In 1993’s suspenseful In The Line of Fire, director Wolgang Petersen pits Clint Eastwood's Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan and John Malkovich's potential Presidential assassin Mitch Leary.
Working from a screenplay by Jeff Maguire (Gridiron Gang, Timeline), Petersen gives audiences an intelligent thriller which examines the psyches of its two antagonists as they play a deadly cat-and-mouse game in which the life of the President of the United States hangs on the balance.
In the Line of Fire tells us that a now 50-something Agent Horrigan was a young and hard nosed Secret Service agent in charge of President Kennedy's security detail in Dallas on November 22,1963.
Like his real-life counterpart Clint Hill, Horrigan is haunted by the fact that he lost the President of the United States under his watch.
As a result of Frank's slide into depression and alcohol abuse, his marriage ended and his career with the Secret Service has stagnated. Instead of overseeing the agency's Presidential Security Detail or even being the chief of the Treasury Department's law enforcement branch, Frank is assigned to the important but less prestigious Anti-Counterfeiting Division,
The film begins when we’re introduced to Frank and his new partner, Special Agent Al D'Andrea (Dylan McDermott), who is on his first undercover assignment. Their mission: to arrest Mendoza (Tovin Bell) a notorious and dangerous counterfeiter.
However, as bad as Mendoza may have been, he's insignificant in comparison to Eastwood's new nemesis, Mitch Leary, who is a master of disguise, methodical, clever, lethally efficient and has an unerring ability to detect an adversary's psychological weaknesses. Here, Leary plays upon Frank's guilt over not being able to prevent JFK's assassination.
Leary starts the game subtly at first. To get the Secret Service agent’s attention, he makes sure that Frank finds an old newspaper clipping with a photo of himself when he was on JFK’s security detail.
[Leary makes the first of a series of taunting phone calls]
Frank Horrigan: McCrawley?
Mitch Leary: Why not call me Booth?
Frank Horrigan: Why not Oswald?
Mitch Leary: Because Booth had flair, panache - a leap to the stage after he shot Lincoln.
Later, Mitch iincreases the pressure when, using his nom de guerre "Booth," he has long conversations with Frank. He tells his adversary what he plans to do and dares him to catch him, if he can.
Horrigan asks his boss (John Mahoney) to reassign him to the Presidential detail. However, his uncompromising style and determination to make sure the President (Jim Curley) is out of "Booth's" line of fire cause heavy-duty friction between Frank and various VIPs, including detail chief Bill Watts (Gary Cole), White House Chief of Staff Harry Sargent (Fred Dalton Thompson) and even the President himself.
As it happens, In the Line of Fire takes place in the midst of the President's bid for a second term. Concerned with getting votes and wary of any restrictions on his activities,the Chief Executive and his handlers don't want Frank's preoccupation with Leary to get in the way of election year politicking.
Frank ticks off almost everyone he needs on his side, including Agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), a Presidential Detail member. At first, Lilly isn't really impressed by Horrigan's macho abrasiveness, but is eventually won over by his jazz piano-playing and old-style romanticism.
In the Line of Fire borrows heavily from Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series when Frank eventually irks his superiors one time too many and gets booted from the Presidential Detail. As in the "Inspector Callahan" movies, Eastwood's character nevertheless carries on with the task of finding Leary before he manages to kill the President.
My Take: Though Maguire's script is sometimes predictable and even clichéd, its masterful blending of Eastwood As Law Enforcer and The Day of the Jackal (in which a professional killer attempts to kill French President Charles De Gaulle) works very well.
The secret of In the Line of Fire's success isn't so much that Eastwood at 65 could pull of the role of a 50-something Secret Service agent (though that element clearly does work) or that Russo manages to play Lilly as Frank's ally-turned-lover in a convincing manner, but rather that the villain's part is well-written and played by John Malkovich.
Any movie which has this Man-vs.-Man conflict depends heavily on how menacing, inventive, watchable and difficult to beat the villain is.
Malkovich's creepy Mitch Leary, with his quiet charm, his ability to hide in plain sight, his unerring penchant to get under Frank's skin and his cold ruthlessness (he kills at least four possible witnesses to his preparations without any hesitation) makes him the cinematic equal of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber in 1988's Die Hard.
Of course, a well-written (and acted) hero helps, and Eastwood does not disappoint here. He gets the viewer to feel his sadness and frustration without sinking into self-pity, and we cheer him on in his twin quests to track Mitch down and win Lilly's affections as the film progresses.Director Wolfgang Petersen, who clearly knows how to tell gripping stories of men in life-and-death situations (see Das Boot, his 1981 epic about a German U-boat in World War II, as well as Air Force One and The Perfect Storm) masterfully takes viewers on a well-paced and engrossing action-suspense thrill ride.
Sure, there are predictable moments and some of the usual Villain-Tries-to-Take-the-High Ground situations show up here. However, In the Line of Fire at least has the decency to respect our intelligence and not rely on big explosions or rat-a-tat-tat machine gun shootouts.