'Power' failure At the end of Eastwood's latest, we're still in the dark

February 14, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Alas, there's nothing absolute about the power of "Absolute Power"; it's more of an electrical outage, a wan flicker of a movie that might have been.

This one had to go through three more drafts with at least three more writers before it could begin to shape up. Instead, it's a boggle of bad plotting, unmeshed tones, grotesque performances (and some very good ones) and an ending that seems more of a joke than a climax.

As good as Ed Harris and Scott Glenn are, and as iconic as Clint Eastwood is, the best performance in the movie is still delivered by Baltimore as Washington. What a nice town we have and how adroitly Eastwood captures its charms. It looks much better than the horror known as D.C., town of men in gray suits and little black pointy shoes, where you can never find parking, a public bathroom or a decent crab cake. The smartest thing about the movie is that more of it was shot here than there.

Eastwood, playing master thief Luther Whitney, happens to be burgling the secret vault of billionaire power broker Walter Sullivan the night that the industrialist's nubile young wife shows up, drunk, with an equally drunk Gene Hackman, who paws, strokes, brutalizes and ultimately begins to choke her. This guy has the sexual imagination of a serial rapist. She fights back, defends herself with a letter-opener, and is about to open his envelope permanently when he screams, two armed chaps kick down the door and blow her away. They decide to disguise the killing as a burglary, unaware that there was a burglary and it's still going on: Eastwood's Whitney has been sitting behind a two-way mirror through all this. He escapes but not before they realize he's been there.

The seediness of the sexual encounter is gratuitous, to say the least; but so is the next big plot twist, which I mention because millions will have read the David Baldacci best seller or looked at the ads in the paper or on TV: Gene Hackman, it turns out, is the president of the United States and his two gunsels were Secret Service agents. The bossy witch who took over and made all the decisions (the prez being too drunk) was his chief of staff, played at hysterical witch-pitch by Judy Davis, that hysteria specialist.

So much of the movie is a cat-and-mouse game, as all the president's men try to cover up the crime, Whitney tries to survive it, the cops try to solve it and the victim's husband (E. G. Marshall) tries to avenge it. Too much plot, too many players, not enough drama or clarity.

One idiocy follows a subplot in which Marshall hires a sniper to ambush Eastwood, whom he thinks is guilty (though how or why isn't clear). This leads to a ludicrous "double sniper" scenario where both this guy and Secret Service agent Dennis Haysbert fondle their .308s and go through all sorts of intimate gun love before canceling each other out because of ludicrous mischance. Then Sniper No. 2 simply disappears from the script, as if the subsequent pages explaining him were simply lost.

Ed Harris, as a D.C. police investigator, is very good, more or less the movie's moral center, though his sentimentalized affection for the old rogue Whitney is overmilked by William Goldman's thin script. The best performance is offered by Glenn as the head Secret Service agent, an ex-State cop of heroic accomplishment. Glenn seems to be the only adult in the cast, a man seriously troubled by the compromising situation his president has put him in. But his exit from the movie is another example of bad plotting: He's simply gone in a trice.

But as good as he is, Hackman and Davis are equally bad. Hackman's "President Alan Richman" is a thin concoction of hypocrisy and undisciplined lust, maybe a version of the least impressive aspects of Bill Clinton but made so brayingly shallow here that he never comes alive. Davis is simply alarming in her Kabuki makeup and black lipstick; she looks more like Alice Cooper than Dee Dee Myers.

And the movie feels so Hollywood-fake: Marshall shows up at the White House and the security staff -- consisting of one guy reading the newspaper -- says, "Oh, go on in, no appointment necessary."

As for Eastwood, possibly he was so busy trying to figure the script out to direct it, that he didn't have much time to think about his performance. It's standard stuff, mostly glaring face work, the squinting and the low, raspy voice that feel wrong for a professional more akin to the elegant expert thief of the sort Cary Grant used to play. And there's a lot of thoroughly ridiculous disguise twaddle. Supposedly a master of changing appearance, when he puts on a beard, he's Clint Eastwood with a beard. Sometimes he's Clint Eastwood in sunglasses. Or Clint Eastwood in a hat. Silly, silly, silly, but not as silly as the people who'll pay to see it.

'Absolute Power'

Starring Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Released by Castle Rock

Rated R (sexual violence, profanity)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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