Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood) is the king of thieves. A master of disguise and a wizard of detail, he's the kind of ace criminal magician who slips in and out of locations with ghostlike stealth. There are moments, though, when even the perfect crime can go awry. Trying for one last big score before he slinks into retirement, Luther breaks into a mansion outside Washington, D.C., enters the closet vault, and is sweeping through drawers of jewelry and cash when he overhears voices. Locking himself in the vault, he stares out from behind its one-way mirror and suddenly finds himself playing voyeur to a scene of tawdry intrigue.
A beautiful young woman (Melora Hardin), slatternly and drunk, enters the room and flirts with her middle-aged lover (Gene Hackman). Their lewd gamesmanship soon turns sadomasochistic, then brutal. Moments later, the woman is dead killed not by the lover (though he looked more than ready to do it) but by his mysterious wired-for-communication associates. And why, exactly, is Clint scowling? Does he know these people? If you want to experience the central plot twist of Absolute Power, an inside-the-Beltway thriller written by William Goldman and directed by Eastwood, I advise you to read no further. For I'm going to reveal that Hackman is playing...the President of the United States.
By now, the movies may have taken us into the White House once too often. (Even Beavis and Butt-head got the grand tour.) Adapted from David Baldacci's best-seller, Absolute Power begins on a note of entertainingly far-fetched hubris a crook, through sheer happenstance, learns that the leader of the free world is a violent, perhaps homicidal sleazebag and then metastasizes into rank implausibility. Luther escapes the crime scene clutching a key piece of evidence, a letter opener with the President's blood on it. But his dreadful knowledge makes him a marked man. If he cooperates with the police investigator (Ed Harris), he'll be making himself vulnerable to the President's protectors a pair of ruthless Secret Service agents (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) and a fanatically loyal chief of staff (Judy Davis), all of whom were there at the crime scene. Then there's the victim's husband (E.G. Marshall), a billionaire businessman whom the movie, in a ludicrous fit of contradiction, presents as a dirty old man angelically in love with his slut-doll wife (and, what's more, as a benign philanthropist who wants to put a hit out on her killer).
If Luther's superstar-criminal credentials were dramatized instead of merely asserted for us, perhaps he'd be more exciting to watch. But most of his tricks quicksilver escapes, costume changes happen off screen. We're more aware than ever that Eastwood, at 66, is too old to be playing a conventionally invincible action hero. Still, that hardly explains why he's directed Absolute Power with so little of his usual craftsmanly precision. When he stages a ''dazzling'' set piece, like the one in which Luther sits at a cafe with the rifles of two hitmen trained on him, the scene is all setup and no follow-through; you can feel the suspense going up in a hail of bullets. Absolute Power is glum and depersonalized, as if Eastwood couldn't muster the energy to guide us through this maze of improbable twists. Scene after scene hinges on a character's knowing something he couldn't possibly (why does Haysbert's agent look for the letter opener in the exact spot where Luther found it?) or on the film's forgetting its own rules (how does Luther exit his daughter's apartment when he knows she's under police surveillance?). And when Hackman and Davis talk strategy through gritted teeth while dancing a far too grandiose pas de deux at a White House ball, the movie passes beyond ineptitude and into Naked Gun camp.
Hackman's Alan Richmond is obviously meant to be a hyperbolic takeoff on Bill Clinton and his fabled promiscuity. But there's something garish and degrading about a thriller that's this lip-smackingly eager to transmute sleaze into murder. Nothing that happens in Absolute Power is very believable, and the luridness and slapdash plotting seem outgrowths of the same reductive sensibility. The movie could almost be the pulp-thriller equivalent of one of David Brock's liberal-bashing ''exposes'' (The Real Anita Hill, etc.) It's so intent on tearing down people in high places it can barely be bothered to get its facts straight.