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MOVIE REVIEW : Slickness Fortifies ‘The Presidio’

Midway through “The Presidio” (citywide)--a skin-deep thriller about a compromised murder investigation on San Francisco’s bayside military base--the film makers stage what they probably regard as a touching little scene.

It’s an apparent respite from what they’ve been pouring on before: the wild car chases up and down hilly streets and slam-bang runs through Chinatown with people diving headfirst over cabs. A scene where the actors can play with their warmer, shaggier sides. Sean Connery and Jack Warden--a splendid pair, who deserve much better than movies like this--are Presidio Provost Marshal Alan Caldwell and Sgt. Major Maclure, old buddies and Vietnam vets. While Maclure makes droll feints with a whiskey bottle, Caldwell tortuously weaves an inelegant metaphor about America being like a big fancy house and the two of them being like old unappreciated Doberman pinschers.

The scene is poorly written--relentlessly under-felt and over-calculated--and what makes it stand out is the backdrop. Caldwell and Maclure are sitting on a rooftop at night, over an urban skyline like a dark fishnet full of neon diamonds. They’re not in a bar or a room--and, if they were in a cab, like Brando and Steiger in “On the Waterfront,” someone would probably dive headfirst over it and splatter on the street. Even the “quiet” moments here have to be super-spectacular, saturated with danger and glamour.

Too much danger and glamour may dull your senses or make it hard to appreciate intimacy. That’s what happens in “The Presidio.” It’s an ultra-slick, ultra-flat movie that cuts like a cellophane knife. No edge, no blood.

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The movie gives us another inter-generational battle--this time between a feisty old regular Army pit bull, Caldwell, and a brash young civilian police pup (Mark Harmon’s Jay Austin), who gnaw at each other during an inter-jurisdictional murder investigation--a tussle inflamed by Austin’s pursuit of Caldwell’s raffish daughter Donna (Meg Ryan).

It’s a would-be moral fable interspersed with profanity and gunfights, a post-Vietnam conciliation saga. The rebellious, testy Austin is shown that there are men of honor within the establishment--the “old boy’s network” that punished him for sticking to his guns after arresting a drunken, abusive colonel.

Now, years later, when the same drunk is seemingly involved in a Presidio-based murder, an elaborate mechanism of moral reckoning wrenches creakily into place. It’s hardly surprising that the villains are CIA-connected, or that Austin is a hip guy who can trade Grateful Deadhead banter (“It’s mellow! It’s intense!”) with a Jerry Garcia-loving secretary. It’s not even surprising--if we remember that director Peter Hyams and Connery collaborated on the “High Noon"-in-outer-space saga “Outland"--when Connery walks into a bar and a brawl erupts with bearded hooligans.

Supposedly, the crux of the drama is the tinderbox alliance between Caldwell and Austin--and between Caldwell and Donna. But the two halves of the story seem to be unwinding on different tracks. The murder investigation might be stretching over a few days, while the romance races quicksilver through developments that ought to take months. After a lightning flirtation and a thunderbolt sexual initiation, Jay and Donna are soon seen strolling in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, haltingly defining their relationship. (“I-uh-really care about you.”) Almost immediately, instant jealousy and table-slamming fights erupt. But we know we’re seeing yuppie love at its most intense: the kind of passion that should be consummated in a Camaro, over pina colada Popsicles.

Screenwriter Larry Ferguson takes short cuts everywhere, and Hyams, who works as his own cinematographer, gives it an inch-deep visual style. Stuck in this flatbed, the actors try to jam up bits of personality through the cellophane. Usually, all they can work up are a few smiles and crinkles.

Harmon, an engaging actor, can probably blame the script that he comes across here like a prom king with Clint Eastwood fantasies. But, from Meg Ryan--who had a great breakthrough role this year as the druggy Circe in “Promised Land"--this part is a retreat. She’s back in Top Gun Land, scrunching her nose like Melanie Griffith’s naughty little sister--all sparkle, tawny legs and golden wriggles--playing scenes that look like animated wall posters.

That leaves Connery and Warden--two great movie actors, stuck on a rooftop chewing up that Doberman pinscher metaphor like two disgruntled dogs working on a polyethylene bone. Perhaps their dilemma defines what’s happened to many of their generation’s actors: waiting for enough time between the second car crash and the third massacre to bite off a little humanity, gristle and grit.


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