February 2021

In the Line of Fire (1993)

DIRECTOR: Wolfgang Petersen

CAST: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, John Mahoney, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson


As a teenager, Jeff Apple was fascinated by the Secret Service agents protecting President Lyndon Johnson during a motorcade.  Twenty years later, now a successful film and television producer, Apple began to research the agency for a feature film.  In 1990 he assigned the script to novice screenwriter Jeff Maguire, whose script was later sold to Castle Rock Entertainment.  The end product, starring long-time tough guy Clint Eastwood and helmed by acclaimed German director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot) demonstrates that an accomplished director, a solid script, and a strong cast can elevate what could have been a generic premise into a lean, taut, intelligent thriller.  For those who savor smart thrillers that don’t require one’s brain to be checked at the door, you should definitely place yourself In the Line of Fire.

In 1963, Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) was among the “best of the best”, with a hotshot career with a bright future and close to President John F. Kennedy, but his star was forever dimmed when he and his colleagues failed to prevent JFK’s assassination.  Now, decades later and just as a presidential campaign is kicking into high gear, the veteran agent finds himself on the trail of Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), who has personally contacted Horrigan to announce his intention to kill the sitting President.  Horrigan gets himself posted to protection detail, determining not to lose a second President, even if it means taking the bullet this time.  But Leary is elusive and devious, protecting a President in the midst of a very public state-hopping reelection campaign is easier said than done, and his staff put image ahead of safety concerns.  As the election draws closer, Horrigan’s worst nightmare—losing a second President—seems to be coming perilously close to coming true.

Two things set In the Line of Fire apart and above run-of-the-mill lesser entries in the crowded thriller genre.  First is Jeff Maguire’s lean, taut, tense script, which is tight and economical and doesn’t require any huge suspensions of disbelief or handwaving of glaring plot holes.  The movie’s twists and turns and the maneuvers and countermeasures taken by Leary and the Secret Service feel credible, and there aren’t any over-the-top pyrotechnics or exaggerated stunts.  Actually, Leary’s plan (involving meticulously devised false identities and an ingenious handcrafted murder weapon) seems disturbingly plausible.  About the only slight suspension of disbelief comes from no one being able to recognize Malkovich, who still looks like Malkovich no matter how many disguises he wears, but that’s a small quibble with otherwise one of the more convincingly logical thrillers I’ve come across.

The other element that bumps the proceedings up a notch is that, in the midst of all the tautly-paced tension, Maguire’s script manages to find time for genuine character interaction.  Horrigan’s initially contentious dynamic gradually shifting into a budding romance with fellow agent Lily Raines (Rene Russo) could have been a shoehorned obligatory romantic subplot (and really, one could argue it is), but their conversations feel like they’re taking place between real people and don’t seem to function purely to serve the main plotline.  The movie takes the time to credibly develop their budding relationship into something that feels believable, not just a perfunctory action movie romance that happens because the script says it does.  And, like Hannibal Lecter, Mitch Leary likes to play cat-and-mouse games with the hero.  Ever-meticulous, he’s done his homework and singles out Horrigan to play mind games with because he knows he is haunted by losing a previous President…and perhaps also because he truly feels a kinship with him, in a twisted sort of way, regarding them both as wronged by a corrupt government.  And there are office politics, with the President’s pigheaded chief of staff (Fred Dalton Thompson) refusing to alter his itinerary no matter the risks (although, while this could arguably be considered a “political thriller”, it’s mostly apolitical; the President is a nameless background figure who serves as a little-seen plot device and his party affiliation is never mentioned).

Production took place in Washington, DC with the full cooperation of the Secret Service, and famous Washington locations such as Dulles Airport, the Lincoln Memorial, and the United States Treasury were filmed on location.  Scenes set onboard Air Force One and inside the White House are convincingly rendered, maintaining a strong sense of verisimilitude.  The movie isn’t action-packed, but Petersen adeptly maintains a high level of tension throughout, and we get a rooftop chase midway through, and then the pulse-pounding, Hitchcockian climactic race against time which may get viewers on the edge of their seats.  The thrills here come more from clever twists and turns than generic shoot-em-ups, and the climax’s crackling tension and excitement comes not just from the action, but from its flawless logic.

The role of Frank Horrigan lets Clint Eastwood play an aged, slightly more vulnerable variation to his iconic hard-bitten “tough guy” persona.  Horrigan is a man of long experience and deep feelings, hurt and haunted by his feelings of failure to save JFK and his determination not to let history repeat itself.  Horrigan presents an Eastwood who’s still a tough guy and isn’t afraid to use his gun, but also isn’t afraid to acknowledge that he is no longer a young man, and isn’t afraid to shed a tear.  He’s well-complimented by Rene Russo, who makes the most of the thankless role of the love interest and plays well off of Eastwood (the two make a credible couple, despite the over twenty year age difference between them), but while Eastwood and Russo are solid, hands down the show-stealer is John Malkovich, whose Oscar-nominated performance as the diabolical Mitch Leary almost brings Hannibal Lecter to mind for twisted intelligence, devious mind games, and cold, calculated viciousness.  If thrillers are only as good as their villains, then Malkovich’s Leary is a strong entry, quiet and low-key rather than a stereotypical over-the-top scenery-chewing bad guy.  He’s not flashy, but he’s meticulous and diabolical, disturbed but coldly logical, drawing seemingly inexorably closer to his single-minded goal while dispatching occasional collateral damage with lethal efficiency.  Such notable names as Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, and Jack Nicholson were previously in contention for the role, but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing Leary better than Malkovich.  In the supporting cast, Dylan McDermott is fine as Horrigan’s younger, greener partner who fears he doesn’t have what it takes to be an agent, while John Mahoney is Horrigan’s old friend and superior, and Fred Dalton Thompson and Gary Cole provide the obligatory uncooperative authority figures as the President’s chief of staff who is dismissive of security concerns, and the leader of the Secret Service security team who’s not impressed with Horrigan.

Among the various thrillers of the summer, In the Line of the Fire stands head and shoulders above the fray as the tightest-written and most intelligent, relying on good old-fashioned twists and turns without the pyrotechnics of Cliffhanger (to which it is far superior) or the special effects extravaganza of Jurassic Park.  It’s refreshing to find a thriller that relies more on a brain than special effects and action, and that’s what puts In the Line of Fire at the front of the pack.

* * * 1/2