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‘In the Line of Fire’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 09, 1993


Wolfgang Petersen
Clint Eastwood;
John Malkovich;
Rene Russo;
Dylan McDermott;
Gary Cole;
Fred Dalton Thompson;
John Mahoney
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Clint Eastwood is still cleaning the town of punks, varmints and career criminals. But in recent years, that head has become gray. The leathery skin clings even tighter to the skull. The furrows in his face could irrigate Death Valley. But this creeping, hoary condition has made things better. Even the most throwaway roles have become imbued with poignance. He's not just taking on opponents. He's fighting time itself -- the horrible softness of age. And he's doing it for us -- aspiring old farts all.

"In the Line of Fire," which has him huffing and puffing next to presidential limousines, is not a brilliant movie. But thanks to Eastwood, it feels like one. As Frank Horrigan, a veteran Secret Service agent in need of redemption, he's in effortless -- and touching -- command. Weathering the ravages of time, and the insults of young-lion colleagues, he means to catch aspiring (and taunting) assassin John Malkovich even if it kills him.

That, increasingly, is the point of this cat-and-mouse movie: Is Eastwood willing to take a bullet for the president? Can he put his life on the line? It's not the deepest thematic concern you ever saw on screen. But it's watchable, great fun. And while Eastwood toils and sweats in the acid test of his life, he still has the juice to joust with fellow agent Rene Russo.

Now working as a field agent, Eastwood has been haunted for 30 years by the JFK assassination -- a tragedy for which he feels responsible. As a young presidential bodyguard, he watched it all happen in a state of shock -- instead of diving in front of the Chief Executive.

Those memories are stirred up when Malkovich, excruciatingly aware of Eastwood's guilt, teasingly challenges the veteran agent to stop him from killing the president. For Eastwood, this is a psychic second chance. But Malkovich is a master of elusiveness and Eastwood, who has a habit of rubbing his colleagues (and presidential clients) the wrong way, keeps getting pushed away from the action.

As the movie progresses to its high-climax showdown -- when the president makes an election-eve speech in California -- things reach their predictable zenith of dramatic exaggeration. But Eastwood's so stately to watch, and Malkovich's so wonderfully over the top (imagine William Shatner playing Bruno in "Strangers on a Train"), you swallow all the implausibilities.

Malkovich, who leaves a trail of bodies as he stalks the president, likes to tantalize Eastwood by phone with new riddles, threats and pearls of wisdom. At one point, he tells Eastwood (whom he calls "Frank" with eerie familiarity), he shouldn't feel so bad about the JFK thing. After all, he asserts, Kennedy had a death wish. "His favorite poem was 'A Rendezvous With Death,' which is not a good poem, Frank."

We meet Eastwood playing undercover among a clutch of drug dealers. When things suddenly turn sour, Eastwood -- surrounded by three armed bad guys -- has to take evasive measures. "You're under arrest," he shouts. As the gunmen draw their weapons, Eastwood blows two of them away. He swings around to face the third villain, still struggling with his gun.

"And you're under arrest too," Eastwood informs him, just a tad redundantly.

Apart from its Hollywood requirements (screen psycho must be white and well educated, ending must be second -- in dramatic hyperbole -- only to the apocalypse, man must get woman, etc.), "In the Line of Fire" has an effectively low-key, conspiracy-thriller tone. Director Wolfgang ("Das Boot") Petersen concerns himself solidly with the psychological warfare between Eastwood and Malkovich, rather than razzle-dazzle, Blitzkrieg moviemaking. Another plus -- for locals, at least -- is the satisfying use of Washington, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (courting spot for Eastwood and Russo) to Adams-Morgan. I mean, there's Clint Eastwood waiting to be picked up by car and he's standing on 18th Street.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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