Owen Gleiberman
July 16, 1993 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In the Line of Fire

Current Status
In Season
Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Gary Cole, Dylan McDermott, Fred Thompson
Wolfgang Petersen
Jeff Maguire
Drama, Mystery and Thriller

We gave it a B

Anyone on the hunt for surefire movie concepts need look no further than IN THE LINE OF FIRE (R). Concept One: Clint Eastwood, grimacing in the name of justice, as Frank Horrigan, a veteran Secret Service agent who screwed up the day JFK went to Dallas and now, 30 years later, wants one last chance to protect his President-even if it means (especially if it means) throwing himself in front of an assassin’s bullet. Concept Two: John Malkovich, who has become a hammy master of the sardonic-oddball school, as a teasing psychopath who announces his plan to kill the President and lets everyone know he’s willing to die in the process. Concept Three: A plot that builds, with meticulously crafted tension, to the inevitable assassination attempt-a sequence so packed with split-second decisions, rapid-fire crosscutting, and heart-in-the-throat suspense music that the only way to watch it without your pulse rising is not to have a pulse in the first place. With all of that going for it, it’s hard to see how In the Line of Fire could be anything less than rock-solid entertainment-and, indeed, it is. Yet it’s never more than that. Though the movie is engrossing, it lacks something: fire, weirdness, originality. The director, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot), knows how to cobble a scene together, but he’s not exactly a wizard at pace. At times, Petersen seems to be aping the sleek existential doom of Oliver Stone’s JFK, but that was a dazzling labyrinth of a movie, one willing to open raw wounds. In the Line of Fire is just a moody popcorn thriller, and, what’s more, it seems almost completely derived from other popcorn thrillers. The main plot has the would-be killer, Mitch Leary (Malkovich), calling Horrigan on the phone-at home, at the office-to torment him. Calmly, in his slithery malevolent whine, Malkovich teases Horrigan about his dirty little secret. It seems that on Nov. 22, 1963, seconds after the first shot was fired in Dealey Plaza, Horrigan hesitated, out of doubt and fear, to leap closer to JFK’s car. If he’d acted decisively, maybe, just maybe, he could have blocked that second bullet. (Though presented as pure fiction, this struck me as crazier than anything I heard in JFK.) Having made Horrigan feel all vulnerable, Leary drops his big revelation: Since he himself is willing to die as a kamikaze assassin, and since Horrigan’s job depends on his absolute readiness to take a bullet, the two men, asserts Leary, are really the same. Even as Eastwood has been able to keep his hostile charisma intact, he has mellowed into the elder statesman of vengeful macho. Here, he turns in a less subtle version of his Unforgiven performance, passing off his squinty reticence as guilt. (You’d almost forget that Eastwood is a star because his characters get a sadistic charge out of killing people.) To its credit, In the Line of Fire squirms onto eerie psychological terrain: It gets into the suppressed neurosis-the morbid blend of nobility and masochism-at the heart of the Secret Service ethos. Yet the way most of this plays out feels flat and familiar. The whole notion of making the killer Eastwood’s doppelganger is lifted directly from his 1984 Tightrope, another film that paid lip service to dark inner states. Eastwood’s bantering romance with a feminist agent (Rene Russo) recalls his (platonic) sparring with Tyne Daly in The Enforcer. And Malkovich, enjoyable as he is, seems less a creepy, believable nut than a pure movie concoction, the latest arrogant psycho whispering midnight threats over the phone. The film takes Leary’s mastermindedness a little too much for granted. I never did understand how he keeps evading government phone taps, and though his photograph is finally distributed to agents everywhere, he is able to avoid detection simply by wearing glasses and a toupee. These sorts of plausibility issues hardly wreck a thriller-by now, we probably all expect them-but they cut down on our level of engagement. By the time In the Line of Fire is half over, you’ve settled back into passive, it’s-only-a-movie mode. A movie is all it is, of course, but this one would have been even more exciting if it had seduced us into forgetting that. B

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