Used to be that all a hero needed to operate was a weapon, a partner and a code of honor, with maybe a good woman thrown into the mix. In these more uncertain times, however, a hero is hardly worth saluting without a villain of stature on the other side, standing mockingly in his path and matching him strength for strength.
And when the hero is played by Clint Eastwood, this requirement becomes even more critical. For Eastwood, no ordinary good guy, is a paradigm of virile qualities, a man who has been so invulnerable for so long he’s become a one-of-a-kind icon whose movies are built around him with all the care and discernment of a necklace fabricated for the Hope Diamond.
So with Eastwood starring as a veteran Secret Service agent in Wolfgang Petersen’s crisply entertaining “In the Line of Fire” (citywide), the key question is who gets to play the implacable assassin sworn to drop the President in his tracks. The choice was John Malkovich and it’s difficult to think of a better one.
It’s not just that Malkovich is an excellent actor with credits ranging from “Dangerous Liaisons” to “Of Mice and Men.” It’s the kind of actor he is, an Obie-winning veteran of the prestigious Steppenwolf Theater Company who is at home even on the stages of London’s West End.
With a background so spiritually different from Eastwood’s “Rawhide"/spaghetti Western origins, Malkovich makes the best kind of villain for this piece, providing the kind of intrinsically adversarial presence that James Dean, for instance, did for Raymond Massey in “East of Eden.” And Malkovich’s insinuating, carefully thought out delivery is in the same way an ideal foil for Eastwood’s bluntly straightforward habits.
Eastwood’s Frank Horrigan is not protecting anyone at first, he is working with partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) on the service’s anti-counterfeiting detail and taking less guff than anyone in the federal government. One night, called on to investigate a suspicious lodger, he and Al discover enough disturbing evidence to make Frank sure they’ve stumbled onto an executioner’s lair.
But not only has Frank recognized a potential killer, the killer has recognized Frank as well. For Horrigan is not just any Secret Service agent; he was John F. Kennedy’s favorite, on the scene in Dallas and traumatized from that day to this (and for all we know in a support group with Kevin Costner’s similarly disturbed “Bodyguard”) because he wasn’t able to stop the bullet that found the President.
All this comes out in a series of phone calls that the assassin, who airily asks to be called Booth (as in John Wilkes) because that man “had flair, panache,” makes to Frank out of sheer dark glee that this legendary agent is on his trail. “Going up against you raises the game to a much higher level,” Booth says in his oily, menacing way. “Fate has brought us together. I can’t get over the irony.”
Booth’s feeling of connection with Frank, his desire to simultaneously admire and taunt him, is the strongest point in “In the Line of Fire’s” script, which ends up giving many of its best lines to the predator. (It was written by Jeff McGuire on the suggestion of producer Jeff Apple, a Secret Service buff since he was a teen-ager whose continued fascination apparently led to extensive agency cooperation.)
More or less a genius of a hit man, master of weapons, phone trickery, disguise and no doubt much more, Booth is especially good at driving Frank crazy, messing with his head with all those needling phone calls. Hobbled by encroaching age, doubting superiors, pain-in-the-ass politicos who just don’t get it, even a bad case of the flu, Frank manages to get himself reassigned to the presidential protection detail and perseveres. Still smarting over Dallas, he knows that Booth is going to make a try at this President and he wants to be there when it happens.
Given that everyone in the theater knows the same thing, to say that director Petersen completely involves us in the action is saying a great deal. The first first-rank director Eastwood has agreed to work with in at least 10 years, Petersen (best known for the splendid “Das Boot”) brings many of the same qualities as Eastwood himself would to the project, including a lean, unadorned style, a concern with pace and an emphasis on keeping the audience intrigued. With his professionalism and his understanding of genre, Petersen is as good a match for Eastwood on his side of the camera as Malkovich is on his.
As for Eastwood himself, his laconic mastery of screen acting has become such a given that “Line of Fire’s” script feels free to have some gentle fun with his durable persona by having Horrigan claim “a good glare can be just as effective as a gun.” In truth, every part of this film trades so heavily on Eastwood’s presence that it is impossible to imagine it with anyone else in the starring role.
“In the Line of Fire” (rated R for violence and language) has also tried, with some success, to broaden Eastwood’s appeal, to make him less Dirty Harry and more Jimmy Stewart by entangling him romantically with a feisty female agent engagingly played by Rene Russo, who was similarly matched with Mel Gibson in “Lethal Weapon III.”
Eastwood, whose light comedy flair was evident as far back as “Bronco Billy,” is quite adept at the stretch, but unfortunately this May-December liaison is the least well-written and creatively imagined part of the story. We are patient through it all, however, because when the bullets fly, there is no one but Eastwood we’d rather see pumping them out for our side.
‘In the Line of Fire’
Clint Eastwood: Frank Horrigan
John Malkovich: Booth/Mitch Leary
Rene Russo: Lilly Raines
Dylan McDermott: Al D’Andrea
Fred Dalton Thompson: Harry Sargent
A Castle Rock production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Wolfgang Petersen. Producer Jeff Apple. Executive producer David Valdes. Screenplay Jeff Maguire. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editor Anne V. Coates. Costumes Erica Edell Phillips. Music Ennio Morricone. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Art director John Warnke. Set decorator Kara Lindstrom. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (violence and language).