'In the Line of Fire' stands with the best assassination thrillers

July 09, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

You thought "Jurassic Park" was about dinosaurs? "In the Line of Fire" is the great dinosaur movie of the summer: It's about that most ancient and near-extinct of beasts, the hero who places his life on the line out of a sense of duty, honor and country.

And at the same time it represents another vanishing species: the Hollywood thriller crafted brilliantly, tight, logical, completely believable and yet emotionally resonant. It's certainly the best movie of the summer.

It's also Clint Eastwood's best movie as an actor since -- well, since Clint Eastwood started acting. His Frank Horrigan, a magnificent creation, is a lion in the winter of age and in the winter of his discontent. He's a Secret Service agent with a past: he was the No. 1 boy oh so long ago in a different world, in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. A rifle was fired. He had 5.6 seconds to get from where he was to where the brainshot would hit. It was within his powers to do so. Obviously, he didn't make it.

So Eastwood stalks about like T. Rex, his demons dancing visibly behind his eyes, his commitment to duty nearly as intense as his confusion about a world that's changing rapidly as he tries to, but cannot quite, adapt. This makes him a thorny problem for his younger superiors and an intriguing enigma to agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo). But his partner (Dylan McDermott) knows the truth: Frank may be old and politically incorrect, but he's the flat, cold best.

And he'll have a chance to prove it. In the fall of 1992, during a heated presidential election, another lone gunman is going hunting. The difference: This one's no screwball with a mail-order rifle and a four-buck Japanese scope, but a pro: an ex-CIA cowboy with a fund of endless bitterness and the technical resources of a Steven Spielberg. Played with preening intelligence and a core of steel-will violence by John Malkovich, Mitch Leary is very bad news indeed.

In fact what's so engaging about the movie is the infinitely textured relationship between these two archetypes. When I heard that Malkovich was playing this part, it irked me that such a great actor would go slumming like John Lithgow in "Cliffhanger" or James Earl Jones in "Conan the Barbarian." But Malkovich brings his considerable intellect to bear on the part: He's like a fallen angel, a Lucifer, himself once a member of the choir who has toppled so far that only the vilest debauchery can express his rage. Yet he's drawn to Horrigan, whom he acknowledges as a member of the same killer elite. The two of them are like Ahab and the whale or Holmes and Moriarty: They need each other to define each other.

Thus "In the Line of Fire" joins a great tradition of cat-mouse assassination thrillers, such as "Rogue Male," "The Day of the Jackal," "The Eye of the Needle" and one or two others I could name. Like its distinguished predecessors, it gets the details right. The script, by Jeff Maguire, pays attention, and the Secret Service's enthusiastic cooperation has helped provide a technical milieu of great authenticity, as it re-creates the culture of Protection Details working their craft at the very highest level. One small touch will show how much care has been taken. For years movie makers have been blithely using "plastic guns" as a plot device for defeating metal detectors, forgetting of course that the bullets that such plastic guns would carry are still metal. But "In the Line of Fire" deals with this issue in a solid, creative, low-key way, getting the metal bullets around the detector, rather than through it.

The script also pays attention to emotional details: All the "business" -- the subtext of jokey, needling banter between actors -- works and each of Frank's relationships -- with Russo and McDermott, with Gary Cole as his immediate boss, with John Mahoney as the head of the outfit -- has a vivid, amusing texture. We feel lives really being lived, relationships awkwardly growing by fits and starts.

The director is Wolfgang Petersen, famous for "Das Boot" and, since he moved to America, nothing. He's another dinosaur who won't die; he hasn't worked at this level since he surfaced. The film reminds me a great deal of Fred Zinnemann's low-key and brilliant "Day of the Jackal": there's no sense of phony heat, as extra-narrative devices like visual pyrotechnics, thumping music or Cuisinart editing schemes are deployed to make the piece more frenetic. It just builds, relationship by relationship, detail by detail, clever stroke by clever stroke, taking you in and making you its own. It ought to wear a sign: Danger. Professionals At Work.

MOVIE BOX

"In the Line of Fire"

Starring Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Released by Columbia

Rated R

*** 1/2

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