On the fateful day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, he was under the protection, as all presidents are, of the Secret Service. And yet, the assassination was successful. Kennedy died. The Secret Service failed in its duty. In The Line Of Fire chooses one such man as its protagonist who 30 years later, finds himself caught up in a death threat levied at the current president.
A would-be presidential assassin is watching Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood from Gran Torino). The killer in the shadows (John Malkovich) is obsessed with Frank’s failure to protect JFK president 30 years ago and gives him a warning that history might repeat itself. The core of the film, and easily the best parts, are the tense and loaded phone conversations between cat and mouse. The regret is etched on Eastwood’s face as Malkovich monotones details of his life back at him. Multiple scenes between the two leads in this manner carry the dramatic tension forward.
Elsewhere in the film, there are signs of it showing its age. As a female Secret Service agent, Rene Russo’s character (Lily Raines) is subject to outright sexism of the kind that the movie doesn’t even consider to be sexist. This was 1993 after all, when screenwriters loved needling its women who then had to come up with cocky responses to show how strong they are.
Indicative of the times? Maybe. But the flirtatious banter between her and Frank which inevitably develops into a love interest is barely believable given the 24 year age gap between the actors. Even if Russo’s character loses any narrative drive in order to morph into ‘love interest’, at least she still exudes a confident presence on screen.
For the rest of the movie, Eastwood is running the show. His gnarled cynicism is typical Eastwood and therefore makes excellent casting for a world-weary agent who has carried the guilt of his past failure for 30 years. Director Wolfgang Petersen takes the time to keep the focus of the scenes on Eastwood as he exhausts himself trying to keep up with the younger agents in an effort to atone for that infamous day in Texas, 1963.
It is unfortunate that the script is structured so that the bulk of the highlights are crammed into Act 1 and Act 3, because Act 2 suffers from plot lag. At the mid-way point of the movie, proceedings splutter to a halt. There are several scenes exploring Malkovich’s psychotic level of threat. This is time taken away from those superbly combative phone calls and arguably in today’s leaner days the movie would be 15 minutes – 20 minutes shorter, and better for it.
In The Line Of Fire is an excellent thriller that has a strong opening and strong finale. Aside from some pacing issues and an ill-advised romance there is plenty here to keep you hooked. Eastwood himself at this stage of his career was only starring in movies that he also directed. He specifically took time out to do In The Line Of Fire as the role was such a juicy one for him, and you can feel that relish beaming through the screen right up to the last scene.
Words by Michael Record