Released: 9 July 1993
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Budget: $40 million
Stars: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, and Jim Curley
Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan (Eastwood), wracked with guilt over his failure to save the life of United States President John F. Kennedy in 1963, is given the chance at redemption when a disillusioned former CIA agent (Malkovich) attempts to assassinate the President of the United States (Curley).
When I was a kid, I grew up watching the action and science-fiction classics of the late eighties and nineties; that meant a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Willis. I was aware of Clint Eastwood but he was quite a bit before my time; a star of the seventies, he was more for my parents than for me so imagine my surprise at discovering a real affinity for his work in the Dirty Harry films (Various, 1971 to 1988) some time ago. This resulted in me being more willing to try out other films in Eastwood’s vast and illustrious repertoire hence In the Line of Fire, a political action/thriller from noted German director Wolfgang Petersen. Upon release, In the Line of Fire received overwhelmingly positive reviews (which focused on the performances of the actors and the film’s intelligent plot) and was a box office success, making nearly $180 million and being nominated for, and winning, several awards.
In the Line of Fire begins by introducing us to Frank after he’s picked up by his partner, Al D’Andrea (McDermott), to meet with a group of counterfeiters as part of an undercover operation; immediately, I found myself making comparisons and noticing similarities between Frank and Eastwood’s famous Harry Callahan as he’s gruff, blunt, and doesn’t stand for any bullshit, especially when on the job. He’s an excellent deceiver, able to fool the counterfeiter’s head honcho, Mendoza (Tobin Bell), right up to the last moment even when he’s forced to put a gun to Al’s head, and, though somewhat jaded, supports D’Andrea’s wish to succeed in the department and be with his family and, later in the film, is able to convince D’Andrea not to quit from the job after this traumatic experience.
Frank, despite having a somewhat outdated camaraderie with his partner and life having largely passed him by, is haunted by his experiences in Dallas, Texas; these memories are brought to the surface when he investigates a possible threat against the President in a dishevelled apartment. Returning home alone, Frank is left with only a stiff drink and his guilt (impressively realised thanks to some digital trickery) but receives a call from the tenant, Joseph McCrawley, who claims the name “Booth” and voices his intentions to kill the President. Having recognised Frank’s presence at the Kennedy assassination, Booth believes the two of them were destined to be entwined in his crazed plot and, rattled by the proximity of the call and the conviction of Booth’s threat, Frank meets with his old colleagues at the Secret Service.
During this meeting, Frank butts heads with Bill Watts (Gary Cole), who reveals some of Frank’s backstory by referring to his reputation in the department as a bit of a burnout and not one to really play by the rules (though we learn the majority of the specifics of the fallout from Kennedy’s assassination from Booth’s taunting phone calls). Thanks to his close friendship with Secret Service Director Sam Campagna (John Mahoney), Frank is able to get himself reassigned to the Presidential detail despite Watt’s disapproval and his advanced age; Frank’s age is a recurring element of the film, being played both for laughs and as a serious concern given that he’s not exactly in prime condition any more.
He also meets Agent Lily Raines (Russo), with whom he immediately strikes up a very Callahan-style rapport of slightly condescending one-upsmanship; Raines and Frank develop an interesting type of flirtation, with Raines continuously clashing with Frank’s obnoxious views on the department and government (despite the fact that he makes some good points regarding how few female agents there are). Though she claims to be annoyed by Frank, she’s clearly intrigued by him and enjoys matching wits with him and, despite the age gap between them, develops a serviceable enough chemistry that leads to eventual passion between the two. While she’s the only female of any significance in the film, and in the department, so her role as the love interest is somewhat pigeon-holed, Russo is ballsy and alluring enough to carry the weight of that responsibility by herself, being more than capable of holding her own as Frank’s intellectual and professional equal, if nothing else.
The antagonist of the film, Booth, is revealed to be former CIA agent Mitch Leary; for most of the film, we only hear Leary on the phone and see him watching Frank or observe him in his workshop, building a sense of dread and mystery regarding the character, and we don’t even see his face until about a half an hour into the film. Malkovich’s distinct monotone voice lends a certain gravitas and menace to the character, who is a calculating psychopath with an unhealthy obsession with Frank, the President, and the state of the country. His eloquence and intelligence make him a formidable adversary, one that Frank immediately realises (and not just because of the personal danger Booth poses to him) despite being unable to convince those above Campagna’s position of Booth’s threat.
In the Line of Fire is an engaging thriller with an enigmatic lead character; Eastwood always brings a certain gravitas to his roles and he has a noticeable presence when he’s onscreen. He can say a lot just by assuming one of his many stern glares or weary expressions but I find this an intriguing role for Eastwood; there’s a great deal of baggage and backstory associated with Frank, some of it we’re told, some it is implied, and a lot of it is left ambiguous and I find myself interested in seeing more of Frank’s past in the Secret Service and the things he’s seen and lived through. He’s haunted by his hesitation in Dallas, believing that he could have given his life to save Kennedy, but masks his guilt through a snarky wit and occasionally grouchy demeanour; still, he’s a rock solid, dependable patriot who is fully prepared to stop Leary out of a sense of duty as well as to make up for this mistake but, when Leary makes it personal after he kills D’Andrea, Frank is willing to go to any lengths he can, including ruffling feathers with his superiors, to make Leary pay.
Leary is one of those kinds of sadistic antagonists who really tests the protagonist’s mettle; he’s a cold, eloquent maniac who is more than capable of making good on his threats (thanks, mainly, to some rough cuts when he invades a woman’s (Patrika Darbo) home but which the film presents as him being physically formidable). An eloquent and convicted madman, Leary is a man of many faces and is largely able to hide in plain sight thanks to his disguises and is quite innovative when it comes to his approach, leading Frank and the authorities on a bit of a wild goose chase, masking his fingerprints, and building a composite pistol out of plastic to get past the President’s tight security.
Anonymity and elusiveness are Leary’s greatest asset for most of the film but, once Frank and D’Andrea begin to investigate “Booth”, they (and we) quickly learn all about his past as a former CIA assassin (“more like a predator”) and, armed with this knowledge (as well as his cutting jibes), Frank is able to goad Leary in much the same way as he goaded him throughout the film, taunting his motivations and attacking him with personal insults. This breaks Leary’s normally complacent and measured demeanour and reveals an explosive temperament and suicidal commitment to his mission that, ultimately, comes to pass in the finale when Leary chooses death rather than imprisonment despite Frank’s best efforts.
In the Line of Fire is quite the intense psychological thriller; as a result, there isn’t a great deal of action as it’s more concerned with the intricate game of cat and mouse played between Frank and Leary. Additionally, Frank’s advanced age precludes him from taking part in any strenuous activity for any great length of time (amusingly, though, during a chase between Frank and Leary, it is D’Andrea who struggles to keep up compared to his elders). Yet, the film remains engaging and enthralling throughout thanks, largely, to the alluring performance of John Malkovich and Eastwood’s trademark candid magnetism; though Frank has some similarities to Callahan thanks to Eastwood’s gruff demeanour, Frank is a very different character. He’s far less jaded and cynical and, surprisingly, not so tormented by his past and the losses he’s suffered that he cannot mischievously flirt with Raines. The film is extremely well-paced, with the tension and battle of wits (and will) between Frank and Leary building to a crescendo over its runtime and culminating in a dramatic and intense showdown that sees Frank able to atone and put to rest his demons and Leary’s self-destructive obsession taken to the only logical conclusion.
Have you ever seen In the Line of Fire? What did you think to it and where would you rank it against Clint Eastwood’s other films? What did you think of Eastwood’s character, Frank, his chemistry with Raines, and his building vendetta against Leary? How did you find Malkovich as the antagonist and what did you think to his performance? Are you a fan of intense psychological thrillers or do you prefer more action-orientated films? Do you have a favourite Clint Eastwood film? If so, feel free to mention it, and any other opinions you have regarding him and this film, down in the comments.