious villain actually comes up with this howler (not meant to be funny): "A woman's face never looks quite so beautiful as when it's distended in pain; witness childbirth."

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