Movie review: ‘The Presidio’

A good murder-mystery film is only as good as two things: The story and the cast. “The Presidio” meets both of those and gets an additional boost from great filmmaking that brings together the great characterizations and visuals as only an excellent director can produce. “The Presidio” even tosses in a boy-meets-daughter of a hated enemy and (of course) falls in love and the stereotype ending you might imagine. So, you’ve got it all here plus the wonderful geography of San Francisco. Oh, yes, one of the headliners is the simply terrific Sean Connery while the other is the perennially underrated Mark Harmon with great supporting work by Meg Ryan and Jack Warden.

‘The Presidio’
(1988; 97 minutes; rated R; directed by Peter Hyams and starring Sean Connery, Mark Harmon and Meg Ryan)

LOVE, MURDER AND A VERY PERSONAL FEUD

(NOTE: I expanded this review with a little additional opinion and trivia and updating some links on Feb. 21, 2016. I further expanded the review on Aug. 3, 2019 with additional opinion and the updating of links.)

A good drama needs to be tight, focused and have a good story. In “The Presidio,” the story is plain yet sophisticated and layered and the energy between the main characters just crackles because of the talent brought to the table by Sean Connery, Mark Harmon, Meg Ryan and Jack Warden.

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While the top of the marquee for “The Presidio” borders on spectacular throughout most of the film, there is a steep drop-off after the first couple of supporting cast members and then the rest just become window dressing even before they’re off screen. Still, you could go a lot more wrong than watching this one again or for the first time.

The Presidio” starts off with the murder of a military police officer at the Presidio of San Francisco (it was an active military base until the 1990s and is now a joint public-private venture including a coastal area and is a National Historic Landmark) by someone looking for something in the base’s officer’s club. The murderers are chased into San Francisco before being in a fiery crash that brings the local police into the picture.

The homicide detective in charge is Mark Harmon, who plays “Inspector Jay Austin,” and he’s about to butt heads with Sean Connery as “Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell,” who is his former commanding officer and the reason he’s out of the military. The two are forced to join forces, especially after Harmon gets one look at Connery’s daughter “Donna Caldwell,” played by Meg Ryan.

From there, the audience is taken on twists and turns through the military establishment and San Francisco underworlds that culminate with toppling an international smuggling ring. The boy and girl fight – especially because of Dad – but I think you know how they wind up in the end.

  • An Oscar winner (not for this one), Connery is at his commanding best here. He’s tough, opinionated and truly enjoys ordering people around and pointing out their flaws. He especially enjoys teeing off on Harmon because he knows the younger man was wrong in the incident causing him to leave the service and uses every opportunity to remind him. Connery’s best scene is at a bar where his talk with Harmon is disrupted by an unruly patron – and Connery only has to use his thumb to put him in his place. He won for “The Untouchables” and Connery was spectacular as “Indiana Jones’” father in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and has also been “James Bond” (such as “Diamonds are Forever” – click here for my review … “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball”) as well as in “The Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review).
  • A three-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Harmon is very good here and his only flaw is that he often tries too hard … almost as if he’s trying to one-up Connery. However, that might only be when the director or screenplay backs him into a corner (such as his forced machismo in the squad room scene where he faces down a sleazy criminal). Still, he’s workhorse of the film and plays well off Connery with his feigned insouciance of the headliner. His best work (nearly Oscar-quality) was in the TV movie “The Deliberate Stranger” where he played serial killer Ted Bundy and earned one of his nominations and he is most recognized for being “Leroy Jethro Gibbs” on TV’s “NCIS” (another nomination) and has been in “Freaky Friday” opposite Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan.
  • A three-time Golden Globe nominee, Ryan is Harmon’s love interest here (or is he hers?) and is the dynamite that keeps exploding and maintaining a lack of balance between her father and her lover. Ryan, youthfully beautiful at 27 when “The Presidio” was released, does a good job and she just crackles with intensity with Harmon. However, her best scene is with Connery’s best friend to discuss both of her personal situations. Ryan has also been in and received her nominations for “You’ve Got Mail” (click here for my review), “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally…
  • The foundation of the film, its conscience and ultimately doomed character because of his failings is two-time Oscar nominee (not for this one) Jack Warden as “Sgt. Maj. Ross Maclure.” Warden is Connery’s best friend and only voice of reason and provides the balance Connery needs with Harmon and Ryan. He’s also in cahoots with the bad guys and has to finally face up to himself. Warden is at ease showing his talent here and is so much better than the dreck called “Dirty Work” (click here for my review) he did apparently only to cash a check. He has been in “All the President’s Men” (click here for my review) and especially good, too, in “While You Were Sleeping” (click here for my review). His nominations were for “Shampoo” and “Heaven Can Wait” and both with Warren Beatty. Warden died at 85 in 2006 of heart and kidney failure.

After Warden the supporting cast drops off fast.

  • Mark Blum plays “Arthur Peale” and is the main bad guy and Dana Gladstone is “Maj. Paul Lawrence” the military bad guy and nemesis of Harmon. Both are competent, but do not stand out far from the supporting crowd. Blum was “Sue Charlton’s” fiancée in “Crocodile Dundee” (really nice drunk scene with Paul Hogan there) while Gladstone has been in “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “The Star Chamber.”
  • Jenette Goldstein plays “Patti Jean Lynch” and is the MP who Harmon was once sweet on and is killed at the start of the film. You might recognize her as the foster mother of “John Connor” in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” or as heavy-weapons expert “Pvt. Vasquez” in “Aliens” with Sigorney Weaver (click here for my review). No, well what about as “Irish Mommy” in “Titanic?”
  • Don Calfa plays “Howard Buckley” and is the bad guy that Harmon over-plays a scene with at the beginning of the film. Calfa does his usual great job as a sleazebag, but only has a small part. I also liked his small role in “Weekend at Bernie’s” as a mob killer (click here for my review) and he was also in films as varied as “Return of the Living Dead” and “1941” and, in a very strange turn of events, currently has a coming acting credit in 2019 for a “post-production” of a film titled “Lewisburg.” It’s strange since Calfa died at 76 in 2016. Hmmm. Simply odd, I’ll opine. You might remember him from “The Star Chamber” or, best yet, as the voyeuristic neighbor in the classic comedy “10” with Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews (click here for my review).

The Presidio” isn’t the only film by director Peter Hyams that I’ve enjoyed. He has great credits from “The Star Chamber” with Michael Douglas and “Running Scared” with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines to the underrated but still treacle-infused “Hanover Street” with Harrison Ford and Lesley-Anne Down. Hyams knows filmmaking and makes sure “The Presidio” is top-shelf throughout. There are no letdowns here and it has to be at the top of his resume.

With this one, I have reviewed a film that should have ranked higher. “The Presidio” is much better than being the 48th ranked movie at U.S. theaters in 1998, according to Box Office Mojo. At least it beat out “Cocoon: The Return” ($18.9 million) and “Action Jackson” ($20.2 million), but it lagged far behind the year’s No. 1 film “Rain Man” with $172.8 million – and Tom Cruise, not Dustin Hoffman, should have gotten the Oscar nomination for that one. Here are the films from that year I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Harmon was brought in as a last-minute replacement for Don (“Miami Vice”) Johnson because the TV star had a scheduling conflict. Don’t get me wrong about Johnson, whom I believe does consistently good work, but he should never have even been in competition here. Harmon is simply perfect for the role.
  • Hyams has something of a trademark … he often has a character named “Spota” in his films. James Hooks Reynolds plays “George Spota” in “The Presidio.”
  • Kevin Costner was under contract to play the Harmon role, but backed out. He was in the “The Untouchables” with Connery. OK, unlike Johnson, Kevin might have given Harmon a run for his money.
  • Marlon Brando was reported to have turned down the role ultimately played by Warden. Although I certainly respect Brando’s talent, I don’t see him here at that point of his life. Actually, any point in his life for any of the characters.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The film’s director Peter Hyams was also the movie’s cinematographer, the picture being a rare instance in a major motion picture of one person performing both these duties. Hyams though, has performed both roles on a number of movies.”

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