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The Package

by Glenn Erickson Jun 27, 2023

Orion’s smart, sharp action thriller compresses ‘Manchurian Candidate’ and ‘Day of the Jackal’ into a 24-hour race to prevent a political assassination. Director Andrew Davis gets a chance to lead big stars through a convincing paranoid nightmare: Gene Hackman is still action-ready at 59, while Tommy Lee Jones impresses as a formidable bruiser; Joanna Cassidy shows off her ability to sprint in high heels. Dennis Franz, John Heard and Pam Grier look great and seem to be having a terrific time. The stress is on good characterizations, tight scripting and credible action.


The Package
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1989 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date June 13, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Tommy Lee Jones, John Heard, Dennis Franz, Pam Grier, Kevin Crowley, Thalmus Rasulala.
Cinematography: Frank Tidy
Production Designer: Michel Levesque
Art Directors: Coleen Kennedy, Wynn Thomas
Film Editors: Billy Weber, Jon Zimmerman
Original Music: James Newton Howard
Written by John Bishop
Produced by Beverly J. Camhe, Tobie Haggerty
Directed by
Andrew Davis

Action thrillers really broke out in the late 1980s — John McTiernan’s Die Hard bettered the James Bond franchise in almost every department. It was good to see something more focused and tense than Roger Moore comedies. It felt like lives were once again at stake.

With the action-suspense bar raised that much higher, the very next year Orion pictures took a stab at similar material with The Package, a thriller along the lines of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. Echoes of the JFK assassination mix with a return to the 1970s subgenre of paranoid conspiracys. Director Andrew Davis took a step up from Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal action films, earning the opportunity to work with an excellent cast of mainstream stars. The Package is not an expensive special effects spectacular, and there’s nothing particularly deep in its picture of East-West détente. But the narrative is taut and the performances excellent — the entertaining cast makes for exceptionally good company. It’s also a Christmas movie — the action plays out in Chicago, amid Santa displays and posters proclaiming Peace on Earth.

 

John Bishop’s screenplay unfolds as U.S. Army Sgt. Johnny Gallagher (Gene Hackman) gets caught up in a complicated high-level attempt to change U.S.-Soviet defense policy — with a couple of assassinations. Working Army security for a high-level peace conference in Berlin, Johnny finds himself scapegoated when a pair of terrorists machine-guns a car bearing a U.S. general. Gallagher is then assigned to escort a ‘package’ — an Army prisoner — back to the states. When the prisoner (Tommy Lee Jones) escapes upon arrival, Johnny realizes that he’s being framed for murder, as a detail in a much bigger 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. Behind the scenes Colonel Glen Whitacre (John Heard) directs both civilian cops and Army intelligence to arrest Johnny. He’s forced to seek the help of his ex-wife Eileen, an Army officer (Joanna Cassidy). She enlists the aid of the tough Chicago cop Milan Delich (Dennis Franz). Both prove to be loyal allies.

The movie could easily be called “Johnny Gallagher’s Bad Day” — it’s really rough being an honest rank ‘n’ file when a rotten clique of Russian and American generals 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 a security area, and don’t check the kids’ backpacks. The innocent hikers then go wild, like members of The Baader Meinhof Complex. 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’s just another set-up.

 

Director Davis directs efficiently. His thriller hasn’t the grand spectacle or the comic flair of Die Hard yet is a highly satisfactory nuts & bolts affair. Johnny Gallagher must hoof it around Chicago and environs in the middle of winter. He begins to get ahead of the game only after he tumbles to the fact that the conspiracy’s thugs can reach him anywhere, even in jail cells or a base lockup. It’s this angle that makes The Package worth watching — we don’t spend the whole movie waiting for the hero to figure out what we already know.

“I HATE Illinois Nazis!”

It’s also satisfying to see this kind of material avoid most paranoid thriller clichés — when Gallagher asks his ex-wife for help, she doesn’t reject him. The no-nonsense cop Delich also takes Johnny’s wild story seriously. Delich proves a sturdy ally, even checking himself out of a hospital to keep up the fight; TV fans will find Dennis Franz’s performance amusing, as his cop is more or less identical to Franz’s Det. Andy Sipowicz on the old NYPD Blue series.     The Army conspiracy is using the Chicago Nazi cell as cover, so along the way we see how a neo-Nazi group functions in the middle of a big city. The maladjusted Walter Henke finds himself welcomed amid like-minded haters of everything foreign, pacifist or non-white.

 

Genre-wise, 1989 was about when Arnold Schwarzenegger took a big step up, from expensive action pix to extremely expensive action pix. Sylvester Stallone was already a rubber-muscled action man capable of single-handedly conquering Afghanistan. By contrast, this movie is enhanced by credible action scenes that stay away from fantasy exaggeration — which may have been a detriment for the audience 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 own Code of Silence, with its scenes of Chuck Norris doing stunt work atop a moving L train.

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 sneering contempt.

 

The production stages convincing public gatherings 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 — with impressive crowds gathering in the snow, and Russian-American mothers waiting to greet the foreign leader. We respond positively to the realistic, non-superhero level of Gallagher’s pursuit, which resolves in much the same way as The Day of the Jackal (the Zinnemann version). Would The Package have been more commercial if it blew up a couple of city blocks or ended with a showdown with heavy weapons?

We prefer to watch these believable characters performing so well under pressure. As it is, it’s lucky that the release of The Package wasn’t delayed. It arrived in August of 1989. East Germany’s Erich Honecker resigned a few days later in October and the Berlin Wall came down in November!

 

Almost twenty years after The French Connection star Gene Hackman convinces in action mode — he’s still physically agile. His film output was alternating between modest hits and duds, but his batting average fared better than that of comparable leading man Michael Caine. Both actors’ appeal was 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. When his Thomas Boyette acts tough or flies off the handle, we believe every bit of it.

 Joanna Cassidy is more than convincing as a responsible military officer and charming ex-wife. Our memory of her in Blade Runner leads us to anticipate her participation in an action scene, and we aren’t disappointed. She’s pretty incredible sprinting up and down steep, slippery parking lot ramps in high heels.

 

 Pam Grier is also a welcome face, as another servicewoman clearly not a pushover. Her scenes are too brief to support a claim that Andrew Davis ‘rediscovered’ her before Quentin Tarantino. As mentioned above, TV star Dennis Franz makes an enthusiastic major appearance — his smart detective Delich easily detects a traitor within his own police department. The only loser in the cast is John Heard, so unforgettably good ten years before in Cutter’s Way. Heard seldom found parts as worthy. His colonel in this picture must hold up the weakest part of the movie. 

The Package holds up extremely well, which is a real compliment considering the rather generic conspiracy beneath all the skullduggery and violent action. At the cordial peace conferences 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 fairness a disservice by nominating some bad-apple military radicals as the only real problem with the system. No top-top generals seem to be involved, which makes the conspiracy less challenging than, say the in-your-face palace coup imagined so well in Seven Days in May . . . another John Frankenheimer film.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Package appears to be a reissue of an OOP Kino BD from 2014, with slightly better image quality. The picture has excellent contrast and good color, making the winter locations look very attractive … the world is saved on some really chilly days.

Besides the improved feature encoding, the new extra is a slip-sleeve cover. The video extras appear to be ported straight over from the older disc. They’re still quite good: an on-camera intro by director Andrew Davis, a commentary he shares with Joanna Cassidy. In her own short on-camera interview Ms. Cassidy does little beyond say hi and drop some praise for her co-stars, but it’s good to see her. It’s interesting to find out that almost all of the movie was filmed in and around Chicago, Andrew Davis’s home base — just a few shots of the Brandenburg Gate and a Berlin war memorial are inserted. An original trailer finishes the presentation; this time around the cover art isn’t very attractive.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Package
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Audio commentary with Andrew Davis and Joanna Cassidy.
Interview with Ms. Cassidy
Introduction by Davis
Trailer + TV spots.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 23, 2023
(6948pack)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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