Friday 23 June 2023

The Package (1989)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writer: John Bishop
Stars: Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, Reni Santoni, Pam Grier, Chelcie Ross, Ron Dean, Kevin Crowley, Thalmus Rasulala, Marco St. John and John Heard

Index: The First Thirty.

While Steven Seagal would star in a second movie for director Andrew Davis, Under Siege in 1992, a host of other actors did that a little quicker, returning for his very next film, The Package. Pam Grier’s back. Chelcie Ross is back. Joe Greco’s back. Thalmus Rasulala is back. We soon recognise bit part actors so half the cast must be back.

This is a very different film to Above the Law though, starting out as a late Cold War thriller and growing into a sort of precursor to Davis’s best film, The Fugitive. And when I say late Cold War I do mean about as late as it gets. This is August 1989 and Americans and Russians are talking peace in East Berlin.

For something that sounds talky, it starts as pure testosterone. Lots of soldiers. Lots of VIPs with grey hair sitting around big tables. An agreement is reached, which will be signed at the United Nations ten days later. But there’s a group of rogue generals, from both sides, with zero interest in losing their nuclear shields, so they have a week and a half to do something to throw a spanner into the peace works.

Gene Hackman is there in East Berlin and he knows even more people than we do, but he’s merely a sergeant, Johnny Gallagher. He seems capable but he becomes an easy fall guy for an assassination, by a couple of fake hikers, of an American general who chooses not to be part of whatever nefarious plot is unfolding.

That lands him what seems to be a nothing job as punishment, that of escorting another Army sergeant back home for a court martial, as he’s acquired quite a habit of punching his superior officers. He’s the Package of the title.

He’s also Walter Henkey, played by Tommy Lee Jones, and he gets away soon after landing in Washington, D.C. Now, did he escape on his own or did he have an undercover team ready in place to assist him, populated with another bunch of faces that we recognise from Above the Law? Well, that’s a good question.

To find an answer, Gallagher visits Henkey’s wife and promptly discovers that Henkey isn’t Henkey. Who he is remains unclear but there’s obviously something fishy going on and only Gallagher is aware of it. This is our real story and Davis keeps it all moving forward in a very tense manner. It’s not quite Tommy Lee Jones playing the Fugitive, but it does feel a little like that at points and it’s a good template to follow, even if this came first by four years.

Pam Grier shows up soon after we reach this point. Gallagher enlists the help of his ex-wife, Lt. Col. Eileen Gallagher, who clearly outranks him, to have her run Henkey’s service record. She’s Joanna Cassidy, perhaps best known as Zhora in Blade Runner, but Grier is the records expert that she calls in next, Lt. Ruth Butler.

She’s a mousy sort here, prim and proper with her hair held back in a bun. However, she is very capable indeed and manages to figure out who the Package really is and, in doing so, just how dangerous a soldier he is too. Ruth is acutely nervous as she passes this information along to Eileen but she continues on anyway, digging deeper until she triggers unauthorised alerts and seals her own death warrant.

That’s it for Grier in this film, so it’s a small but crucial part once again. It’s frustrating to see an actress of her talent relegated to just a few scenes, as was so often the case during the eighties, but it’s also affirming that, when a director needed someone reliable to deliver a pivotal discovery in his film, he called her.

Now that she’s connected the dots, the story moves forward, of course, and it gets to where you might expect. The problem is the timing, because we know with hindsight exactly how peace talks ended up in 1989 and how they shifted the balance of power across the globe.

You see, in our reality, there was the Pan-European Picnic. Otto von Habsburg, then the president of the Paneuropean Union, invited all East Germans to a bacon roast in Hungary. 661 of them showed up, tore down a gate and the guards did nothing to stop them. Three days later, Miklós Németh, Prime Minister of Hungary, officially opened his border and that was enough to dissolve East Germany, collapse the entire Eastern Bloc and end the Cold War.

The dates are important. The Pan-European Picnic was held on 19th August, 1989 and the Hungarian border opened on 22nd August, 1989. This picture opened in theatres on 25th August, 1989.

I didn’t see it on original release, but it must have seemed acutely topical, fiction built on a bedrock of fact with the events that unfold not entirely unlikely to appear in the headlines of the next week and the week after that.

However, it must also have seemed acutely ambitious, the decision to release so topical a movie at so crucial a time a real gamble on the part of Orion Pictures. News travels fast and it changes even faster.

Only three months later, the Berlin Wall fell and nobody doubted that the Cold War, which didn’t officially end until December 1991, was absolutely on its last legs. Peace was inevitable and this film, so topical in August, had been relegated to a bygone era by November. It’s alldated now and even contrary, hinting as it does that the inevitable wasn’t, in fact, at all inevitable.

Against that backdrop, the red herrings we fall for mean next to nothing. It’s all capable stuff, a tight textbook of a thriller, but I found that I didn’t really care. I wanted to know who the good guys and the bad guys were and that was never going to be forthcoming.

From one angle, there are no good guys or bad guys because we were all about to join the same side and we hadn’t figured out who the next good guys and bad guys would be yet.

From another, the good guys and bad guys aren’t really in the movie. It could be argued that Hackman plays a hero and Jones a villain, but in truth both only play tiny cogs in a giant machine. Had neither shown up to the shoot, the history books wouldn’t read any different.

Instead, this becomes a stepping stone. It’s an appropriate follow-up to Above the Law, the ending eerily similar with Gallagher naming names to rare honest politicians behind closed doors. And it’s an appropriate pointer towards The Fugitive, with the leads sharing few scenes but Davis building incredible tension anyway.

But that’s about it.

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