In the Line of Fire

Cast: Clint Eastwood, John Malcovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, John Mahoney, Fred Thompson, Gary Cole, John Heard
Screenplay: Jeff MacGuire
Director: Wolfgang Peterson

"I have a rendezvous with death," Mitch Leary, a one-time assassin for the CIA, tells secret service agent Frank Horrigan in explaining why he intends to assassinate the president of the United States. There is wittier dialogue in In the Line of Fire than Horrigan’s response to Leary’s explanation, but this exchange probably produces the biggest laugh, coming, as it does, after numerous frustrating phone conversations between the assassin and the aging, no longer sure-footed agent. The self-doubting Horrigan had yet to have a face-to-face encounter with the eerily calm Leary, so an explosion of temper is long overdue.

Directed by Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot) from an original (and Oscar nominated) screenplay by Jeff MacGuire, In the Line of Fire once again finds Clint Eastwood playing the kind of role he seems to have favored since hitting the big 6-0, that of a man agonized by self-doubt, tormented by guilt, and seeking redemption for past sins. In Unforgiven, Eastwood’s William Munny was a hardened alcoholic killer who had found peace with the world but not his conscience after settling down to raise a family. Following his wife’s death, he is lured into one more killing strictly for the cash which Munny, struggling to support two children and a failing pig farm, desperately needs. The decision to return to his old ways, if only for one financially induced killing, does not come easy. Munny ponders his past, is ashamed of "the terrible things (he’d) done," and tries, futilely, to convince himself that his present mission does not represent a backward step in a direction he hopes he abandoned years before.

In the Line of Fire’s Frank Horrigan is a secret service agent who, twenty-nine years earlier, had been assigned to protect President Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. Still active in the service but no longer assigned to such a sensitive detail, Horrigan remains haunted by the belief that, had he acted sooner, he may have been able to save Kennedy. His marriage and his confidence crumbled under the weight of his guilt and, now, with the current president the target of death threats, he insists he be assigned to protect him. It is not an impulsive decision. Having been called to search an apartment in which the occupant has constructed a shrine to assassinations of the past, Horrigan is observed through the window by the obsessed Leary who recognizes the agent from photographs and proceeds to telephone him, taunting him with his murderous plans and intimations that the agent may lack the conviction, or the courage, to take a bullet for the president he was sworn to protect. Horrigan suspects that Leary may have assessed him accurately but is determined to prove him wrong. Leary needs less convincing than Horrigan’s colleagues, however, most of whom think he is burnt out or, at the very least, "too old" for such an assignment. His younger, arrogant superior (Gary Cole of TV’s Midnight Caller) smirks with satisfaction at the sight of Horrigan huffing and puffing as he runs alongside the president’s limousine and, in one amusing scene, the exhausted agent is the butt of a joke involving an EMS crew.

As Horrigan, Eastwood is in exceptional form, pursuing his younger colleague (Rene Russo); serving as a fatherly mentor to his young partner (Dylan McDermott); trading barbs with the president’s chief of staff (Fred Dalton Thompson) who sees him as over the hill and barely competent; and, of course, playing a sinister cat and mouse game, usually as the mouse, with the dangerous Leary. As Leary, John Malcovich, appearing in the most unabashedly commercial movie of his otherwise "arty" career, is charmingly demented, conveying just enough humanity to explain why he can be so disarmingly likable when leading Horrigan on their chase, but not so much that he conceals the cold-hearted workings of a twisted mind. "I can hide my eyes," he says after an angry Horrigan tells him he can identify him and make him pay for his deeds. "You can’t hide what’s behind them," Horrigan replies, and watching Malcovich’s hauntingly dead stare, you know what he means.

The rest of the cast, including Frasier dad John Mahoney (and, in a cameo, John Heard) is fine, with former model Rene Russo particularly noteworthy. Whether confidently giving as good as she gets in her verbal exchanges with the bumblingly flirtatious Horrigan, or offering sympathy to the insecure agent, she displays beauty and intelligence in ways that Sharon Stone, who rejected the role on the grounds that it was "nothing," could never convincingly manage. The only debit of this suspenseful thriller is the surprisingly undistinguished music score by the normally masterful Ennio Morricone whose work here could have been handled by dozens of less talented composers. While Clint Eastwood’s performance shows that the actor has developed his talent since the days of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Morricone’s work in the past decade (The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in America), has yet to approach the imaginative scores he wrote for those long ago spaghetti westerns. The best one can say about the thumping music in In the Line of Fire is that it is so unmemorable, it can be forgotten even as one hears it.

In the Line of Fire, like The Fugitive which followed it into release in the summer of 1993, is smart, funny, wonderfully acted and directed, and has just enough depth to prevent it from being written off as just an "action movie." Eastwood and company are too savvy for that, too respectful of the audience to do what other action movies do too often: string together some car chases and wild stunts, then bury the characters in mindless violence. In the Line of Fire has violence, all right (though, mercifully, not a single car chase), but it has characters you believe and actors with enough character to portray them believably.

Brian W. Fairbanks

© Copyright 1999, Brian W. Fairbanks. All Rights Reserved.

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