by Anthony King
San Francisco has long been one of the most photogenic cities in the world. Bullitt, 48 Hrs., Dirty Harry, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Maltese Falcon, The Rock, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and countless others have showcased the picturesque city and its abundance of hills. Those hills feature prominently in numerous police and crime movies shot there, namely those mentioned previously. And in my opinion, there is no better city in which to film a car chase. Or a foot chase, for that matter. The Presidio (1988), from director Peter Hyams, is just as much a movie starring San Francisco as it does its fabulous cast of name brand actors.
As with many movies filmed in San Francisco, The Presidio opens with several beautiful shots of what people have come to associate with the city: the bay, streetcars, the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and finally landing on The Presidio, a military base that was converted to a national park in 1994. The movie follows a police investigation into the murder of a military policewoman (MP) who was shot on the base. Mark Harmon plays Jay Austin, a detective for SFPD and former MP. He has to join forces with his former commanding officer, Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell, played by Sean Connery. Sitting between the two hard headed men is Caldwell's daughter, Donna, played by Meg Ryan, who Austin pursues as a romantic interest.
On the other hand, the brick that is Det. Jay Austin is quite complimentary to the effulgence of Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell. For one, we're talking about the original James Bond. Connery will forever be associated with the words “cool” and “swagger.” He could read nutrition facts in the natural foods aisle at the grocery story and still exude icy-hot charisma. Therein lies the unique formula Peter Hyams achieved that hasn't quite been achieved to this day. In a typical buddy cop movie, you have two completely different but boisterous personalities. In The Presidio, though, you have one giant personality and one non personality. (I love you MH.)
This is an oft-forgotten '80s cop movie, and that's a shame. Along with the three previously mentioned superstars, you also have Jack Warden, who is always a welcome face and voice. And, of course, the city, to which I will now return. Many movies feature car chases through San Francisco's famous streets and steep hills in broad daylight. What I love about The Presidio is that its opening sequence features a riveting car chase through the overgrown and canopied side roads of the Presidio before emptying out into the hilly wilds of the urban landscape at night. It's one of the great San Fran car chases that is almost never mentioned. The other brilliant showcase for the city is an impressive foot chase through Chinatown. Austin is running after a suspect through alleyways, crowded sidewalks, the ubiquitous kitchen/restaurant, and finally crashing through a window and spilling into the street. The most impressive feat, though, is a shot of Harmon running over a line of cars before diving and bellyflopping (!) onto the roof of one (you can see it in the trailer). He may not have personality, but his stunt work is impressive.
I know it seems like I've ragged on this movie and its star a lot, but I really do love it and him. The Presidio is an underrated and underseen '80s cop movie. Everyone knows the poster but hasn't watched the actual movie. Take the time to celebrate 1988 and Mark Harmon's (non) charisma this week.