Andrew Davis, director of one surprisingly great Chuck Norris film (Code of Silence) and two of Steven Seagal’s best efforts (Above the Law and Under Siege), made two films that contained the story beats of a typical ’80s action flick in a much more subdued, realistic fashion. One is probably his most well-regarded work, 1993’s The Fugitive. The other is the much less well-known The Package, a Cold War relic that packs a satisfying punch despite its relative lack of action.
Gene Hackman stars as Johnny Gallagher, a Green Beret tasked with transporting a soldier (Tommy Lee Jones) back to the U.S. for a court martial. The soldier escapes, and Gallagher quickly discovers the soldier assumed the identity of a different man. However, Gallagher himself gets arrested for losing his “package,” which hinders his quest to track down the soldier and learn his true agenda. With the help of his lieutenant colonel ex-wife, Eileen (Joanna Cassidy), Gallagher escapes from military custody and tracks the unknown soldier to Chicago and quickly unravels the plan: he’s a hired assassin who needed to get into the U.S. without a passport to carry out his mission—the assassination of the President.
Here’s where the Cold War politics enter into it: the President and the Soviet General Secretary intend to sign a treaty at the site of the first nuclear reaction, the University of Chicago. The treaty will ultimately lead to total nuclear disarmament on both sides. Mysterious forces within both the U.S. and Soviet militaries don’t want this treaty to happen. Gallagher, Eileen, and ex-Green Beret-turned-Chicago cop Delich (Dennis Franz) work together to unravel this conspiracy and find the soldier—eventually identified as Boyette—before he can carry out his plan.
Like Above the Law, The Package seeks to expose corruption within the U.S. military. This puts it at odds with the majority of thrillers at this time, which painted our military as unstoppable badasses. Portraying the Army as a vast, complex organization that contains some heroes, some villains, and a hell of a lot of people occupying a tricky gray area instantly makes the film more compelling than one might expect from a Cold War thriller. Obviously, because it’s a movie, the heroes prevail, but Davis and screenwriter John Bishop never make the story as black-and-white as, say, The Delta Force.
Davis’s directorial restraint is the film’s biggest strength. From a story standpoint, The Package could have easily starred Seagal and featured long gunfights, big explosions, and trademark aikido beatings. Everything about the story screams, “Big, ballsy action movie.” Instead, Davis eschews the big spectacle in favor of quiet character moments. For instance, an early scene in which Gallagher and Eileen reflect on their divorce casts a strain over their relationship throughout the rest of the movie. Moments like these lend credibility to the outlandish conspiracy plot, giving it almost a Day of the Jackal docudrama feel.
That’s not to say the movie lacks for action. It’s fairly subdued, but it does have some well-choreographed stunt sequences—car chases, shootouts, a few explosions here and there. However, the focus on characters over squibs lends authenticity even to these sequences. In addition to that, Davis—a Chicago native—has a keen eye for the details of our miserable winters. The streets and alleys are not thoroughly plowed, causing the cars to fishtail awkwardly on turns and fail to stop. It lends the action sequences a believable sloppiness.
Davis takes full advantage of his superior cast. Hackman and Cassidy do great work at creating their uneasy relationship. Hackman plays a tough guy with more conviction than Stallone or Schwarzenegger. His menacing glare can strike more fear than all the chiseled biceps in the world. Cassidy manages to find the vulnerability in a stoic, career military woman. Although everyone in the cast does a solid job, the most noteworthy supporting players are Franz as a cheerful family man and John Heard playing a huge douche-nozzle (who, not surprisingly, plays a key role in the conspiracy).
The Package may seem like an artifact of a forgotten war against a forgotten enemy, but the skillful direction and great acting allow it to transcend its era. It remains a suspenseful, well-crafted thriller.