Cover Story

The Touch of Evil

John Malkovich: ''In the Line of Fire'' -- The actor plays an assassin in the new Clint Eastwood flick

Once again John Malkovich found himself peering over the edge. It was the last day of shooting on the Clint Eastwood thriller In the Line of Fire — a brisk, bright January afternoon in Los Angeles. Director Wolfgang Petersen was completing a harrowing rooftop chase scene, most of which he had shot four months earlier in Washington, D.C.

The rooftop had been reconstructed on an empty lot for the scene's climax, in which Malkovich, a would-be assassin, snatches Secret Service agent Eastwood by the wrist, saving him from a seven-story fall and bringing hunter and hunted face-to-face for the first time. Under the glaring California sun, Eastwood dangled by one hand, cocking his gun with the other. The camera rolled as Malkovich stared down the barrel of Eastwood's gun. Then, much to his colleague's surprise, Malkovich veered from the script, leaned forward, and took the gun barrel in his mouth.

It may be the film's creepiest moment: Malkovich — willfully, defiantly violated by his adversary's weapon — stares the old man down. ''I liked it because it was kind of mocking and sort of sexual,'' says Malkovich in the same quiet, even voice that tortures Eastwood in the film. ''It's so kind of Jeffrey Dahmeresque in a way.''

As for Eastwood, he was used to Malkovich's kinky work habits by this point. What the audience doesn't see as Malkovich fellates the gun is Eastwood's face cracking into a laugh, like a nice piece of distressed leather.

''It's so sick, it's so weird,'' says director Petersen. ''Only John can come up with something like that.''

Since it opened July 9, In the Line of Fire has put $54 million into the coffers of Columbia Pictures, giving the studio a healthy summer tan following the pallid returns of Last Action Hero. It offers the steely appeal of Clint, a whiff of pathos from Dylan McDermott as one of the assassin's victims, and a tingling of romance generated by Eastwood's love interest, Rene Russo.

But the movie belongs to Malkovich as the angry and wily assassin Mitch Leary — the scariest, sleekest badass since Hannibal Lecter. His smile twirls at the tips, like Dali's mustache. His eyes lunge at each other while his hairline retreats. Taunting Eastwood through a series of nightmarish phone calls, he drips sarcasm and arrogance into the line, and somehow lets the audience in on his jokes.

Behind this bad guy is an arch-chameleon who has graced his film roles with both insidious comic timing and seething, volcanic rage ever since his 1984 big-screen appearance as a photojournalist in The Killing Fields. He has also stepped into the guises of a blind boarder (Places in the Heart, 1984), a pretty-boy robot and its creator (Making Mr. Right, 1987), a shady POW (Empire of the Sun, 1987), a lascivious French aristocrat (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988), a clown (Shadows and Fog, 1992), and an erstwhile cannibal (Alive, 1993). Next up: Kurtz in TNT's Heart of Darkness, coming in January. And there are unconfirmed reports that he's neck-and-neck with Robin Williams for the role of the Riddler in Batman III.

Yet In the Line of Fire was an unlikely choice for Malkovich. Despite an Oscar nomination for Places and more mass acclaim in Liaisons, he has usually walked away from big studio films. He rejected a chance to play the Sheriff of Nottingham role ultimately taken by Alan Rickman in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and turned down the opportunity to work with Eastwood in the 1983 Dirty Harry sequel, Sudden Impact. He would have passed on Fire if two other films — one about a homosexual murderer, the other about 19th-century French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud — hadn't fallen through.

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