Saturday, 9 January 2010


I finally caught up with The Package, Andrew Davis' 1989 conspiracy thriller. I'd like to say it was because it's been re-issued in a 20th anniversary celebration package, but of course it wasn't, and really, there isn't that much reason why it should be. Like most decent conspiracy stories, the build-up is the more successful part, the gradual laying out of the conspiracy, the slow realisation by the main character that he may be in over his head. Also like most conspiracy stories, the resolution is something of a let-down, as implausible plot devices allow the hero his chance to save the day.

But what makes The Package stand out is the way it sets out, as well as any fiction I've seen, the rationale behind the JFK assassination, the political motivation. In this film, the US and Soviets are about to sign an historic agreement to scrap, or drastically cut back, their nuclear arsenals (interestingly, the Soviet premier is a dead ringer for Gorbachev, though the US President is neither Don Ron nor Bush Sr) and military chiefs on both sides are opposed to the deal. Thus the killing becomes an exercise in avoiding political change. You could watch The Package alongside reading JFK And The Unspeakable (you can link to my essay here) and it would make perfect sense.

Gene Hackman is a top sergeant who fails to stop the killing of a general who refuses to go along with the plot, and is then assigned to ferry a soldier, Walter Henke, Stateside for court martial. Henke, played by Tommy Lee Jones, strikes up a bit of a bond with Hackman, but at DC airport Hackman is blackjacked and Jones disappears. Luckily (the first of many disbelief-stretching coincidences) Hackman's ex-wife (the woefully underused Joanna Cassidy) is in Army personnel, and Hackman figures out that Jones is not the real Henke. The real Henke, we have seen, has been saved from arrest in East Germany and assigned by a black-ops type (John Heard, excellent) who's already set Hackman up for a fall, to infiltrate a neo-Nazi group in Chicago. Which of course is where Jones has gone to assassinate the president, and where Henke is being set up to take the fall. After Cassidy's friend, Pam Grier (with us for far too short a time) is killed while investigating Jones' real identity, she and Hackman head for Chicago too (which happens to be director Davis' home town).

The parallel between Henke and Lee Oswald is clear. The best evidence that Oswald was indeed a patsy is probably the book Oswald Talked, where it is shown convincingly that Oswald was most likely infiltrating a Cuban-exile gun-running operation on behalf of some intelligence agency, and that Jack Ruby was part of whatever the operation was. The parallel in the film is made clearer by having Henke distributing leaflets and taking part in a demonstration that breaks into a brawl, just as Oswald did in New Orleans.

Luckily, Hackman has an old Vietnam buddy (Dennis Franz) who is a cop in Chicago. Luckily, the bad guys, who've been willing to litter the streets of DC and Chicago with bodies, take Hackman back to Jones' apartment, rather than killing him, so he gets a chance to escape. There is a car chase scene, hommage to The French Connection, where Hackman gets to 'drive' under the Chicago El, and somehow an army sergeant who was stationed in Germany knows shortcuts through Chicago to get to the downtown Hilton through the freight yards. And of course, in the end, all the conspiracy information will come out in a Congressional investigation, which is probably the least believable thing of all.

As it happens, I had just rewatched The Fugitive on TV a few days before seeing The Package. Davis, as I said, is from Chicago; his father was the actor Nathan Davis, to whom he gave a good role as the Soviet premier's press attache, who's also one of the masterminds of the assassination plot. Davis' career has been built on action movies, starring Chuck Norris (Code Of Silence), Steven Seagal (Under Siege--probably Seagal's best, whatever that means), and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. But it's The Fugitive for which he's best known, and for which Tommy Lee Jones got a supporting-actor Oscar. Davis gives Jones lots of leeway in his roles; one of the great pleasures of Under Siege, probably second only to Elena Elenika bursting topless out of a cake, is watching Jones and Gary Busey trying to upstage each other. It's as if Davis knows that the comic relief provides the equivalent of depth of character, and helps keep the sense of pace always moving. When he can't use pace, he's somewhat lost, as evidenced by his remake of Hitchock's very static Dial M For Murder, A Perfect Murder, in which Gwyneth proved herself no Grace Kelly, and Michael Douglas, an inspired bit of casting, wouldn't surrender himself to the sleaziness of Ray Milland.

But despite his bravura (helped by straightman Joe Pantoliano's straight-man talent) I am always bothered by Jones' character in The Fugitive. Mostly because, as Kimball escapes from the conveniently-located downtown jail where he's checking out one-armed men, Gerrard tries to shoot him dead, an obviously unarmed man whose guilt has to be in question even in the mind of someone who says he doesn't care, and tries repeatedly, and looks extremely chagrined not to have succeeded. Then we (and Kimball) are still supposed to like him. The Fugitive had its own plot flaws too: that the one-armed man could be a Chicago cop who lost his arm in the line of duty means that he could hardly have escaped notice; when the brilliantly obnoxious cops who pursue Kimball fail to recognise him we assume they must be protecting him, but such is not the case. But as is usually the case with Davis, the pace of the story, and the action, keeps you from thinking about little things like that until well after the film is done. Or almost. The Package comes close to being Davis' best; if he'd just been able to get more conspiratorial and less well-packaged in its resolution, it would be.

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