In the Line of Fire
1993, R, 128 min. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Starring Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Mahoney.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 9, 1993
The only thing “that's not gonna happen” (to quote the movie's catch-phrase) is box-office failure for In the Line of Fire. Eastwood's latest, in which he stars but does not direct, is a smart and absorbing contemporary thriller. His Frank Horrigan, a weathered Secret Service agent spackled with guilt(?), remorse(?), self-doubt(?), confusion(?) regarding his role in the 1963 assassination of JFK, is a classic creation. The script gets inside the little-explored personalities of those federal bodyguards sworn to throw themselves into the line of fire using their own bodies as shields against lethal force meant for another. Why was Horrigan slow to react that fateful day in Dallas? Fear? Indecision? Ineptitude? Shock? Thirty years later, it's still something of a mystery to Horrigan himself, though it's become the defining moment of his life. Despite all his training in preparation for that moment, when it actually came to pass, Horrigan could not believe that he was witnessing someone actually shooting the president. And with that naked truth now a part of his psyche, something within Frank died. Redemption only becomes a possibility 30 years later when an assassin's ready to try it again and involves Horrigan, whom he regards as a worthy opponent, in his demented cat-and-mouse game. The assassin's identity and whereabouts are revealed in gradual increments and the chase comprises the grist of the movie. Malkovich makes for a squirrelly villain with his constant appearance changes, psychopathology in extremis, and coy telephone calls to Horrigan in which he alternately goads, humiliates, intrigues and infuriates the agent. Despite Malkovich's chillingly deranged portrait of a rogue psychopath, the part may be a tad overwritten with his culminating phone calls articulating too much expository detail about the parallels between himself and Horrigan and leaving too little for audiences to conclude for themselves. Yet In the Line of Fire's familiar narrative touchstones are part of what allows the movie to succeed: the psychological similarities between the hunter and the hunted; the aging veteran whose body is no longer the reliable work tool it used to be; the maverick loner whose style and instincts rile both colleagues and superiors; the experienced old-timer paired with the green recruit; and the opposites-attract romance between Horrigan and agent Lilly Raines (Russo). Raines, herself, is an interesting portrait of a woman in a traditionally male job. The unlikely romance combines elements of classic movie repartee with modern feminist perspectives. (One of the film's funniest scenes involves the pair's initial attempt at sexual consummation which is preceded -- shades of Tightrope -- by the furious clank of mutual layers of protective hardware being shed.) After six months of watching one of the best theatrical trailers ever made for a movie, curiosity has been running high. Director Petersen (widely touted as the director of the claustrophobic German thriller Das Boot but also conveniently ignored as the director of American flops such as Enemy Mine and Shattered) has finally struck the American success he's worked for. Assistance from pros like director of photography John Bailey and music maestro Ennio Morricone doesn't hurt either. In the Line of Fire is a terrific action movie with good performances and a smart script that occasionally falters for trying too hard but, on the whole, takes us on psychological journeys that few of us have had opportunities to experience.