The Package

May 22, 2020

packageAs far as spy-movie footage goes, ABC-TV’s recent Nightly News “re-creation” of Felix Bloch’s escapades was slightly more convincing than The Package. But both cover familiar ground.

The Package, however, doesn’t pretend to be anything but fiction. It’s about an Army sergeant (Gene Hackman) who’s assigned to escort a troublesome soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) from Europe to the United States. When the “package,” as Jones is called, slips out of Hackman’s grasp, Hackman begins to sense an elaborate plot focusing on an upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit in Chicago.

The film, directed by Andrew (Above the Law) Davis, trots along at a competent pace. It has a few interesting threads that were either never developed or dropped on the cutting-room floor, such as Hackman’s bantering, loving relationship with his ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy). Perhaps the most intriguing of these threads is the pairing of Hackman and his package; Tommy Lee Jones has an offbeat, mysterious playfulness that jibes well with Hackman’s simple, blunt Army lifer. But they spend too little time together.

There’s also an Oliver North figure, played by John Heard, and a standard issue Chicago cop (Dennis Franz) who helps Hackman circum­vent official channels. But the different elements of The Package don’t come together, and its attempt at conjuring a sense of governmental paranoia seems tame compared to reality.

Hackman contributes a nice character study. He’s one of the few actors who can play simple characters without playing down to them, and that’s exactly what he’s up to here.

Hackman was in Seattle recently (he’s shooting a movie in Vancouver, British Columbia), and he spoke about his acting method. “Usually things that look effortless have a lot of hard work behind them,” he said, referring to his non-showy style. “I don’t take any of it very casually.”

Hackman described his early stirrings toward acting; walking out of a movie in his hometown of Danville, Ohio, he was stunned to catch his reflection in a mirror and not see Errol Flynn.

“I realized then that I was so involved with the character in the theater that I had really transferred myself into that. At that moment, I think I really decided that I would like to do this. I think I could do this.” After a stint in the Marines and some knocking around New York, he did it. Hackman has worked a lot in both leading and supporting roles, in the last couple of years. “I would do almost anything as an actor, if it was offered to me. I like to work. There are people out there who have some kind of parameters about how much work you should do. I don’t know who those people are. Let them talk to my ex-wife’s lawyers.”

First published in The Herald, August 1989

Hackman was working a lot in those days (oh, those lawyers), and I assume the Vancouver movie he was shooting was the Narrow Margin remake. This movie was a stiff, but Andrew Davis’s next two films were Under Siege and The Fugitive (both with Tommy Lee Jones, of course). Jones had Lonesome Dove come out the same year as The Package, and he was about to break through into the meat of his career. I had forgotten the Felix Bloch affair, but it was a spy case that got into the headlines at the time.


Twice in a Lifetime

April 20, 2020

twiceinTwice in a Lifetime will be of special interest to locals because it was filmed entirely in Snohomish County and Seattle, and makes a special point of showing off the area.

It would have been nice if the film had been of special interest because of its aesthetic quality, too; but I fear this is its weakest point, and that’s troubling.

It’s a movie from the Ordinary People/Terms of Endearment mold. There’s no artificially contrived plot around which to form a story. It’s about people, and their continuing, realistic problems.

The people, in this case, are Gene Hackman, as a mill worker and Seahawk fan; Ellen Burstyn, his wife; Amy Madigan and Ally Sheedy, his daughters; and Ann-Margret, a cocktail waitress with whom he falls in love.

The marriage is calcified, and Hackman discovers through his affair with the waitress that he still has passions and feelings for something other than the Seahawks. When he moves out, it throws the family into shock; Madigan, encased in bad haircut and forced to be shrill, never wants to see her father again, while Burstyn goes into an almost somnambulatory state (from which she eventually emerges).    

Some individual scenes work well. Hackman’s first date with Ann-Margret, and the anxiety they show while sitting in the car and wondering what to say, is nicely realized. And Brian Dennehy, as Hackman’s beer-drinking buddy, brings authenticity to his scenes in the local watering-hole (but that’s to be expected from Dennehy, who, after Cocoon and Silverado this summer, has become the outstanding supporting actor of the moment).

Too many other scenes are lazy or forced. The early scenes of the family, as Hackman celebrates his 50th birthday, contain the sort of jolly spontaneity that  can make you cringe. And the discussions between Hackman and Ann-Margret about their crises, and their new chance at happiness, are standard and unimaginative. Halfway through, the movie bogs down in the difficulty of the family situation, and can’t add any enlightenment – at least, none that it hasn’t borrowed from a dozen TV movies on the subject.

Producer-director Bud Yorkin was aware that Twice in a Lifetime had problems (one version was screened at the latest Seattle International Film Festival to mixed reaction) and reshot some scenes recently. But the problems lie deep in Colin (Chariots of Fire) Welland’s script: There just no sense that anything new is brought to an important subject.

Hackman is fine, and Burstyn brings some fire to her role. Ann­-Margret doesn’t seem quite fresh or relaxed enough to bring off her part; most of the time, she comes off as dour as Burstyn, which makes Hackman’s decision somewhat curious.

When all else fails, there are the locations to look at. And that seems to have been Yorkin’s attitude, too. Characters have discussions in front of the Space Needle and on a hill overlooking the Kingdome. The store fronts of Snohomish (renamed Holden in the film) give the movie a small-town feel. Ann-Margret even keeps a box of Aplets and Cotlets on her living room table. The regional-interest appeal is played up without much sense of tone or judiciousness, much like the film as a whole.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1985

I don’t know whether this is the only time I have referenced Aplets and Cotlets in my writing, but I am grateful for the chance to highlight these delicious Washington-made treats. Don’t remember much about the film except as a middle-brow mid-crisis thing, but I’m surprised about my Ann-Margret comment; one would expect she would at least bring verve to this kind of material. My “aesthetic quality” comment made me laugh; I sometimes wonder what readers thought about this punk spouting off in movie revies. We’re remembering Brian Dennehy here; he died a few days ago.


Bat 21

February 19, 2020

bat21Variety, the show-business bible, just reported that the busiest leading man over the last five years was none other than Gene Hackman (in a somewhat dubious tie with Steve Guttenberg).

Sure enough, Hackman seems to be turning nothing down; if he is no longer exactly bankable, he’s nevertheless an actor coveted by all the good directors. Bat 21 is the kind of movie an actor such as Hackman can gamble on. Hackman doesn’t have to worry about whether every film he makes is a box office bit, so he can afford to take a flier on a more difficult-to­-categorize film. He may well have been attracted to this film through the sheer technical challenge of playing the role.

That’s because for 90 percent of Bat 21, Hackman is alone, speaking what lines he has into a walkie-talkie.

He plays an Air Force colonel who has to eject during a mission over Viet Cong territory. Alone, in the jungle, he is located by a spotter pilot called Bird-dog (Danny Glover, of Lethal Weapon), who fixes his position but can’t call in helicopters to pick up Hackman until the area is secured.

So, in the course of three days of waiting, Hackman and Glover establish a friendship over the airwaves. Adding some suspense is an air strike, previously ordered by Hackman, which will obliterate the area in a matter of hours.

Everything about this situation is competently handled, although very little about it seems new. Glover’s commander (played by singer Jerry Reed, who is also the film’s executive producer) is a typical hard-barking military-man, and a gung-ho chopper pilot (David Marshall Grant) is strictly a movie creation.

Director Peter Markle (The Personals) does try to add little quirky touches around the edges, and wisely concentrates on the relationship between Hackman and Glover. Both actors are good, and Hackman is especially fine at portraying his character’s increasing sense of desperation (“You are gonna come and get me, right?” he whispers into the radio).

The movie’s main point, that Hackman discovers the hellishness of war only by being on the ground instead of in the air, comes across as heavy-handed.

Bat 21 (the title refers to Hackman’s code name) is based on a true story. It really happened to Col. Iceal Hambleton, the military expert and golf enthusiast played by Hackman.

There is an odd note sounded at the end of the movie: A postscript tells us that Hambleton now lives happily ever after. Nothing wrong with that, but the postscript says zilch about the tenacious spotter pilot who saved him. This is a peculiar, even insulting, omission, particularly after watching both men share equal time in the film for the previous two hours.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1988

Not much of a review. I’m not sure where my concern about Hackman’s career came about, but I’m sure he was bankable enough even in 1988. Weird, for me at least, that I remember director Markle’s first film, The Personals, which was an indie in the time before the idea of “indie” had come together. He’s directed a few features and dozens of TV stuff since then. Life is getting long.


Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

January 14, 2020

supermanivAfter the lukewarm success of Superman III, the Superman series seemed to be dead; Christopher Reeve, who had made such a heroic Superman (and such a charmingly inept Clark Kent) declared he’d have no more of it. He wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, and he went to some pains to prove it in a string of box-office duds such as Monsignor, The  Bostonians, and the recent Street Smart.

Those films having stiffed, Reeve now finds it within reason to take the old role again. But it may be more than career inertia that lured Reeve back into the tights and cape. He’s been given some creative control on Superman IV – he’s credited on the screenplay – and he’s turned the project into a message movie.

This is achieved in much the same way that the latest Star Trek movie became a save-the-whales picture. Superman IV is an anti-nuke movie, although it wraps its message in the familiar characters and situations that have made these films so successful. Prompted by a letter from a schoolboy, our hero decides to eliminate all the nuclear weapons on the Earth. And he does.

However, it turns out that this idea is just one tendril from a real jellyfish of a script. There’s also the dilemma of the Daily Planet being taken over by a Rupert Murdoch-type scandalmonger (Sam Wanamaker); then there’s his daughter (Mariel Hemingway), who takes much romantic interest in Clark Kent; another tentative match between Superman and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder); and, of course, that archvillain Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), who’s up to his old tricks.

Hackman’s scenes serve up much of the film’s fun. His campy villainy remains from the first two Superman films, with the assistance of a dim-witted nephew (Jon Cryer). This time, he’s got a strand of Superman’s superhair, which he clones into a solar-powered anti­-hero called Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who does battle with Supe on the moon. In one of the film’s funniest scenes Hackman chides Superman, “You’re so involved with this world peace thing, you don’t have time for social calls,” and advises the Man of Steel to relax; get a hobby, or a pet.

The film is much too rangy and fragmented, but their are flashes of the old wit. Much of the likable, self-effacing tone is here, under Sidney J. Furie’s direction, and the easy comedy that surrounds the Clark Kent character is intact.

But is also feels rushed, and it’s too short at 90 mlnutes to hook us deeply. The movie needs another half-hour to stretch out; I had the feeling that whole scenes had been slashed out at some point in the filmmaking process. Some bridging scenes might have explained the biggest mystery in the film: How exactly does Superman eliminate the nuclear weapons, anyway?

Apparently he grabs them as they’re shot up into space, one by one, although this doesn’t explain how he will account for every warhead. Worse, we then see him gather the missiles into a galaxy-sized fishing net, swing it around, and heave the whole mess into the sun. This cockeyed image throws the movie’s anti-nuke message into the realm of the incredible, where it will probably remain until a real Superman comes along.

First published in the Herald, July 28, 1987

I’m afraid I have forgotten everything about this movie, including the fact that it reunited the old gang and threw Jon Cryer into the mix. But I do remember the feeling of a non-event, especially the almost insulting running time; Cannon Films produced the movie, and along with taking their cut-rate approch during the filming itself, they also ripped a bunch of footage from an original preview version. I’m not sure why I accuse a Superman movie of going into the realm of the incredible, but maybe you know what I mean.

Uncommon Valor

October 16, 2012

Uncommon Valor joins the list of movies that work primarily on formula rather than inspiration. This time, it’s the impossible-military-mission routine, updated from countless World War II escape or spy movies, and set in the rice paddies of Laos.

Gene Hackman plays an Army colonel whose son is still listed as missing in action 10 years after American soldiers came home from Vietnam. When he identifies a prison camp in Laos that has some Americans in it, he takes his evidence to his son’s old Army buddies, and recruits them for a wholly unauthorized mission to storm the camp and retrieve the prisoners.

Actually, the mission is authorized by the money put up by an oil tycoon (Robert Stack) who also has a son missing. Once Hackman gathers his men together, he puts them through the paces in a mock battlefield constructed with Stack’s money. Next destination: Southeast Asia.

With this kind of movie—think of The Dirty Dozen—you need strong personalities among the fighting men. The group dynamic is the element that really carries the movie, and the challenge is to work with stereotypes and make them something more.

The men of the fighting unit in Uncommon Valor never become anything more than cardboard cutouts. At some point in the production, it must have been decreed that the emphasis would be more on action than character.

So, you get to see a lot of things blow up in this movie. You even get to see some things blow up twice, since the men demolish their phony camp first, and then repeat the job—with a few last-minute variations—on the real thing.

All that noise and fire seemed to satisfy the preview audience that watched the film, but it doesn’t leave you with much to remember, or a reason to care about whether the mission is successful or not.

The lack of depth in the characterizations is not really the fault of the actors. In fact, they’re a pretty good lot. Fred Ward is suitably hard and tough as the claustrophobic master of stealth; Reb Brown gives a funny slant to his surfer who just loves to make bombs go off; and heavyweight boxer Randall “Tex” Cobb does just fine as the slightly loony, mountain-size biker.

They’re simply not given enough to work with. If somebody told me that a half-hour had been cut out of this film before its release, I’d believe it; Uncommon Valor has that kind of by-the-numbers approach to a certain formula.

Ted Kotcheff directed it; he was probably chosen on the strength of having guided Sylvester Stallone through the non-stop jungle hunt in First Blood. Here, as with that movie, Kotcheff seems to know how to push all the right buttons to get the right effects, and that’s not a bad thing in itself. But you don’t get the impression that he ever wonders why he’s pushing the buttons. That makes Uncommon Valor resolutely common.

First published in the Herald, December 1983

Not much of a review, but the movie was an indication of the subgenre of return-to-Vietnam pictures that proved popular at the time. Patrick Swayze was also in there.

Under Fire

October 15, 2012

Under Fire is that rarity: a major Hollywood release that is both a politically oriented film without self-righteousness, and a well-crafted entertainment that delivers the dramatic goods.

It travels to the dark heart of 1979 Nicaragua, where the rebellion that’s been smoldering for 50 years is about to topple the Somoza regime. We see the civil war through the eyes of some American journalists, who provide a very human reference point as we witness the various subterfuges and brutalities of the bloody war.

As Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” It’s still the same old story in Under Fire. The romantic triangle is set against the backdrop of international conflict has always been good raw material for an exciting narrative, and Under Fire uses this device to draw us into its politically volatile story.

The triangle consists of Russell (Nick Nolte), a prize-winning photographer who arrives in Nicaragua and fulfills an old passion for Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a reporter who happens to be the longtime lover of one of Russell’s best friends and colleagues, Alex (Gene Hackman), who has just been offered a tempting network anchor post—a job that would take him off the road, and away from Claire.

Actually, the triangle is resolved fairly quickly. Alex heads off to New York, and Russell and Claire get involved with—well, with each other, of course. They also get involved with the growing mystery of the never-photographed rebel leader Rafael, whom the Somoza government claims is dead, but whose body—dead or otherwise—has not been seen.

As Russell and Claire get closer to finding Rafael, they are forced to question their code of journalistic ethics, and their responsibilities as human beings in the face of war’s horrors. Luckily, Under Fire does not present these heavy-duty moral quandaries as dry theorems. They’re part of an adventure movie, and the filmmakers don’t lose sight of that.

It’s as an action film that Under Fire works best. Director Roger Spottiswoode has given the film a lean, hard edge (aided by his great cinematographer, John Alcott, who shot Barry Lyndon).

Star power also keeps Under Fire burning. Nolte can apparently carry any movie on his hulking shoulders, and Cassidy is a real find; she brings a vibrant intelligence to this, her first leading film role.

Gene Hackman is too precious a commodity to have been missing from the screen for so long. Here, he perfectly captures the underlying torment of a man whose professional and personal worlds are in chaos. When he’s offscreen, the movie really suffers for it.

While Under Fire may not answer its ethical questions with much profundity, the film does tell a complicated story using good moviemaking sense. With its fast, jungle-fever momentum, it eventually packs quite a wallop.

First published in the Herald, October 20, 1983

Interesting movie, not much remembered. This film review ran with The Right Stuff as my first pieces for the Herald, a gig that has lasted through now (October 2012) and continues. How did that happen?


August 27, 2012

Power is one of those behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing of political campaigns, always a ripe subject for movies (after all, so little madness needs to be invented). As it happens, Power is not an unusually distinguished essay on the cutthroat gamesmanship that we all know and love, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.

The main player in this drama is Peter St. John (Richard Gere), a high-stakes public relations wizard with an 85 percent success rate with political candidates. He is introduced to us in a series of glimpses at his various projects.

First, he’s attending the speech of a South American candidate/client, whose rally is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist bomb. When the candidate gets a little blood on his shirt, St. John rushes over with his camera crew, fairly exultant with the public relations possibilities. He excitedly tells the candidate to wear the blood-stained shirt at every subsequent public appearance.

Next, St. John is off to New Mexico, where he oversees the candidacy of a Senate hopeful (Fritz Weaver), then to Seattle for a meeting with the incumbent governor (Michael Learned, once the mother on “The Waltons”). She needs special help in smoothing over her recent divorce, and its impact on the fall campaign.

But St. John’s most pressing public relations gig is the Ohio Senate race. The incumbent (E.G. Marshall), an old friend, pulls out of the running, abruptly. St. John is pursued by a mysterious power broker (Denzel Washington of “St. Elsewhere”) to back another Ohio candidate, one whose resources are vast, but whose intentions are suspect.

St. John’s main business is image-bending. As he tells the hopeless Weaver (a rich city boy whom St. John puts in a cowboy suit before a herd of cattle), “We’ve got to align perception with reality.”

In other words, quit worrying about the issues and concentrate on the makeup and the hair. St. John creates the kind of devious TV commercials and publicity ploys with which we’ve become all too familiar over the years.

But strange things are happening: St. John’s rooms are bugged, his plane is searched, and his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a reporter, is finding some fishy finances connected with Marshall’s wife (Beatrice Straight).

It all sounds complicated, and it is, but it’s enjoyably mounted. Sidney Lumet (and his fine photographer, Andrej Bartkowiak) can orchestrate this sort of intricate setup with clarity, if little subtlety (The Verdict and Prince of the City are other examples). And he recognizes the satire of much of David Himmelstein’s script.

Gere is well-cast as the shallow media hypester, although he does less well with the character’s moral awakening. Gene Hackman does some tasty work as Gere’s friend/competitor. Kate Capshaw is attractive decoration as Gere’s assistant.

An irony surrounds the film that may or may not be apparent to the people who made it. Power is being marketed in just the way Peter St. John might market a film that was a hard sell. It’s a teasing, uninformative ad campaign that doesn’t really tell you what the movie’s about, but merely suggests something sexy and glittering along the lines of “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” (You know: “Power—the ultimate aphrodisiac.” That sort of thing.)

It’s the kind of aggressive slickery that, by rights, ought to make Lumet, Himmelstein, and co., just a bit queasy.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

It didn’t land like Network, that’s for sure. The political stuff looks like child’s play from a perspective 25 years on, and sort of looked like child’s play then. Karl Rove, where were you in ’86?