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Looking at the late 1980s, I'd still have to say that the big breakout action film, the one that formed the template for everything we've seen since, is John McTiernan's Die Hard. ICombining spectacular action and special effects with a strong sense of humor, Die Hard passed the James Bond franchise in almost every department. Bruce Willis was certainly more interesting than Roger Moore, or even Timothy Dalton, and after the increasingly lame Roger Moore Bonds, it was good to see something more focused and tense. It felt like lives were at stake.
The very next year Orion pictures took a stab at similar material with The Package, a one-man-alone suspense action thriller with a similarity or two to The Manchurian Candidate. Director Andrew Davis took a step up from Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal, with an opportunity to work with an excellent mainstream cast. It's not a special effects spectacular (nothing really blows up) and its supposedly serious context of East-West détente isn't all that compelling. But as a taut narrative about a good guy dismantling a violent conspiracy from the inside out, it's quite good. And hey, it's a Christmas movie -- the action plays out amid Santa displays and "Peace on Earth" posters.
John Bishop's screenplay mostly sticks with the first-person adventures of its main character, Sgt. Johnny Gallagher (Gene Hackman). Working Army security for a high-level peace conference in Berlin, Johnny finds himself the scapegoat when a pair of terrorists successfully machine-guns a car bearing a U.S. general. Gallagher is then assigned to transport Army prisoner -- aka 'package' -- Thomas Boyette (Tommy Lee Jones) back to the states. When Jones escapes upon arrival, Johnny realizes that he's been framed for murder and made the patsy of a conspiracy to derail the peace talks. The conspirators set up another patsy, pro-Nazi punk Walter Henke (Kevin Crowley) to be an Oswald-like fall guy. Meanwhile, high-ranking Colonel Glen Whitacre (John Heard) has both the civilian and Army cops out to arrest Johnny. All he can do is rely on his ex-wife Eileen (a Light Colonel in the Army) and his ex-Vietnam buddy/Chicago cop Milan Delich (Dennis Franz), both of whom prove to be loyal allies.
I guess the movie could be called "Johnny Gallagher's Bad Day" -- it's really rough being an honest rank 'n' file when some rotten generals (supposedly both Russian and American) use him as a pawn in their dirty scheme. It's the old 'nothing is what it seems' gambit, when some West German cops show up to take possession of a pair of young hikers caught too near the security area for the talks -- and don't check the kids' backpacks. Humiliated and dressed-down, Johnny then escorts the malicious prisoner (a really terrific, young Tommy Lee Jones) back for court-martial, not realizing that it is yet another set-up. Director Davis directs efficiently. He doesn't go for the dynamic flair of John McTiernan's Die Hard, but this thriller is more of a nuts & bolts affair, without aspirations to grand spectacle. Johnny Gallagher must hoof it around Chicago and environs in the middle of winter. Once he tumbles to the fact that the conspiracy's thugs can reach him anywhere, even in jail cells or a base lockup, Johnny begins to get ahead of the game. It's this angle that makes The Package worth watching -- we don't spend the whole movie waiting for the heroes to figure out what we already know. It's also satisfying to see this kind of material avoid the paranoid route -- when Gallagher asks his ex-wife for help, she doesn't reject him. Tough cop Delich takes Johnny's wild story seriously. Delich proves a tough ally, even checking himself out of a hospital to keep up the fight. Along the way we see how a neo-Nazi group functions in the middle of a big city, and how the maladjusted Walter Henke finds himself welcomed amid like-minded haters of everything foreign or pacifist. 1
The movie is held together with action scenes that never become too wild or outrageous -- which may have been a detriment with audiences seeking bigger and better explosions. The action climax happens near one of Chicago's elevated trains, reminding us both of Hackman's The French Connection and director Davis's Code of Silence, where Chuck Norris does stunts atop an L train in motion.
Genre-wise, this was about the point where Arnold Schwarzenegger graduated from expensive action pix to extremely expensive action pix, and Sylvester Stallone had become a rubber-muscled action man capable of single-handedly conquering Afghanistan. Johnny and his two friends throw a monkey wrench into a garden-variety assassination plot, action that comes with the customary ambushes, gunfights, car chases and hand-to-hand combat. Tommy Lee Jones' proficiency is established without being over-sold ... his Thomas Boyette is a pay-to-play killer who holds his fellow low-rent mercenaries in complete contempt.
The production creates convincing public meetings for the American president (Ray Allen) and the very Gorbachev-like Soviet Premier (John D'Amico). They fly to Chicago for a symbolic agreement announcement -- we have impressive crowds gathering in the snow, and Russian-American mothers waiting to greet the foreign leader. 2 I respond to the realistic level of Gallagher's, which resolves in much the same way as The Day of the Jackal (the Zinnemann version). I suppose if The Package blew up a couple of city blocks or ended with a showdown with heavy weapons, it might have been more commercial. As it is, it's lucky that its release wasn't delayed. It came out in August of 1989. East Germany's Erich Honecker resigned a few days later in October and the Berlin Wall came down in November!
About this time Gene Hackman was alternating between modest hits and duds, but scoring higher than comparable leading man Michael Caine; both actors' appeal is such that even their bad movies are highly watchable. Third-billed Tommy Lee Jones is given limited screen time yet makes a memorable impression as the grinning, crafty imposter/mercenary killer. Joanna Cassidy is more than convincing as a responsible military officer and charming ex-wife. Our memory of her in Blade Runner makes us anticipate her participation in action scenes. Pam Grier is also a welcome face, as another servicewoman clearly not a pushover. Then mostly a TV name, Dennis Franz makes an enthusiastic major appearance. The only loser in the cast is John Heard, so good ten years before in Cutter's Way; he seldom found parts as worthy. His colonel in this picture is pure cardboard.
As a thriller The Package holds up extremely well, which is interesting considering how generic is its conspiracy. During all the peace meetings, the conspiring officers mope and grumble on the sidelines, looking extremely guilty. When cornered, their leader spits out a lame speech about saving the world by maintaining the balance of terror, a "you don't deserve the truth" tirade like the one Cliff Robertson lays on Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor.
In broader terms, the movie does do reality a slight disservice by nominating some bad-apple radicals as the problem of our military. No generals seem to be involved, which makes the conspiracy less challenging than, say the in-your-face palace coup imagined in Seven Days in May. Things are different today -- the most popular network TV shows serve up weekly terrorist conspiracies that require draconian counter-measures, and propose that our only hope of survival are elite covert military units using torture.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Package is a sharp and colorful transfer of this very good thriller. I hadn't seen this title much since VHS days and am pleased by the widescreen image. It's not a movie that goes for picturesque (or just decorative) effects. As expected, Joanna Cassidy (returning with Hackman from Under Fire) engages in some heavy running, even in high heels up a steep parking lot ramp.
Kino includes some worthy extras -- an on-camera intro by director Andrew Davis, a commentary he shares with Joanna Cassidy, who also receives her own short on-camera interview. Ms. Cassidy does little beyond say hi and drop some praise for her co-stars, but we openly admit that we looked in to see how she looks now. The answer is, 'great'. An original trailer finishes the presentation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Package Blu-ray rates:
1. I'm not entirely sure whether the story's neo-Nazi cell is a real one infiltrated by the conspiracy's thugs, or something improvised from scratch to fool Walter Henke. I should think any decent conspiracy would find that real neo-Nazis would be far less reliable than this bunch. And no, I have no personal experience with this.
2. Note that even with the lookalike aspect, the two world leaders are not named... unlike a certain irresponsible comedy of late that goes out of its way to insult a hostile foreign leader with access to nuclear weapons.
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T'was Ever Thus.