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.


Black Moon Rising

April 4, 2011

Black Moon Rising is another movie in which a nameless government agency has hired a specialist to do its dirty work. If you believed every suspense movie that came along, that government agency must be full of thieves, spies and ex-cons by now. Which, come to think of it, may not be too far off the mark, considering the rash of espionage cases lately.

Be that as it may, at this point you can almost write this kind of movie yourself. The hero will be craggy-faced and silent, and he never makes mistakes at his specialty. Most important of all, he’ll be indestructible, which is key, since the bad guys will be shooting at him throughout.

His dialogue will go like this: “Just stay out of my way,” and “Don’t cross me,” and “The last time somebody tried that, they wound up (fill in the blank: dead, sorry, needing a new pair of hands, whatever).”

Well, Black Moon Rising takes this guy and makes him a bit more human. This is partly because the hero is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who lends a slightly off-center presence, and also because the film lets him be fallible.

His specialty is thievery, and that nameless government agency has him on the payroll so he can steal an important cassette tape. We never know exactly why this cassette is so important—it’s got something to do with testimony—but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. The only important thing is that Jones steals the cassette, then loses it, and he must steal it back in 72 hours.

He loses it by hiding it in a sleek experimental car (a speed machine called “Black Moon,” which runs on hydrogen) he happens to encounter. He plans to retrieve the tape later, but then the car is stolen by somebody else—another professional thief (Linda Hamilton, heroine of The Terminator), who drives it into a huge Los Angeles office building—a building that appears impregnable.

So, the final two-thirds of the movie is simply this: Break into the building and get that car outta there. That’s basic enough, and director Harley Cokliss generates some fun in the final break-in sequence. But overall, Black Moon Rising presents a curiously lame exercise. It’s curious because there’s nothing particularly bad about the film; it’s just tired.

This, despite the fact that the romantic relationship between Jones and Hamilton is pleasantly drawn (she’s every bit his equal, and engages in no damsel-in-distress whimpering). The supporting cast is eccentric, too: Bubba Smith as an agency operative, Robert Vaughn doing his evil routine, and Richard Jaeckel, Dan Shor and William Sanderson (the latter, a longtime offbeat character actor, recently came to cult fame as Larry on the “Newhart” show) as the owners of the cool car.

But Black Moon Rising never quite gets its engines revved properly. This might have been corrected if John Carpenter, who wrote the original story, had stayed on as director; but Cokliss lets the film run out of gas. Or hydrogen, as the case may be.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

That’s not the car in the photo up there; it’s just a car. Cokliss at some point change the spelling of his last name to Cokeliss, according to IMDb. There might be some significance to that. I remember this film sounded great in conception: Jones and Hamilton in a car movie written by Carpenter. I don’t see how that misses. And put those five supporting actors under Tommy Lee Jones’ command, add Lee Ving and Keenan Wynn (also in this movie), and you’ve got one crazy-ass Vietnam platoon picture.

Nate and Hayes

March 4, 2011

November. The word itself seems to encourage inactivity: it’s a fat, lazy month full of food and football, a languid lull before the storm of the holiday season.

Novemberitis has traditionally infected movie studios as much as anybody else; it’s usually a slack time for new movies, as distributors prepare to release all their blockbusters during the Christmas holidays.

This is the time of year when small, serious films find their way to movie screens. Titles such as Testament, Boat People, and Nicaragua: Report From the Front, have all appeared locally in the last fortnight. Ambitious films such as Bob Fosse’s Star 80 get their couple of weeks in the sun before the December onslaught.

But the studios can’t give the hungry public a steady diet of art films. Besides, there must be something offbeat sitting on the shelves, some weird little movie that didn’t seem releasable before; why not spring it on an unsuspecting nation during this slow November?

Maybe that’s what Nate and Hayes is. Believe me, I don’t know what other explanation to give. Nate and Hayes is this pirate movie, with Tommy Lee Jones as the swashbuckling “Bully Hayes,” whose real-life adventures are on vivid display.

Did I say real-life? Sorry. That could be misleading; nothing in Nate and Hayes comes close to resembling reality as we know it. But that’s okay; the idea here is to present non-stop action a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, not give a documentary account of the hardships of pirate life.

This Hayes fellow escorts a young missionary couple to a South Sea island. Later, when the girl is kidnapped by a band of marauders, Hayes helps the young hero recover the bride. Complication: Hayes loves the lass, too.

It’s the latest retelling of the 1956 western The Searchers, a favorite of young filmmakers for years (Star Wars was partially inspired by it). This time out, it’s done with jokes and acrobatics, and no time out for characterization or seriousness.

The surprising thing is that some of this is pretty enjoyable. The dialogue bulges with wisecracks, probably from the pen of John Hughes, who has scripted a lot of National Lampoon projects. And director Ferdinand Fairfax has given an appropriate flair to the cartoonish proceedings, especially during the exciting opening sequence, during which Hayes runs guns and trades one-liners with some unimpressed women savages.

So, great art it’s not. And it takes a long time in completing its 90 minutes of life. But, if I were a 10-year-old, I might find Nate and Hayes very easy to take, especially on a rainy November afternoon when there wasn’t much new on TV anyway.

First published in the Herald, November 17, 1983

No such dewy lyrical reflection on the attributes of November is possible today; if the Christmas season isn’t in full swing by November 10, something is very wrong in Hollywood. This odd picture is suspected by some IMDb posters as being the basis for the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean, but it seems more likely that both draw from the same generic well. I didn’t bother to mention that Michael O’Keefe, whose name actually sounds like a pirate, played the other title role in the film; this was just after The Great Santini and Caddyshack, so O’Keefe looked as though he might be turning into something. His next film was Richard Lester’s Finder Keepers, which memory tells me had its moments, but after that he turned into a working actor. I think the film’s original title was Savage Islands, and I remember thinking at the time of its release how lame a title Nate and Hayes was, a desperate attempt to make the movie sound like a buddy film (and giving the wrong guy top billing, too). The other funny note is John Hughes, still a year away from breaking through.