In the Line of Fire (1993) / Thriller-Action
MPAA Rated: R for violence and language
Running time: 128 min.
Cast: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Mahoney, Jim Curley
Cameo: Steve Railsback, John Heard
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay: Jeff Maguire
Review published July 13, 2008
Acclaimed action director Wolfgang Petersen (Shattered, The NeverEnding Story) gets top notch performances from his strong cast, and an excellent Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Jeff Maguire (Timeline, Gridiron Gang), making In the Line of Fire one of the more exciting and engaging action-thrillers of the 1990s. Eastwood (Unforgiven, The Rookie) plays aging Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan, one of the agents present during the Kennedy Assassination in 1963, a moment he's never gotten over. Over the years since, Frank has diligently investigated many a kook claiming they want to kill the president, but he's stumbled on one he considers truly dangerous (Malkovich, Of Mice and Men), a madman with a knowledge of history and psychology, who is elated to have Frank get a second shot to stop a bullet for the President. They both get in each others heads, and under each others skins, in a game of cat and mouse that has killer and protector in a race to see who can get their prey first. However, Frank has his hands full trying to protect the President, who is behind with only weeks to go in the general election to determine f he'll get four more years in the White House, needing to be in public campaigning as much as possible.
Fantastic casting across the board is the film's biggest asset, as Eastwood and Malkovich make excellent foils in this twisty and riveting thriller. Malkovich in particular brings an intelligence and intensity to a multifaceted role that has him seeming like he likes and respects Frank for his diligent professionalism, keeping him alive just to be sure that, if anyone takes him down, it is him. And yet, he is dangerous and crafty, unstable to be sure, and though Malkovich isn't the likely choice for a heavy to counter Eastwood, once seeing the film, it's difficult to imagine anyone else performing better in the role. His work earned him his second Oscar nomination.
Eastwood, of course, is Eastwood, only a much more personable one here, showing us a softer side that has him playing jazz piano in bars, flirting with his new female colleague Lilly Raines (Russo, Lethal Weapon 3), and being a mentor for green new agent Al D'Andrea (McDermott, The Messengers). No one bumps heads with the top brass better than Clint, and though Malkovich gets the flashier of the two roles, one shouldn't underestimate the understated and subtle charisma of Eastwood's Frank as the protector who pushes himself to the limit to qualm his troubled soul. Eastwood pokes fun at his own age quite a bit, which alleviates the suspension of disbelief involved at seeing a 63-year-old actor playing a Secret Service Agent running along with a Presidential motorcade.
Old footage of Eastwood is used in flashback sequences which put the actor in the mix with old newsreel footage. Though it looks pretty fake, it does remind us that Eastwood has survived as an actor for several decades, and how the country has changed in those many years, even if he's always been Clint. Although the film is about a plan to kill the President, the film is decidedly apolitical. Malkovich's character, called Booth through most of it (alluding to the Lincoln assassin), goes forward with his threat due to the symbolic representation that the office holds and what it would mean for his reputation, in addition to the notion that somehow the country screwed with his head. Frank is willing to put life and limb on the line, repeating the phrase often about it being his job. The closest the film gets to commentary is when Frank reminisces about the day that Kennedy was killed, remarking that it was a different time and he was a different man, and the suggestion that Frank covered up Kennedy's extramarital affair on at least one occasion.
One could quibble that the injection of a potential romance is unnecessary in a film like this, especially in a film that discusses how Frank is married to his job, but in the end, Petersen does find a way to tie it in with the themes of the film. Though it passes the two hour mark, it's a brisk and always forward moving production that consistently delivers action, thrills, drama, and laughs in just the right measures. It also has a few deaths that actually have you feeling something for the victims, as the minor characters are given enough development for us to care, which does up the menace and desire to see Frank get his man. In the Line of Fire is very much in keeping with the nature of Eastwood's character -- efficient, professional, and though it's rather old-fashioned, it still has the good nature, energy and resolve to get the job done.
©2008 Vince Leo