In the Line of Fire (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In 1963, Frank Horrigan was among the "best and brightest" of the Secret Service, the personal choice of President Kennedy. On November 22 in Dallas, an afternoon that Horrigan will never forget, he became one of the few living agents to lose a president. Now, decades later and only months before a presidential election (perhaps 1992 or 1996 - we're never told exactly), Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) is stalking the President. Believing there to be an intangible bond between himself and Horrigan (he says they were both betrayed by a government they had once loved), Leary makes contact with the Secret Service agent to discuss his intentions. Following his conversation with the potential killer, Horrigan acts quickly to get himself posted to protection duty. This time, he has no intention of failing and believes that, given the opportunity, he will take the bullet. But Leary has everything on his side -- time, opportunity, and a group of pig-headed behind-the-scenes men at the White House who refuse to alter the President's itinerary no matter how grave the apparent danger is. And, as the election draws closer, Horrigan's chances of averting a second tragedy seem progressively less likely.

John Malkovich may be one of the screen's most overlooked actors. Or, at least he was until this performance. It isn't that he's never done good work before -- his interpretation of Lenny in Gary Sinese's Of Mice and Men was masterful -- but most of the time, he hasn't been recognized for it. However, like Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, now that Malkovich has been given a visible role in a significant movie, he should get his due. Hands down, Malkovich's assassin is the best thing about this solid thriller -- a villain that rivals Hannibal Lecter for intelligence and cold, calculated viciousness.

Rene Russo gives her strongest performance to date. In truth, she's little more than the "window dressing" that Frank Horrigan suggests is the role of female Secret Service agents, but she manages to do something with a thankless part. Yet, even playing second fiddle to one of Hollywood's most popular leading men, she gets noticed.

Eastwood is Eastwood, albeit a more vulnerable version akin to what we saw in Unforgiven. He's still tough, and he isn't afraid to use his gun, but Frank Horrigan is haunted by his past. He's no longer sure whether it was simple indecision or an unwillingness to take a bullet that led to his not being there for Kennedy, and the possibility that the same situation might arise a second time troubles him day and night. Horrigan gives us the human side of Eastwood -- the side we never see in a Dirty Harry film, the side that isn't afraid to shed a tear.

Director Wolfgang Petersen, best known for Das Boot, but also at the helm for the taut, twisted Shattered, is aware of what's necessary to make a good thriller work. He knows the importance of pacing, and plays the tension in In the Line of Fire like a virtuoso. Petersen takes what could have been a muddled motion picture and structures it perfectly, creating a strong piece of entertainment. It helps, of course, that he has a capable cast.

Plot-wise, In the Line of Fire is nothing extraordinary. It's basically a formula-type thriller with one or two twists thrown in to keep the viewer off-balance. However, strength of character, coupled with a consistently-high level of excitement, makes this film anything but ordinary. The most intriguing element of In the Line of Fire is the cat-and-mouse game between Horrigan and Leary. The relationship of these two is fascinating in a twisted way, as it explores psychological layers which many motion pictures find too difficult to convey realistically.

Overall, this is one of the most intelligent thrillers of the summer. In the Line of Fire doesn't require the special effects bonanza of Jurassic Park to involve the audience, nor does it rely on the mega-budget explosions and mountaintop battles of Cliffhanger. So, for a couple of hours of entertainment, In the Line of Fire is one of those rare "big" movies that doesn't disappoint.

In the Line of Fire (United States, 1993)

Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Cast: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Fred Dalton Thomas, John Mahoney
Screenplay: Jeff Maguire
Cinematography: John Bailey
Music: Ennio Morricone
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1993-07-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1