There is a lot of smoke but virtually no fire to Peter Hyam’s The Presidio (1988), a diamond-smuggling caper thinly disguised as a military ‘who done it?’ and costarring Sean Connery with Mark Harmon riding shotgun. One is playing the part of a man; the other is the real McCoy. I will leave it to the first time viewer to deduce which is which. Difficult to say where the bulk of the blame for this misfire should reside – in Larry Ferguson’s tragically flawed screenplay that introduces then jettisons key characters without so much as a ‘huh? What happened?’ or in Hyam’s rather pedestrian handling of the story – such as it is. The Presidio is a story that could have been told anywhere – and in fact, is – once the initial set up of a murder on that famed San Franciscan military base is dealt short shrift, culminating in a particularly exhilarating car chase down the steep and rolling inclines, ending with a thoroughly implausible and very fiery crash.
But blowing things up doesn’t make for great storytelling, and this we quickly realize once we’re introduced to police detective Jay Austin (Mark Harmon); a Johnny Dollar without a clue who disarms Howard Buckely (Don Calfa) a whacked out druggie inside his precinct after Howard has already knocked a fellow officer unconscious and stolen his gun in an attempt at escape. Regrettably, ‘butch’ isn’t Harmon’s bag. He’s more petulant than pugnacious, less interested in getting to the truth than being right all the time. That sort of egotism gets tiresome fast – particularly when the actor playing the part doesn’t really buy into it either. Ego would work if Jay wasn’t so insincerely obtuse to just about everything that’s going on around him. At one point he tells Connery’s Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell, “How am I supposed to know about that? That’s classified military s_ _ t!” True, but Harmon is playing a detective, remember? Someone who should be more on the ball, have instincts of his own and powers of deduction at the very least; doing something more than begrudgingly riding the coattails of a man he so obviously despises.
Harmon doesn’t do the ‘tough guy’ thing well at all and increasingly he just seems to be sulking and skulking rather than sleuthing and deducing. By the time Jay has figured out diamonds are being smuggled in bottled water shipments from the Philippines, Caldwell’s already connected the dots and so has the audience – having been tipped off by Hyams’ direction – thus making Jay look even more sloppy and incompetent. Perhaps ol’ Jay’s been thinking with his other head – the one currently being turned and polished by Caldwell’s daughter, Donna (Meg Ryan). But this ‘good cop/great sex’ subplot doesn’t enhance the story. Instead, it divides the film’s runtime and our interests along two competing storylines – one a would-be cloak and dagger thriller/the other a syrupy soap opera – neither narrative bloodline converging until the proverbial clichéd Hollywood happy ending.
At the start of his investigation, Caldwell informs Jay that he’s been cut some slack to play out his ‘Dirty Harry’ knock-off – a telling bit of exposition that will continue to inform our understanding of just how idiotic and out of his depth Jay Austin is; his sledgehammer approach to police work so archaic that it borders on a short man’s complex run disastrously amuck. Where to begin? Well, I suppose at the Presidio on a foggy night when Patti Jean Lynch (Jenette Goldstein), a former lover of Jay’s assigned base patrol stumbled upon a jimmied door at the Officer’s Club and decides to investigate. Bad luck all around that she bursts in on something we never get to see and takes a pair of slugs in the chest for her efforts. Enter Jay, tricked out in his baseball jacket, snakeskin boots and blue jeans, looking more Bull Durham than Dirty Harry as he struts past the crime scene and into a confrontation with Caldwell. We learn that Jay used to be a cadet but left the military under a cloud – one that continues to loom between him and Caldwell.
Given their mutual animosity and Jay’s thorough lack of investigative prowess (he literally shows up, has words with Caldwell, then goes home without even looking for clues), Jay thinks better on his haste, or perhaps realizes he needs Caldwell’s help, and shows up at his home the next afternoon. Caldwell’s out but his daughter, Donna is definitely in. The flirtation between the two is mutual, obvious and so formulaic that there is never any doubt Donna and Jay will become lovers. The shock of it is perhaps just how quickly they get around to sweating up the sheets. Moments before Caldwell comes home Jay asks Donna out. She eagerly accepts. Caldwell tells Donna he doesn’t want her to get involved. A snappish father/daughter scene ensues before Donna runs off to meet Jay for dinner. But only moments into their rendezvous she suggests they just cut to the chase and have great sex.
Another spirited car chase: this one as foreplay with Donna driving like a fiend and damn near causes two, three car pile ups in the downtown sector. The couple reunites in front of Jay’s apartment. He’s all set to give her a piece of his mind. Only that’s not the piece Donna’s particularly interested in; knocking Jay back against the trunk of her vintage Corvette, tearing open his shirt and attempting to take him right then and there. Disgruntled sex in public places isn’t really Jay’s thing. So he carries Donna, who has straddled his waist, up a steep incline of stairs to his apartment, momentarily dropping his gun, then reaching for it with a pair of handcuffs loosely dangling from his fingertips – Hyams’ ultra-feeble attempt to foreshadow a kinky consummation yet to follow. Flash forward to their post-coital embrace; Jay’s eagerness to know more about Donna met with a sudden, inexplicable reticence that it will take Jay the rest of the movie to decipher. Horizontally he may be a very fast worker, but he’s very slow on his feet.
Aside: I’ve always found the American film industry’s aversion to the sex act rather intriguing. We’re okay with gratuitous foreplay, hot sweaty kisses and flashes of bouncing breasts barely sheathed in tight-fitting cleavage-exposing outfits, but when it comes to actual penetration its every voyeur for himself. Personally, I don’t think the sex act has any place in legitimate Hollywood movies. You want flesh? Watch porn. But we’re all adults beyond a PG rating and we know damn well what goes on between a heterosexual man and a woman left to their own accord when the sparks of mutual attraction ignite. Given the film industry’s obvious desire to go that extra mile in ‘show and tell’ it’s always baffling that after the big build up the camera blushes to a jump cut exposing nothing except the aftermath, and, in The Presidio’s case, not even successfully but in front of the clichéd roaring fire; that universally accepted movies’ Freudian code for illicit hot-blooded passion.
The real plot advances – barely. We learn that Jay and the late Patti Jean were once partnered MPs; Caldwell their superior who did not back up a bust Jay made of Colonel Paul Lawrence (Dana Lawrence). Jay’s ego was bruised then and he decided to get a discharge rather than put in the good fight. But now the murder investigation has come full circle to Lawrence when Jay discovers Patti Jean was killed with a Tokarev – a rare Russian pistol Lawrence claims he lost in a poker game. Jay also traces the stolen car used in the police chase to an importer/exporter named Arthur Peale (Mark Blum). Sizing each other up, Jay’s investigation of Lawrence is impugned by Caldwell while Lawrence’s questioning of Peale is cut short by Jay, the latter claiming that he ran a background check beforehand. “I don’t like him, but he’s clean!” Jay admits.
The handling of these scenes is so perfunctory in its ‘round up the usual suspects’ that we really are given nothing more than cardboard cutouts to go on. Nothing adds up and the clues – such as they are and have been presented – become frustratingly dull and rather inconsequential. We toggle back to the romance between Jay and Donna – playful until she learns Jay has begun to have genuine feelings for her. Whoops! That’s more reality than our nymphomaniac had planned on. Instead, Donna sets up a dinner at the Officer’s Club, spending most of the night in other men’s arms and causing the jealous Jay to insult and then assault one of the military on the dance floor. It all makes for a very lovely ‘mine’s bigger than yours is’ scene, indeed.
Meanwhile, recognizing that part of his case is under Caldwell's jurisdiction, Jay begrudgingly lets him in on the case. Caldwell takes notice of some Vietnam paraphernalia in Peale's office and through his connections identifies Peale as former CIA; a spy who was in Nam at the same time Lawrence was there serving as an officer. It now becomes quite clear to Caldwell – although arguably no one else - that Lawrence and Peale knew each other. In the meantime, Jay decides to confront Lawrence about the Tokarev after ballistics match a slug taken from the Presidio’s firing range to another dug out of Patti Jean – both belonging to Lawrence’s presumably ‘stolen’ gun. Another fight, another chase – this one on foot through the twisted streets of Frisco’s Chinatown and pretty much distilled into Lawrence throwing roadblocks in Jay’s path (everything from vendor’s clothing racks to the vendors themselves) in a ridiculous escape attempt that ends with Lawrence becomes the victim of a hit and run; Jay left bloody-lipped but otherwise unscathed to incur Caldwell’s wrath.
Caldwell confides specifics of his investigation to an old army friend, retired Sergeant Major Ross Maclure (Jack Warden), who presently gives grade-school tours of the Presidio's war museum. We learn that Maclure saved Caldwell’s life in Nam and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor extraordinaire. In the meantime, Caldwell and Jay both come to a similar conclusion; that the purpose for the break-in at the Officer’s Club was to retrieve a bottle of natural spring water delivered earlier that day by mistake. The pair tracks down George Spota (James Hooks Reynolds), the delivery man who Caldwell remembers served under Lawrence in Vietnam and Jay, upon tracking Spota to his home later on discovers the same car – newly spray-painted and parked in Spota’s driveway - that ran Lawrence down during their foot chase.
As the plot begins to thicken (or rather congeal) Caldwell ties Spota to the Black Mountain natural spring water company owned by Peale. After tailing Spota on his deliveries, Jay and Caldwell find themselves on Travis Air Force Base where Spota exchanges one of Black Mountain’s bottles for another that has just been flown in from the Philippines. What occurs next is the feeblest of tie-ins between Spota, Lawrence and Peale; the three involved in a diamond smuggling enterprise, the hot ice virtually invisible in the water. On one of these routine water runs Spota accidentally delivered the bottle containing the diamonds to the store room of the Officer’s Club at the Presidio. When he figured out his error he went back after hours to retrieve it, broke into the club, but was ambushed by Patti Jean whom he had no choice but to kill.
Caldwell and Jay quietly observe as Maclure drives up to the Black Mountain Co., thus providing the necessary linchpin in the caper; Mclure’s overseas contacts the perfect cover for the smuggling operation. But Maclure has had a change of heart. He attempts to hold Peale and his men at gunpoint but is knocked unconscious. Just then Caldwell and Jay break into the bottling plant setting off its security alarm. In the resulting chaos and gunfire Peale and his men are assassinated in true clichéd Hollywood style and Mclure dies heroically, attempting to do the right thing. Caldwell asks Jay to bury his report on Mclure until the military can afford him the proper burial. Caldwell’s tearful eulogy brings him a penultimate realization; that there should never be secrets between the people one truly loves. Thus, Caldwell buries the hatchet with Jay and Jay and Donna are reunited, the trio strolling hand-in-hand past the cemetery markers.
The Presidio is perhaps the pluperfect example of a terrible idea made even more inarticulate and silly in its execution. The last act is over the top, so woefully mismanaged in its ‘showdown’ scenario – with Peale and his battalion of gunmen suddenly appearing out of nowhere, toting semiautomatic weapons inside the abandoned spring water manufacturing plant. Ferguson’s screenplay is a mishmash of regurgitated action sequences from other movies loosely strung together by a thoroughly confusing set of circumstances that, in the end, are rendered to an even more oblivious conclusion. The transitioning of Caldwell and Jay from tempestuous adversaries to buddy/buddy crime solvers, both with an invested interest in Donna’s ultimate happiness, is too easily resolved. Ditto for Donna’s resistance to Jay on the grounds that she is afraid to let anyone near for fear of being hurt; a thoroughly flawed premise given its thirty-second due in a scene where Donna bitterly accuses her father of driving her mother away.
But the real problem with The Presidio is that the film has absolutely nothing to do with that famed military outpost for which the movie has been named. Hyams opens the movie with a travelogue of San Francisco under the credits and thereafter takes us on a Cook’s tour of that city by the bay. It all looks very appealing, stylishly lensed by Hyams too. A lot of movies use location to the advantage of their story. But Hyams choices seem to be merely based on looking for interesting things to shoot. Whether or not they are in service to the story is an entirely different matter, and arguably, The Presidio could have been shot anywhere and still have functioned as a modestly entertaining, though hopelessly flawed action/thriller.
The toggling between the Jay/Donna romance and the central detective plot is problematic in that no parallel is ever drawn between these two scenarios except that Donna is Caldwell’s daughter – hence, generating some mild familial friction. But Ferguson’s screenplay never competently weaves together these various narrative threads. Instead, everything’s compartmentalized; the net result being that whenever Hyams tires of one plot point he simply switches to the other, the ping-pong effect growing more dull and obvious from moment to moment. There’s also an unintentional soap opera quality to the romance; very Dynasty/Dallas in its clichéd emotional unhappiness all too easily resolved in the final moments of our story.
It is difficult to fault Meg Ryan or Sean Connery or even Jack Warden for their roles. Each makes the most of what they’ve been given even though it ain’t much! But Mark Harmon’s performance is a hurdle that arguably is never overcome. He’s sluggish and ineffectual, his Jay Austin swagger far too rehearsed and reaching; harboring an insecurity that is perhaps more a part of Harmon’s own failings as an actor than it has anything to do with subtext belonging to the character as written. He’s out of his league and depth next to Sean Connery, whose cache as James Bond has dogged his reputation as an actor ever since. But it has also served Connery’s post-Bond career particularly well, informing the audience that he is a man of decision and action; someone who can handle himself in any situation.
The movie’s opening sequence, where Jay confronts Howard at the precinct is screenwriter Ferguson’s misguided attempt to show Harmon as a tough guy who doesn’t need to use force to diffuse a potentially volatile situation. It sort of works, except that the rest of the film negates this character trait by presenting Jay Austin as a loose cannon with a very short fuse – a man who carries his grudge against Lawrence like an elephant and who isn’t afraid to accost a military man in the middle of a dance hall just to prove he’s swinging a rather large pair between his legs. Unfortunately, Harmon remains cocky and brash and rather befuddled; his interaction with people exploitative and never going beyond the necessary machination of the plot. We never get any real sense of who Jay Austin is, except to say that even Mark Harmon isn’t quite certain. Again, that might work for a younger man in a coming-of-age story. The Presidio demands more of Harmon, however. Whatever that is, he remains grossly inadequate to deliver.
The Presidio arrives on Blu-ray via Paramount’s arrangement with Warner Home Video. While Paramount is still responsible for the mastering efforts, their usual attention to perfection seems to be lacking herein. The opening credits are softly focused, as are a good many of the scenes that follow. Having never seen The Presidio during its theatrical run I am unqualified to comment whether this is in keeping with the way the film originally looked in projection. But it does seem as though undue DNR has been applied throughout this transfer. Fine details never pop as they should and infrequently colors appear more muted than vibrant. Overall, the image just looks off, never achieving that ‘wow’ factor we have come to expect from hi-def. Take the scene immediately following Caldwell and Jay’s first meeting with Peale in his office; the image suddenly appears quite blurry and slightly out of focus as Connery and Harmon walk back to the car. Is this a fault of the original film elements or a flub in the video mastering – I cannot really say in good faith. My vote is for the latter, however, given that The Presidio was a big-budget/high concept production afforded all the luxuries in expenses to make it at least look good. The 5.1 DTS is fairly aggressive, particularly during the action sequences, although on occasion dialogue seems to be presented at a lower than adequate listening level. The only extra is a badly worn trailer. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)