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'Absolute Power' Shortage

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 14, 1997

  Movie Critic

Scene from this movie

Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood;
Gene Hackman;
Ed Harris;
E.G. Marshall;
Laura Linney;
Melora Hardin;
Scott Glenn;
Dennis Haysbert;
Judy Davis
Running Time:
2 hours
Under 17 restricted

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"Absolute Power" is a hoot, a riot, a kick in the funny pants. Unfortunately, these are not qualities you seek in a Washington conspiracy thriller. After an intriguing beginning, Clint Eastwood’s latest movie -- which he co-produced, directed and stars in -- devolves into such utter ludicrousness, the best response (other than avoiding the thing in the first place) is to laugh.

In the film, which William Goldman adapted from the David Baldacci bestseller, Luther Whitney (Eastwood) is a master thief whose checkered past includes imprisonment for his thievery and military decorations for action in Korea. We meet him as he prepares for his last job, a painstakingly orchestrated burglary in the mansion of Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall).

But Whitney is totally unprepared for what transpires. After filling his bag with jewelry from Sullivan’s secret vault, he hears voices. Retreating into the vault and closing the entrance, he realizes that the room looks into the master bedroom through a two-way mirror. Whitney is forced to witness a secret liaison between Sullivan’s inebriated wife (Melora Hardin) and an equally soused gentleman -- played by an actor who’s very familiar to us. It’s not long before we learn the significance of this character’s identity. But in the interests of this movie’s fig-leaf twist, it’s better not to disclose too much.

The seduction turns ugly. The man gets too rough. There’s a struggle. When she grabs a letter opener to stab him, gunshots ring out. The woman is dead. Whitney watches with mute horror as two men, accompanied by a stern woman, emerge to mop up the evidence. When they leave, Whitney picks up something they forgot -- the bloodied letter opener! -- and makes off. But the killers catch him making an escape. Whitney reaches his parked van in time, but the pursuers note down his license plate.

When he’s chased by Secret Service agents Bill Burton (Scott Glenn) and Tim Collin (Dennis Haysbert), Whitney realizes he’s dabbling with higher powers. He also learns that Sullivan is a chum of the president (Gene Hackman). Now in danger, he keeps clear of homicide inspector Seth Frank (Ed Harris playing Ed Harris), who’s convinced that Whitney witnessed the killing. But the burglar’s attempts to keep in touch with his estranged daughter, Kate (Laura Linney), make him relatively easy to trace.

That’s about as clear as I can make it without giving the game away. But boy do things get dumb, especially when "Absolute Power" reveals its boneheaded punch line.

Linney’s role as Kate is clearly a formulaic attempt to personalize Whitney and give us a special reason to root for him. And her character’s romantic development with Inspector Frank is even less credible. The picture is full of unintentionally hysterical lines: "Know this," says agent Burton to a White House superior (Judy Davis, whose reason for appearing in this film is one of the bigger mysteries). "Every time I see your face, I want to rip your throat out." The only saving grace is Eastwood-the-actor, who has a peculiar ability to glide through the worst of films with his granite-hewn dignity intact. When Seth Frank corners Whitney at a cafe counter and suggests that he pulled off the robbery and getaway, the screen veteran looks at him with a steely glint of innocence. "If I could do something like that," he declares, "I’d be the star of my AARP meetings."

ABSOLUTE POWER (R) — Contains sexual situations and violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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