In the Line of Fire

(1993) *** 1/2 R
129 min. Sony Pictures Releasing. Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Cast: Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole.

/content/films/3112/3.jpgI could be pretentious about In the Line of Fire, or I can be honest. Honestly, there are few moments in popular cinema more gleefully sublime than Clint Eastwood growling into a phone, "You have a rendezvous with my ass, motherfucker!" The line is so wrong that it's right. As a threat, it's logically incoherent (what does it mean? at best, that Eastwood will poop on his enemy). It's an unacknowledged verbal accident of some sort, an inherently comic embarrassment to the speaker. And yet as delivered with gritted teeth by Eastwood to a loony, out-of-reach John  Malkovich in a film by Wolfgang Petersen (maybe it's a language barrier thing?), you somehow buy it as a heroic retort. That's right, bi-atch! You have a rendezvous with Dirty Harry's 62-year-old ass! And if you don't know what that means, you better figure it out!

Peterson puts over the entirety of the film's thriller plot with similar conviction, balancing the dead-serious action theatrics with the sparkly, eccentric side of Eastwood's personality. As Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan, Eastwood works a squint, a glare, and a wink into a playful self-portrait of the action hero who's driven to take down a would-be presidential assassin (Malkovich), but likewise can't resist cracking jokes, tickling ivories, and wooing whatever mature but relatively young woman happens to be in his vicinity. Horrigan is driven not only by duty, but by the memory that haunts him: his failure to protect Kennedy from an assassin's bullet in 1963.

It's a recipe for a highly entertaining "good guy versus bad guy" action thriller, but it only works to the degree that it does because Malkovich is so indelibly creepy—so love-to-hate-him bad—as the psychotic lone gunman. Malkovich finely calibrates his every gesture and expression and utterance to convey mortal and even sexual threat (the satisfied pursing of his lips after a killing, the purred intimacy of his compulsive phone calls to Frank). Both the good guy and bad guy are men with demons, and with something to prove. The deceptively light banter between the two men—between Eastwood and anyone else—is some of the best you're likely to find in a summer movie (kudos go to screenwriter Jeff Maguire).

The mutually taunting good-evil phone dynamic was familiar from Die Hard, and would be repeated a year hence in Speed, but it's only one formula element in an ingenious stockpiling of them. Some of the film's most memorable tableaux could be called skillful rips (from sources from The Manchurian Candidate to Vertigo), but executed with such consummate commercial skill and winning performance that one can't be bothered to care. Yes, the assassin leaves for his opponent a wall collage of threatening clippings. Yes, Eastwood has a skittish young partner (Dylan McDermott) considering early retirement. And yes, you won't get out of this film without hearing "Face it Frank. You're too old for this shit."

In the Line of Fire functions as an iconic Secret Service movie, examining the scary sacrifice—perhaps noble, perhaps foolish—of being willing to take a bullet for a man who may not be as great as his office. In its investigatory mode, the film has a scarily plausible plan for its assassin and that rare and elusive "clue credibility"—one can actually buy the slip-up the villain makes and the "eureka" moment that allows the almost down-and-out hero to crack the case. The sticking point is Horrigan's superheroic masculinity. Though the detriments of his age are acknowledged, his valuable experience often manifests as movie bullshit: a sixth sense for psychos (an extension of Horrigan's personal slogan "I know things about people"). All the same, Petersen maintains a hugely impressive narrative momentum, adrenalizing each and every action sequence with maximum tension.

/content/films/3112/1.jpgJust as she makes a convincing Secret Service agent, Rene Russo makes a formidable and even credible love interest for Eastwood, in a romance that allows for most of the film's humor. Russo and Malkovich notwithstanding, there's never any question that this is a Clint Eastwood vehicle. As Horrigan, he's every inch the archetypal man of his generation: he bets on the Super Bowl, playfully impugns the female agent by calling her a secretary (it's okay—he's just busting her chops as he would to his male partner), and authoritatively handles dicey field situations (at least until Malkovich's killer comes along).

Supported once again by an Ennio Morricone score, Eastwood of course slays his demons. And after a creepy near-finish, Petersen's film ends on a supremely goofy note. Indeed, before he effectively retired from acting, an aging Eastwood would be less and less inclined to prop up his implacable image, his own thrillers only getting more comically daring. Before his Oscar years, we all had a rendezvous with his trash, and we liked it.

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Bluray

Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby True HD 5.1

Street date: 7/1/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony's Blu-Ray special edition does justice to this fondly remembered thriller with an excellent, clean, and detailed transfer that's unlikely ever to be bested, and a fine Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack. There's also a suitable selection of bonus features, beginning with an audio commentary featuring Wolfgang Petersen in conversation with the DVD special-edition producer, J. M. Kenney. The two keep up a steady and informative dialogue on the production (including the location shoots and how Petersen shot the crucial phone-call scenes), as well as the nature of his collaboration with Clint Eastwood.

A welcome selection of Deleted Scenes (5:01 with a "Play All" option) includes "Piano Bar #1" (2:17), "Hat Joke" (:41), "Miss Me?" (:44), "Watching the News" (:52) and "Piano Bar #2" (:25). The 2000 documentary "In the Line of Fire: The Ultimate Sacrifice" (22:14) is a grab bag of vintage comments and contemporary recollections about the film's making, with a focus on learning the ropes about the Secret Service. Participants include Petersen, Jeff Maguire, Eastwood, executive producer Gail Katz, technical advisor Bob Snow, Dylan McDermott, Rene Russo, U.S. Secret Service Deputy Director Kevin Foley, field agent Rebecca Ediger, and assistant director Larry Cockell.

The 1993 Showtime special "In the Line of Fire: Behind the Scenes with the Secret Service" (19:57) covers similar ground, with a yet greater emphasis on the Secret Service's workings (including footage of their training methods). Snow, Eastwood, Petersen, Katz, producer Jeff Apple, Malkovich, and Russo all comment, as well as special agents Jerry S. Parr, Carl Meyer, Gayle E. Moore, Assistant Director/Protective Operations Hubert T. Bell, and Charles F. Rinkevich, director of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

"How'd They Do That?" (4:54) is a swift guided tour of some of the film's clever special effects (with an unidentified effects technician). "Catching the Counterfeiters" (5:29) features Foley, as well as Lorelei W. Pagano and Daniel G. Snow of the Secret Service's Counterfeit Department, explaining how bills are specially watermarked and how fakes can be identified. There's a BD Live hookup on this disc, as well as previews for Vantage Point and Damages—The Complete First Season. This is one for any true action fan's shelf.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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