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THE PACKAGE – James Newton Howard


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Package was an enjoyably tense political action-thriller directed by Andrew Davis from a screenplay by John Bishop. Gene Hackman stars as a US Special Forces army sergeant named Gallagher who is tasked with transporting a deserter named Boyette, played by Tommy Lee Jones, from West Berlin to the United States to stand trial. However, Boyette escapes en-route, and Gallagher quickly finds that he is being used as a pawn in a larger conspiracy: to assassinate the president of the Soviet Union and ultimately stop a disarmament treaty between the United States and the Soviets from being signed. The film co-starred Joanna Cassidy, John Heard, Dennis Franz, and Pam Grier, and was in many ways a dry-run for The Fugitive, which director Davis would make four years later with many of the same cast and crew. The Package has many of the same plot points as The Fugitive – a prisoner who escapes from custody, action sequences in Chicago, a dogged and righteous law enforcement operative tracking him down – which makes it an interesting comparison piece to Davis’s great, Oscar-winning classic.

The music for The Package was written by composer James Newton Howard – who, of course, we all know was also retained by Davis as one of the key members of the crew for The Fugitive in 1993. The Package came at an interesting point in James Newton Howard’s career, as it was his last score of the 1980s, and the last score he wrote before he truly arrived on the film music A-list with Pretty Woman in 1990. It’s also an interesting score because, stylistically, it seems to act as a bridge between the synth-heavy action and thriller scores of the 1980s, and the more orchestral action scores that came to be a staple throughout the 1990s. It all starts with the crackerjack opening cue, “Main Title/Henke Arrest/The Chateau,” where Howard introduces all his central ideas. It begins with a low key brooding main title theme for brass, which is built around a recurring 4-note motif, but it gradually becomes larger and more imposing as it expands to encompass the full orchestra. Eventually it emerges into the first of the score’s numerous action sequences: precise, staccato rhythms that jump around from strings to piano clusters, all underpinned with snare drum riffs and pulsating militaristic brass. It’s exciting, energetic, vibrant, and thoroughly entertaining.

Counterbalancing these big orchestral action ideas is some coolly intelligent writing for 80s-style synths, tingly light electronics and pulses which create a sense of suspense and moodiness. Cues like “The Plot” are perfect examples of this style of writing; understated textures which have a subtle industrial sound and allow the music to adopt a dark, sinister tone. Later, cues such as “Police Chase Eileen in Garage,” “The Shoot Out,” “Gallagher to Eileen & Security Montage/Gallagher Taken Down Stairs,” and “Boyette Leaves Safehouse” blend the electro-acoustic drones with clear influences from rock and pop music; the repeated inclusion of electric guitars in the rhythm section is interesting, while some of the later cues are at times downright funky, especially when Howard makes use of intricate bass guitar figures, heavy timpani hits, finger snaps, and the unmistakable sound of the EWI Electronic Wind Instrument over a cool keyboard groove.

Several of the album’s middle-album cues are little more than exercises in low-key tension, and these are the portions of the score which tend to slow the momentum a little. While undoubtedly important in context, cues like “House Arrest,” “Gallagher Escapes House Arrest,” and “Richards Follows Gallagher/The Brass Arrives” are not very interesting from a musical point of view, comprising little more than moody orchestral chords, piano tinkles, electronic woodwinds, and metallic percussion. I do quite like the dynamic rhythms of the ‘hacking music’ in the 2-part “Computer Alert,” and the finale of “Richards Follows Gallagher/The Brass Arrives” re-introduces the 4-note brass theme from the opening title along with some militaristic percussion rhythms that give the whole score a much-needed kick in the pants.

Elsewhere, one-off cues like “Neo-Nazi Demonstration” augment the score with some funereal strings overlaid by dark brass, which become more intense and dangerous as the cue develops. Similarly, “Johnny Escapes Killer” cleverly uses an interesting technique for cymbal rings over a synth pulse and dissonant industrial textures, as well as a significant amount of explosive brass and throbbing percussion in the finale, amid a blast of darkly heroic strings.

However, as I mentioned, by far the most crowd-pleasing parts of the score are the moments where Howard engages in riveting, large-scale action, and as I am part of the crowd, I was pleased by them greatly. “Carlson Killing” is a brilliant early example of the style; rich, vibrant orchestral action filled with intensity and creativity. Howard allows the different parts of the brass to bounce off each other in interesting ways, sharp horns underpinned by low bass-heavy trombones, while he makes clever use of a harp, xylophones, and a dulcimer as part of the underlying percussion. The three-part “Chase” action cue is superb, another grandiose set-piece filled with flashing strings that play over a bed of energetically restless brass, churning cellos, electronic pulses, and snare drum percussion licks, interspersed with moments of brass heroism and clear references to the main theme. “Part 3” places heavier emphasis on piano in the percussion, and the strings seem to sound a little more elegant in places, but the whole thing is just outstanding.

A lot of this music forms the basis of the music that Howard would later refine and perfect in his subsequent action scores through the 1990s and early 2000s; you can clearly here the genesis of scores like The Fugitive, Falling Down, Outbreak, Waterworld, The Postman, A Perfect Murder, and many others, in the action music here. The Package was one of the first orchestral action scores of Howard’s career, and his style was clearly only just developing, but it’s always fascinating to me to hear the germs of such well loved works at this early stage: certain rhythmic ideas, certain instrumental combinations, certain chord progressions, certain touches in the phrasing and the voice leading, they are all apparent here as indicators of Howard’s signature style.

The two-part “Chase Finale” is more of the same, but it places a little more emphasis on the main title motif, and generally feels more heroic and intense. The echoing brass ideas – trumpets overlaying horns and trombones in combination at the base – and the whirling strings have a bit of a Michael Kamen Die Hard/Lethal Weapon sound to them at times, which leads me to wonder whether Andrew Davis used them as part of his temp track; it wouldn’t surprise me if he did, because Kamen’s sound was the gold standard for contemporary action music at that time. The score’s slightly sentimental finale, “You’re A Dead Man, Sergeant/End Credits,” offers some poignant and solemn writing for militaristic brass, much of which appears to be riffing on the main title motif. Warm strings, hopeful and resolute, eventually give way to an expanded reprise of the 4-note main theme before revisiting some of the score’s main action ideas as the end credits roll.

The soundtrack for The Package was not released at the time the film hit cinemas, and collectors had to wait almost 15 years for the music to emerge on CD; it finally came out in 2003 as a 2,500-copy limited edition from Belgian soundtrack label Prometheus Records, produced in a handsome package by Ford A. Thaxton with liner notes by Paul Tonks, although occasionally the sound quality does feel a little lacking in terms of the stereo quality. It has been out of print for many years, and physical copies go for fairly large sums on the secondary market these days, but it is available as a digital download, and anyone who is curious about James Newton Howard’s early forays into the action music style that would come to define a large part of his career would do well to check out The Package. It’s a smart, stylish action-thriller score that introduces the origins of many of his well-loved compositional tendencies, and is generally enjoyable on its own terms.

Buy the Package soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title/Henke Arrest/The Chateau (4:52)
  • The Plot/Carlson Killing (3:47)
  • House Arrest (0:56)
  • Computer Alert Part 1/Computer Alert Part 2 (3:36)
  • Gallagher Escapes House Arrest (1:38)
  • Police Chase Eileen in Garage (2:37)
  • Richards Follows Gallagher/The Brass Arrives (2:33)
  • Neo-Nazi Demonstration (3:39)
  • The Shoot Out (1:31)
  • Gallagher to Eileen & Security Montage/Gallagher Taken Down Stairs (1:55)
  • Boyette Leaves Safehouse (1:20)
  • Johnny Escapes Killer (1:45)
  • Eileen Answers Phone/Chase Part 1/Chase Part 2 (7:29)
  • Chase Part 3 (3:04)
  • Chase Finale Part 1/Chase Finale Part 2 (4:19)
  • You’re A Dead Man, Sergeant/End Credits (5:31)

Running Time: 50 minutes 32 seconds

Prometheus Records PCR-516 (1989/2003)

Music composed by James Newton Howard. Conducted by Marty Paich. Orchestrations by Bruce Babcock, Chris Boardman, Brad Dechter and Marty Paich. Recorded and mixed by Dan Wallin. Edited by Nancy Fogarty. Score produced by James Newton Howard. Album produced by Ford A. Thaxton.

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