Highly experienced and marvellously instinctive - he “knows pigeons” as well as he “knows people” - veteran US Secret Serviceman Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is a legend to his comrades. Not only is he tough, cool-as-a-cucumber, ruggedly dependable and somewhat irascible with his superiors (a Clint-character trademark, of course), but he is also the man who failed to take the bullet for JFK in Dallas all those years ago. Whilst nobody else would ever blame him for being unable to stop the notorious assassination, Frank still blames himself, and this guilt has been eating away at him ever since, haunting his dreams and forming a sediment of resentment within him that only a chance to redeem himself will cure. Not so much world-weary as he is cynically set in his ways, Frank is still a formidable agent as an early situation aboard a yacht populated by nasty armed counterfeiters proves, and when the past is brought shockingly back to harass him in the form of a deranged killer with intentions of eliminating the current President, it seems that chance of redemption has finally arrived.
The hunt for the taunting assassin, played by then-popular screen psycho John Malkovich as the devious and deadly Mitch Leary, forms the backbone of this taut 1993 thriller from Das Boot's Wolfgang Petersen. But the plot is not merely an excuse for Clint to indulge in some post-Dirty Harry gunplay, it is an opportunity to pit the craggy, grey-haired star against a set of circumstances that will expose his vulnerability, press on some raw nerves and push his iconic image into its own logical next stage of evolution, in ways not too dissimilar to his own Western-de-mythologizing opus Unforgiven. But, whist comparisons to Eastwood's previous tale about a seasoned professional with rather too many seasons under his belt, which was released the year before, are inevitable, In The Line Of Fire deviates a little in that Frank is striving to prove himself from the get-go, whereas William Munny is driven down that violent road once more with many shades of reluctance and only comes to enjoy reliving the glory days once he has been pushed over the edge and his own black soul has consumed his will one last unforgettable time. One the other side of the tracks, Frank's more modern hero needs the challenge; he needs to prove he can still do it - if only to himself - and this final shot, although literally dumped at his feet by Leary's obsessed killer, is virtually something that he has been longing for all these years. Although Leary, in one of his many phone-calls to Frank, claims that they are both flip-sides of the same coin, they are really two sharpened lines that have been on a collision course all their lives. Perversely, each may need the other to fulfil their destiny, but they are not quite the yin and yang of duty and obsession that Leary seems to think they are. At times, it seems almost as though Leary would not exist without Frank - at least, not quite in such a single-minded incarnation.
“I have a rendezvous with death, and so does the President, and so do you if you get too close.”
Eastwood does some unusual things with the role. Indulgently, he manages to get his character to be not only a lover of jazz - as he, himself, is - but also something of an ivory-tickler with a few evocative little interludes that allow Frank to relax at the piano. He was also able - and this is the clever thing, folks - to balance out the perennial curmudgeonly and sarcastic rule-bucking image that he has toyed with so often before by allowing Frank to be quite unashamedly witty and romantic, as well. He may still be barbed with the new upstarts on the block, or the annoyingly younger bosses who haven't been through what he has been through in the Service, but he has a delightfully relaxed attitude for much of the time that works well with the more paranoid and emotional elements of the character, rounding him out and giving him room to breathe. There is also a neat about-face from the father/son-like mentoring that he has doing with Dylan McDermott's much younger partner, Al D'Andrea, when he virtually ends up begging the more frightened novice, that he has chastised all too often, to stay on after one too many close-scrapes has gotten the better of ill-suited family-man.
But the romance between Frank and Field Agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) is unlikely. There is no getting away from that. Mind you, having said that, the two spark with an easy chemistry that aids their flirtatious banter and off-duty dalliances without appearing too forced or contrived and this goes a long way to making their bond, forged under duress, all the more acceptable. The inevitable love scene is also deliciously fended off when the “job” intervenes and Frank delivers a wonderfully sublime note of gravely frustration. This eminently likeable relationship serves to allow Clint the time and reason to invest his character's deep-seated trauma a little more overt screen-time. Never an actor to overplay emotions, Eastwood is able to elicit real gravitas with just the simplest of expressions and tones. We know that he is haunted by his inaction during the Kennedy-killing but a plot-fact that would almost certainly be rammed-full of unnecessary nuance and play-acted emotion by the vast majority of other actors is given a simple, understated and unembellished turn here that is, undeniably, all the more devastating because of such a low-profile delivery. The moment when he eventually comes clean to Lilly about that fateful moment is believably tender and very moving. With just a simple turning away to hide the tears in his eyes - a move that most other performers would make almost comical - Clint Eastwood drops the armour significantly and realistically reveals the damaged core of his character. It's simple, it's great and it shows why he has remained at the top of his game for decades. For her part, the luscious Rene Russo comes across well, if rather typical of the “strong woman moving in a man's world” vogue of unsubtle characterisation. This is not her fault, of course, Russo is a great actress. It is merely down the conventions of Jeff McGuire's screenplay and, to her credit, Russo allows a lot of warmth and intuition to flow through her erstwhile field agent and she certainly seems in control when leading close protection teams and authorising take-downs. But, as Frank, himself, remarks at one point in reference to female agents in general, she is merely set-dressing that McGuire has placed there. It is down to Russo that Lilly becomes much more than that.
“Do you make an effort to be obnoxious, or is it a gift?”
“It's a gift.”
Although a meticulous actor, John Malkovich is one of those people who can either enhance a film or bury it, depending on how you take to his richly idiosyncratic personality. Examples of the former would be Con-Air, Dangerous Liaisons or Being John Malkovich, whilst altogether too many movies fall into the latter category, with Eragon, Mary Reilly and Shadow Of The Vampire three to forget about. But he brings a formidable mania to the role of the assassin here and such an air of uncanny intelligence and conviction that he would receive an Oscar nomination for it. His character's use of disguise and the various bizarre looks that he carries off throughout the movie are significantly creepy. Hats off, then, to the hair-lipped, long-haired down-and-out shifting dumbly about across the street from a platoon of wheezing and perplexed agents who thought they had the madman bagged. His mannered and all-too-clever verbal probing of Frank over the phone - even though he knows there is always an audience tapped-into the call and fumbling about trying to trace him - is where his real menace lies and Malkovich is clever not to come over all Hannibal Lector about it, which would have been so easy a trap to have fallen into. Thankfully, to go hand in hand with all this manipulative scheming, there is also an alarming degree of violence inherent to his portrayal that makes his outwardly unassuming demeanour a weird mask to the evil lurking within him. With a penchant for neck-breaking that even Arnie's John Matrix would be impressed with and such an arrogant and unholy patience in continual taunting and intricate weapons-manufacture, it comes as a huge and heart-lurching shock when Frank is finally able to push his buttons and get Leary to lose his cool.
But if the three leads bring a lot more to their roles that what was written on the page, Dylan (Hardware/Hamburger Hill) McDermott, struggles to find anything more than a perfunctory depth to his on-the-edge agent. A couple of moments allow him to stretch - a tearful plea for the simple, safe life back home and a rooftop spell of redemption - but, on the whole, he plays it by the numbers which can't help but reinforce his lower-rung supporting man status.
“What to do you see when you're in the dark, and the demons come?”
“I see you, Frank. I see you standing over the grave of another dead president.”
Gary (Son Of The Morning Star) Cole and John (Frasier) Mahoney do well in their support roles that, on the face of it, are merely standard authority scene-chewing, although Mahoney's longstanding friend and boss to Frank is able to reveal a hidden layer or two without making it look at all contrived. Elsewhere, familiar faces keep cropping up. John (Cat People) Heard has clearly piled on a few pounds as a model car enthusiast; Fred Dalton Thompson finds himself at the mercy of nefarious plots and more aggravated law enforcement agents just like he did in Die Hard 2, and even Washington's Dulles Airport plays a part once more in some way or another; and then there is Tobin (Saw) Bell's brief appearance as a vicious counterfeiter on the boat near the start. Plus, it's somehow reassuring to see the ever white-coated Clyde Kusatsu as techie agent Jack Okura, who must have clocked-up more appearances in a crime science lab than Jack Klugman ever managed to do as Quincy.
“There's no cause left worth fighting for, Frank. All we have is the game. I'm on offence, you're on defence.”
“Well, when do we start playing the game?”
“The clock's ticking, Frank.”
Having Ennio Morricone score the movie is the icing on the cake and it supplies a neat joining of the cinematic circle that Eastwood had journeyed along up until that point, with the prolific and revered composer having provided the iconic music for the star's mythic Spaghetti Westerns right at the start of his rise to fame. He delivers a great score, too, upping the action and the tension and also bringing some truly moving sentiment to some of the more intimate, poignant moments. However, there is considerable similarity to his outstanding music for De Palma's The Untouchables - especially during the rooftop chase which, appropriately enough borrows heavily from an almost identical scene in the earlier movie.
In The Line Of Fire is a top-notch thriller, well-crafted and tremendously exciting. Wolfgang Petersen has always known how to layer on intrigue, build character economically and sustain tension. The exchanges between Frank and Leary are the undoubted high-points in the movie, their vocal sparring like an un-winnable game of chess. Both men know what the other is capable of and how much they have riding on it, how much pride is at stake and how far they must go in order to stop the other. Petersen's ability to ramp up the suspense during these scenes is second to none, and it is not all that surprising that the actual physical action comes up short in comparison to the psychological cat-and-mouse scenario around it. One bugbear is the sheer ludicrous number of times that Clint's character is named in conversation - the chief culprit being Dylan McDermott who doesn't seem able to say a line without uttering “Frank” at least twice in the middle of it. And even if some of the motivations and plot developments can seem either clichéd or a touch too airbrushed, the story hits the ground running and just rattles along from then on. I would question the fact that the Service doesn't actually tail Frank when they abundantly know that Leary is only ever a street away from him and watching his every move, but this is easily dismissible in amidst the barrage of cool one-liners from Clint and the constantly tightening atmosphere of fate and foreboding.
A great follow-on from Unforgiven, then, but also much more than that. Both films deal with men who have pasts that won't let them go until they have turned full-circle, and both contain explorations into hearts of darkness that reveal surprising textures along the way. It is clear that Eastwood had a lot of fun with this movie and this is something that you can't help getting infected by.
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