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‘In the Line of Fire’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 09, 1993


Wolfgang Petersen
Clint Eastwood;
John Malkovich;
Rene Russo;
Dylan McDermott;
Gary Cole;
Fred Dalton Thompson;
John Mahoney
violence and language

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"In the Line of Fire," starring Clint Eastwood, is a thriller about the Secret Service, and if the real Secret Service is half as bumbling and moronic as the movie Secret Service, it's a wonder any president manages to live out his term.

Watching Agent Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) and his clutch of Keystone Federal Kops as they attempt -- against what seem to be easily surmountable odds -- to track down a brilliant but deranged assassin named Leary (played with spooky delicacy by John Malkovich) is like watching Barney Fife try to pull his revolver on the old "Andy Griffith Show." A dumber, more hapless group of incompetents is hard to imagine. And leading the bunch is Agent Horrigan, dinosaur and living legend.

And why does Frank cast such a giant shadow? Because he was there that day in Dallas in '63. In the car behind Kennedy's. And when the first shot was fired, he froze. He can't remember why, exactly. Maybe he was afraid of doing what his job demands -- which is, if need be, to sacrifice his life for the chief's. Maybe it all happened too fast and there was nothing he could have done. But when the moment came he wasn't up to it, and so here he is, the only active agent ever to lose a president.

Now that Eastwood has won his Oscar, there's an amusing notion making the rounds that the former cowboy actor is some sort of newly discovered Brando. In fact, Eastwood is what he has always been -- a great movie star with an extremely limited range who by sheer force of personality has carved out an enduring niche in our popular culture. If he is an actor at all, it is on the iconic level, in the tradition of a star like John Wayne or Clark Gable, who simply amalgamated each new character into the larger whole of his star personality.

"In the Line of Fire" works right out of the heart of that niche. Again, Eastwood plays the impatient individualist and man of action who hates the bureaucrats upstairs almost as much as he does the criminals he rounds up for them. Again, he is a cut-to-the-chase guy who gets things done, but also the perpetual insubordinate who spends half his time breaking every procedural rule in the book and the other half in the boss's office getting bawled out for something he's screwed up.

To his credit, Eastwood does throw himself completely into the role. He plays the Clint Eastwood character he's created for himself with the confident economy of a seasoned pro. The years have transformed his face into a magnificent object; it's still fun just to look at him and count the squint lines between his eyebrows. What he does only he can do, and he does it with the extravagant ease of a man who has completely come to terms with what has made him a star. And yet he's still secure enough in himself to risk humiliation by going against the audience's expections, as he does in several scenes here -- most notably the one in which he confesses, with quivering lip (And what's this? A tear, perhaps?) to his fellow agent and love interest, the model-actress Rene Russo ("Lethal Weapon 3"), about the burden of guilt he's carried around since that day in Dallas.

Most of his performance is still by rote, as is most of the plot. Working from the script by Jeff Maguire, director Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot") plods through the narrative as if he were completely unconcerned with giving it even a semblance of credibility. (Agents are always throwing up their hands after a failed phone trace and yelping, "Darn it, almost had 'im. He must be using some kind of scrambling device.")

And then -- one is tempted to say -- there is John Malkovich. Wearing a mind-boggling collection of wigs, fake noses, eyeglasses, beards and mustaches, Malkovich is his own traveling road company -- the man of a thousand disguises -- and, watching him, you get the feeling he's having a blast doing all this play-pretend dress-up stuff. It's a dream role for an actor, a really juicy villain, and Malkovich does such wonderfully unexpected things, especially with his line readings, that he leaves us dumbfounded. No other performer is more effortlessly unnerving than this perversely gifted actor.

Quite naturally then, the most interesting scenes in "In the Line of Fire" are those in which Malkovich appears, the best of which are Leary's needling chats with Frank on the phone in which the would-be assassin taunts his pursuer, riding him about his divorce and his drinking and questioning his courage.

"What do you see in the dark, when the demons come out?" Frank asks.

"I see you," Leary responds, "standing over the grave of another dead president."

As enticing as this showdown might sound on paper, in reality a healthy portion of the film is wasted as Frank and his partner (played, unremarkably, by Dylan McDermott) run up one blind alley and down the other. In addition, there's a good deal of stale flirting between Frank and Agent Raines (Russo), during which sparks doggedly refuse to fly. (Actually, Eastwood is at his disarming best while making these awkward, half-joking passes.)

But what sense can be made out of a film that tells us that the country is no longer what it used to be, that its flag has fallen, but then makes shameless use of footage from the famous Zapruder film, emphasizing the frames in which the president's skull is blown apart to get a cheap reaction from the audience? No matter how you slice it, that's cynical filmmaking, and much more in keeping with the moral decline it denounces than with the virtuous past it extols.

"In the Line of Fire" is rated R for violence and language.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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