Amnesiac Assassin: The Long Kiss Good Night v. The Bourne Identity

Two amnesiac assassins. One pose.  Only one can win.

There is a little-known, dimly-lit recess in the bowels of the CIA where they train super-powered, tougher-than-nails assassins to be ruthless, heartless, inventive, brutally efficient and impervious to pain.  There’s only one problem: if you drop one in cold water, he or she will invariably get amnesia.

That is the premise of both The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Bourne Identity.  One of these movies is a taut, thrilling masterpiece of its genre and the other is a silly, flip, extravagant eruption of action-movie weirdness.  I’ll let you figure out which is which.

The Bourne Identity opens moments after its protagonist’s amnesia-inducing drop in the water.  That’s important because it puts the audience in the same position as the protagonist.  We find out who the protagonist is at the exact same moment he does.  He is fished out of the water by some fishermen, recovers from his bullet wounds, takes the one clue he has to his identity and starts on his journey of discovery.  Wide-eyed and up for anything, he wanders into a world of international skullduggery and intrigue, innocent as Bambi but with the reflexes and stopping power of a ninja.

The premise is used brilliantly, and for all it’s worth.  Bourne is an amnesiac, but because he’s an assassin he’s able to think fast, kill like lightning and get out of any trap, regardless of the odds.  But because he’s an assassin, the people he doesn’t know he knows (including some other assassins from the same super-secret super-assassin program) want to kill him.  But because he’s an assassin, he’s able to take care of himself.  But because he’s got amnesia, he has no idea who these people are and why they want him dead.  But because he’s an assassin he has the resources to track down his antagonists.  But because he’s got amnesia he has to keep them alive long enough for them to tell him who he is.  And so the script keeps folding in on itself while the stakes keep rising.  It hurtles back and forth between amnesia and assassin; as soon as a problem is solved on the one hand, another is asserted from the other.  Bourne’s world keeps unfolding outward, getting more and more mysterious even as his identity comes into sharper and sharper focus.

Compare the efficiency and elegance of the first act of Bourne to that of the first act of The Long Kiss Goodnight.  The protagonist of Kiss (Geena Davis) is a housewife who was found on a beach eight years ago with amnesia.  Okay, good.  Then, shortly before Christmas, she runs her car into a deer, goes off the road and bumps her head.  Memories of her old life start coming back and she starts acting weird.  Okay, still good.

Now watch what happens.  Samuel L. Jackson (or God, depending on your point of view) is a cheap private detective whom Geena hired a while back to find out who she is.  While Geena finds her old self coming back, Sam coincidentally also finds out a clue to her identity.   Why?  Either one of these would have made a perfectly good inciting incident.  It could be that Geena hits her head, starts acting weird and hires Sam, who could then find out a clue to her identity, or it could be that she hired Sam a while back, he’s found something and the thing that he’s found starts to stir memories within her.  Why do both?

But wait, there’s more!  At the same time, a one-eyed man in prison sees Geena on TV!  It turns out he’s the guy who thought he’d killed her, and soon he busts out of prison, bent on revenge.  What?  Why do we need this guy?  Now we’ve got two coincidences piled up on top of our premise, when all we needed was Geena bumping her head.

But, unbelievably, the filmmakers give us yet one more!  Yes, Geena’s old co-workers, who all want her dead now, hear about the one-eyed guy getting out of prison and realize they have to go kill Geena.  That’s four inciting incidents, three of them coincidental; it seems like everyone in the world, including the deer, is intent on Geena Davis snapping out of it.

Screenwriter (and now director) Shane Black has a knack for reflexive irony and standing cliches on their heads; you can see all of that to fine display in his delightful Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  One has to wonder if he means the overly-helpful plot of Kiss to be funny, for Kiss to be a actually be a sex-inverted send-up of Bourne (which was a novel, and in fact another movie, long before Kiss was made).  Kiss certainly is not meant to be taken seriously; this is a movie where 20th-century ruthless assassins torture a woman with a water wheel.

In Bourne, everyone, assassins, buereaucrats and innocents alike, keep their heads down and move with precise accuracy.  In short, they perform the actions they need to in order to attain their desired objectives, and nothing else.  In Kiss, characters announce who they are, what they do and what they stand for, as in “Hi, I’m Todd, I’m a grumpy middle-aged screenwriter, I like to listen to ragtime, and the real thing too, not that Marvin Hamlisch adaptation shit, and I like to watch espionage thrillers, my wife says I laugh in my sleep, you got a problem with that?”  Strange behavior for folks in the espionage trade.  They also constantly give themselves away, stage deadly shootouts and car chases in public places and keep blowing shit up long after doing so would do them any good.

Geena Davis v. Matt Damon: both are good actors, but in the key scenes where the ordinary person is revealed to secretly be a super-skilled assassin, Matt mops up Geena without breaking a sweat.  Geena looks like she can barely lift the super-rifle she carries with her and she holds it as though it’s a puppy she’s worried might pee on her.  Both have sex appeal, but my wife only wants to leave me for one of them (actually, let me amend that: my wife assures me that she wants to leave me not for Matt Damon but for Jason Bourne, which is a load off my mind).

Sam Jackson v. Franka Potente (as the Innocent Partners): a much tougher choice.  Two utterly different actors, but Franka is used better in Bourne.  We never really quite buy Sam in Kiss, we know he’s smarter, tougher and more resourceful than he appears to be here.  Watching him play second-fiddle to Geena, pretending to be silly, clumsy and stupid (not to mention victimized), is sometimes painful.  I very much like the idea of Geena Davis being tough and saving the day, but why cast Sam Jackson if you’re just going to tie one arm behind his back just to make your star look better?

Brian Cox appears in both films, in essentially the same role, the head of the super-secret super-assassin program.  He’s gotten a promotion in Bourne, even though he gets killed in Kiss.  Funny thing is, in spite of utterly screwing up the super-secret super-assassin program in both movies, he does the exact same job for the Canadians in X2!  Now that’s what I call patronage — talk about failing upward.  (a second, more horrifying possibility occurs to me — Brian Cox is a mole, working for the other side, intentionally screwing up our super-secret super-assassin programs!)

Now take a look at the action in both movies.  Kiss features gunfights, jumps from tall places, people outrunning orange fireballs (the epitome of 90s action cliches), flying cars, exploding trucks, exploding buildings.  All of it is cartoonish and silly; none of it hurts.  Nor is it meant to: it would spoil the fun if we got too worried about the protagonists (or thought too much about the logic of the narrative).  Deep wounds wash off a scene later and there is no injury that a character cannot spring back from.  In Bourne the action is smaller, swifter and grittier, but we feel every punch, every stab wound, every crunch of fender against fender.  Bourne telescopes inward, getting more and more intensely focused as its protagonist closes in on his objective, while Kiss soars blissfully out of the realm of believability and into a weird kind of hyper-violent ironic pop-pomo paradise.

The thing that happened in between movies, of course, was 9/11.  Which, strangely enough, Kiss references.  (Spoiler Alert!)  As Kiss imagines the world of espionage, the CIA tried to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993 in order to get the federal government to increase its funding.  When that didn’t work, they set what would become the plot of Kiss into motion.  This, of course, is nonsense, as everyone knows the World Trade Center was destroyed by the Jews.
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28 Responses to “Amnesiac Assassin: The Long Kiss Good Night v. The Bourne Identity”
  1. mcbrennan says:

    I have to confess I haven’t seen the (modern) Bourne Identity. I’m familiar with the novel and the ancient film adaption (was it even film, or was it a TV miniseries?)

    I always suspected The Long Kiss Goodnight was intended as a sendup, that Shane Black was deliberately being ridiculous and/or mocking the excesses of the genre. You look at the original Lethal Weapon (the one Black wrote) and while it’s very funny and movie- “heroic” in spots, it’s taut and engaging and mostly plausible. Then a couple of years later you look at Lethal Weapon II (which he didn’t write) and the action has become ridiculous (every cop in town is blown up by exploding C4 toilets! Mel Gibson is shot about 7000 times, ironically by a racist Afrikaaner with a machine gun, and laughs it off…only it isn’t funny!) One gets the impression Black saw the action-movie arms race he’d inadvertently started, and wrote The Long Kiss Goodnight as the mother lode of ludicrous action cliche overkill.) Unfortunately I don’t think the studio or Renny Harlin were in on the joke. I also get the feeling they gave Black copious humorless notes about clarifying this or that plot point, to which he responded by writing those snarky, bizarre bits of character “announcement” dialogue and so on. Who knows. It all could have worked–the terriffic Kiss Kiss Bang Bangproves that–but alas, it didn’t quite.

    “everyone knows the World Trade Center was destroyed by the Jews.”

    I take exception to this. We fiendish secular humanists, gays, lesbians, pagans, vegetarians, ACLU members, Trekkies, Trekkers, Teletubbies, Spongebob fanatics, Hollywood liberals and Harry Potter fans worked hard to bring God’s wrath down on this country (mind you, a sinister Jewish banking conspiracy gave us key funding.)

  2. themacguffin says:

    Samuel L. Jackson (or God, depending on your point of view)

    I thought Morgan Freeman was God… good comparisons btw

  3. deathboy says:

    I think the people you linked to the image from have got an anti-hotlinking replacement image, you may want to rehost/replace it 🙂

  4. gazblow says:

    You know, I always thought that Matt Damon was like a Streisand, but he’s rockin’ the shit in this one!

  5. black13 says:

    I vaguely recall an interview Black gave when Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was released, where he specifically cited Long Kiss Goodnight and Last Action Hero as the reasons why he decided to take up directing, because he didn’t want any more scripts of his screwed up.

    Which puts me in the mood to re-watch Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

    How’d you like the Bourne Sequel? Haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve come to trust your judgment on these things.

    • Todd says:

      I love it. It doesn’t have the joy of discovery of the first one, but it’s still great, and with a stunning car chase besides.

  6. memento_mori says:

    “Sir…I…I think I’m dying…!”

    “Continue dying.”

    Awesome movie. I lurve it.

  7. dougo says:

    Haven’t seen the Bourne movies, but I really enjoyed Long Kiss Goodnight when it came out and thought it was underrated. I don’t actually remember now what in particular about it won me over—something about the Atlantic City scene? I guess I need to see it again. Meanwhile, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is sitting on my Tivo, but I had no idea it was the same writer. Thanks for the tip.

    • Todd says:

      If you enjoy the reflexive hijinx in Long Kiss and Kiss Kiss, you may also enjoy Last Action Hero, which has many of the same qualities.

      • dougo says:

        Yep, that had also been sitting on my Tivo for a while, but it got deleted for lack of space. I really need to have a movie marathon weekend sometime soon.

  8. teamwak says:


    I am a big Bourne fan, with the sequel being an equal of the first.

    LKGN was always an enjoyable but of fluff, but I take your point. Theres a scene where Gina grabs a machine gun from a still burning corpse and shoots the bad guy with it. I remember watching it thinking “That would be really hot, like burning hand hot. Hmmm”

    If someone grabs a gun that is hot, like deep fat fryer hot :), there should be burny-finger type consequeces!

    • Todd says:

      If you bought everything in LKGN right up to the “burning machine-gun” stunt, I commend you for your indefatiguable faith in American moviemaking.

  9. ndgmtlcd says:

    For both movies you describe what I would call “magic amnesia”, a condition unknown to Science or to any observer of human nature, but familiar to readers of fantasy and science fiction and probably a lot of movie goers.

    On the other hand when you say that “the script keeps folding in on itself while the stakes keep rising.” in your description of _The_Bourne_Identity_ I supppose that you mean that things are going so fast that the viewer never has time to actually think for half a second and start wondering if he, or she is watching science fiction or fantasy instead of a “Thriller”.

    • Todd says:

      The protagonists of Bourne and Kiss are lucky — Bing Crosby got hit on the head in a movie once and went back in time to the court of King Arthur! I pick amnesia over involuntary time-travel any day, super-assassins or no.

      It’s funny what you’re saying though — while I watch Bourne it seems utterly real, and serious and everything else, and when I watch Kiss the same premise seems so utterly silly — and yet, you’re absolutely right, in both cases it’s utterly ludicrous. Which is why the script, direction and performance in Bourne are such triumphs of style and execution.

      • rennameeks says:

        So the next “great idea” is to have someone get amnesia AND go back in time, right?

        • rennameeks says:

          Strike that.

          Instead of “someone,” insert Samuel L. Jackson.

          • Todd says:

            Oh, if you only knew the number of times I’ve heard people use the phrase “insert Samuel L. Jackson.”

            The weird thing is, I bet he’d really go for a movie about a trained assassin who gets amnesia and goes back in time — A CIA Assassin in the Court of King Arthur.

  10. vaklam says:

    Excellent write-up. Bourne is one of my favorite movies partially because the first act reminds me of Zelazny’s Nine Princes In Amber.

    Kiss is one of my least favorite movies because it sucks.

  11. Todd says:

    In a way, Bourne is another example of a movie soaring on pure plot. As I say, they take their one simple idea and just wring and wring all the possibilities out of it. In the right order, I might add.