' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Package (1989)

Friday, May 21, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Package (1989)

“The Package” was directed by Andrew Davis, who most famously helmed “The Fugitive”, and though the former can occasionally feel like a dry run for the latter, it also finds something of its own wavelength in a story painted on a much larger canvas. What made “The Fugitive” so successful was its narrow focus, painting Dr. Richard Kimball into a corner and then watching him improvise his way out, cross-cutting between Marshal Sam Gerard, given incredible life by Tommy Lee Jones, a quiet, morally complex face/off between two men who do not truly meet until the end. Briefly “The Package” seems to have a similar set-up, its title referencing not a Fed Ex delivery but an Army deserter, Thomas Boyette (Jones again), being escorted by Special Forces Master Sergeant John Gallagher (Gene Hackman) from Berlin to the United States. Alas, Boyette makes a brazen escape. This is not just a chase movie, though, but a conspiracy theory movie broadening out into a plot to kill the President. As big as its story get, however, “The Package’s” tone is more reminiscent of Davis’s later masterwork, more about the nuts and bolts of the pursuit than evoking a paranoid atmosphere a la so many 1970s thrillers. That is brought home in Gene Hackman’s everyman performance, just doing his job, sir, allowing “The Package” to maintain a more rosy glow of America.

Promotional photos are fun!

Released in August of 1989, less than three months before the Berlin Wall fell, “The Package” might seem a case of being rendered almost immediately inconsequential. In the end, though, it feels more like a reminder of the moment’s uncertainty despite knowing in retrospect how it would all work out, duplicitous American and Soviet forces conspiring to inject the Cold War with more fuel to keep it going. The former is represented by a cloak and dagger Colonel played by John Heard with icy contempt for a boy scout like John Gallagher. It’s not just shady factions of the American military involved, though, but nebulous right-wing groups, too, one character seen passing out anti-communist leaflets on the streets of Chicago, a reminder the ostensible red menace is a convenient scapegoat in any era. In one scene, Gallagher briefly infiltrates a meeting by this group only to be told in no uncertain terms to split. When someone asks who those people were, Gallagher replies “Ah, just some neo-Nazis”, a hysterical line reading by Hackman that is not fury but comical exasperation, like he’s taking all the piss out of their knucklehead plight, equating them with petulant dipshits. 

Boyette, it turns out, isn’t really Boyette at all but the assassin enlisted to off the Commander-in-Chief at a big event in the Windy City. That’s too bad in a way, given the chemistry between Hackman and Jones. If Jones these days has sort of been memed into an unamused Grumpy Gus, this performance is evocative of just how light on his feet he can be, Sam Gerard melded with his “Under Siege” villain. His brief monologue about America as an evil empire sounds less like some traditional unhinged madman than a disaffected burnout and Hackman plays off it perfectly with that patented, American treasure chuckle of his that seems to say: “Can you believe this guy?” For a brief moment I had visions of a dark buddy comedy, a Reagan-era “The Last Detail.” 

No, the buddy in this buddy comedy turns out to be Gallagher’s ex-wife, Eileen (Joanna Cassidy), a Lieutenant Colonel, who John seeks out for assistance upon realizing he’s been lied to. It’s telling characterization, that he can trust his ex-wife, more than it is a rekindling of romance, a nice plotting decision by Davis that saves us from a tacked-on romance subplot. Gallagher comes to her because he can trust her, which says a lot about their post-marriage relationship, and which Hackman and Cassidy deftly evince in their behavior; you can tell where they busted up, but also why they got together, demonizing no one, their united front in the face of government operatives gone rogue painting them as decent people. Even so, I wished Eileen would have factored more into the climax rather than “The Package” having her hand the partner baton off to Milan Delich (Dennnis Franz), a detective with whom John goes back, upon arriving in Chicago. No shade against Franz, whose quiet, lived-in demeanor here feels like an in-advance 180 from NYPD Blue, but it would have been nice to see Hackman and Cassidy’s camaraderie all the way through.

Though Davis becomes a bit over-reliant on the Christmas setting as an ironic counterpoint, with Peace on Earth signs splattered everywhere, for the assassination attempt climax, he nimbly lays out all the details so that we are never confused, building to a sudden gunshot rather than some prolonged talking killer face/off. In that way, it is akin to “The Fugitive”, which isn’t a spectacular finale, per se, just workmanlike. In each case, Andrew Davis gets the job done.

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