Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"In the Line of Fire" (1993)

"In the Line of Fire" (1993)
Starring Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich and Rene Russo
Written by Jeff Maguire
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

One of these days, I'm going to have to apologize to my father.  Growing up, he tried numerous times to convince me that Clint Eastwood was worthy of his Hollywood legend status, and as my father's own favorite actor.  But my dislike of the Western genre and dismissal of the "Dirty Harry" films as dated and slow meant that my realization that Eastwood truly is one of the all-time greats would have to wait until I was ready to appreciate it.

What Eastwood lacks in range, he makes up for with pure intensity.  Though he may continually play similar characters over and over again throughout his career, from the Man With No Name to Dirty Harry or even Walt Kowalski in "Gran Torino," the man simply knows how to layer on a performance, and pour charisma directly onto the screen.  "In the Line of Fire" sees him take on the role of Frank Horrigan, an old-school Secret Service Agent who failed to protect John F. Kennedy in Dallas on that fateful day.  In the present, Horrigan is a lonely man who gets by listening to jazz and playing piano while breaking in his young, hotshot partner (Dylan McDermott).

One day, while investigating one of the hundreds or thousands of death threats against the President, Horrigan stumbles into "Booth" (John Malkovich), a genius psychopath who latches on to Horrigan and makes his attempt to assassinate the President into a game of the deadliest order.   Horrigan fights bureaucracy and his own aging body to track down Booth (who taunts him relentlessly over telephone).  Horrigan also finds himself drawn closer to a fellow agent, Libby Raines (Rene Russo), who also finds herself inexplicably attracted to Horrigan despite being much younger.  Each of them is damaged, but they find solace in each other and in their commitment to "the job."

There are a number of ancillary characters, but the truth is that the only two who matter here are Horrigan and Booth, and Eastwood and Malkovich deliver in spades.  Their numerous telephone confrontations might seem dull on paper, but on screen are delivered with crackling intensity.  These two actors throw themselves into their parts, and the result is electrifying.  By the time their final conversation plays out, the two have learned so much about each other and become so close as to almost actually be friends (despite each man hating the other).  Throw in a few tense chase sequences, and "In the Line of Fire" becomes an almost utterly fascinating thriller. 

The problem is that aside from that relationship which is beautifully rendered, the rest of the film is somewhat cliche-ridden, and a bit hollow.  Other agents don't believe that Horrigan's claims about Booth are to be taken seriously, Libby's character is barely fleshed out as anything other than as a romantic foil for Horrigan, and I'm not even sure the President even gets a name other than his codename "Traveler". 

Wolfang Petersen directs steadily, but without a lot of the energy he brought to his more absurdly enjoyable (but intellectually thinner) "Air Force One."  The action sequences don't have quite the same pop as in that film, whether that's the fault of a lesser score (Jerry Goldsmith's work on "Air Force One" is a brassy, obvious score but still ranks as a favorite of mine) or editing (pacing in the climactic action sequence of "Air Force One" is damn-near perfect), I can't say.  Still, there's nothing wrong with "In the Line of Fire," on a technical production level - aside from the score. Frankly, I didn't like it; it was atonal and grating, and seemed entirely out of place.  It's strange to say, since it was the work of cinema master Ennio Morricone, who delivered many amazing and now iconic scores (especially "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, arguably Eastwood's most famous film role).

In the end, it's really the interplay between Eastwood and Malkovich that make "In the Line of Fire" work as well as it does.  These are two actors who give fabulous, intense performances, and Malkovich was deservingly nominated for a number of awards, including the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his role.