Has there been anyone one else in Hollywood who has managed to encapsulate the notion of the aging hero better than Clint Eastwood? Oh sure, putting out a movie where your lead complains of creaky joints and modern music before blowing away a phonebook’s worth of stuntmen is essentially a genre in of itself these days what with the average age of the classic action hero scraping around the late 60’s. But while Willis, Stallone and Schwarzenegger where all tooling around soaked in youth back in the early 90’s, long before they all qualified for free public travel, big bad Clint was showing them all how it was done at the age of 62. Unforgiven, his Oscar winning western was the pitch as weathered gunslinger William Munny took aim at Gene Hackman – but the home run in really proving this point came one year later thanks to Wolfgang Peterson’s tense cat and mouse thriller, In The Line Of Fire.
Frank Horrigan works for the Secret Service and is damn good at his job, but it’s also an undeniable fact that he’s getting a little long in the tooth. However, a POTUS assassinating firecracker is lit under his ass with the discovery of a man who simply calls himself “Booth” who seems awfully determined to realise his fondest dream: to blow some meaty holes in the President before going down in a hail of bullets. Frank realises this guy is not only serious but is also terrifyingly smart and horribly resourceful and sucessfully demands that, in spite of his age, he should be placed on the President’s security detail where he feels he can do most good. This has positive and negative results with the positive being he sparks up a witty repartee with female agent Lilly Raines and he gets to exorcise some personal demons from being on duty the day Kennedy got his fatal new haircut; however, the bad is that Booth (aka. professional maniac Mitch Leary) kind of bonds with him after many threatening phone calls and chooses him and him alone to match wits with.
As the two circle each other, waiting for the mistake that will cause the other one to strike, the day Leary has marked to carry out his grim quest rumbles ever closer and before long their rivalry starts claiming a body count.
Inevitably Frank’s superiors start to doubt he’s up to the strain as one fake out too many from his opponent has led him looking as confounded as a halibut forced to play chess, but the stage is set for a harrowing showdown where only the sneakiest will prevail. Will Mitch bag his target with his nifty homemade gun and a wealth of disguises (seriously, he has more aliases than Count Olaf), or will Frank score a major tick in the “President Still Alive” column and outwit a man who has no fear of dying for his cause?
As good a thriller as the 90’s ever churned out, In The Line Of Fire nevertheless had quite the tightrope to walk when it came to how it’s mature lead is portrayed. After all, your hero is in his 60’s and he’s not only supposed to go up against an insidiously clever opponent both mentally and physically, but he also has to seduce a cast member who was 38 at the time in a way that isn’t unintentionally hilarious – basically what I’m saying is: make one wrong move and you’re either Entrapment, or even worse, fucking Death Wish 5. Thankfully, the filmmakers here are way too savvy to let things get weird and make Frank (and Clint’s) age a major part of what the film is about; this isn’t a later Dirty Harry movie where big Clint impassively blows a snooker ball sized hole in a bad guy and then calls it a day, this is a man with real limitations, and as Clint says, a man’s gotta know those. Watching Frank struggle to keep up with the Presidential limo as he jogs along side it during a visit, or even his colleagues prank call an ambulance crew for him while he sneezes under the pretence of a heart attack slowly chip away at his resolve as he tries to keep up with the plots and counter plots of his determined nemesis. This is a very human hero, one who makes incorrect calls while suffering from the flu and therefore one of the more relatable white hats from Eastwood’s gallery of stoic heroes.
But every good guy requires a great villian and the vaguely reptilian John Malkovich puts in a banger in the form of the decidedly reptilian Mitch Leary, a fearsome wannabe assassin with CIA training whose crazy levels are easily matched by his IQ. You really want Eastwood to succeed and take this guy down (Beating John Malkovich, anyone?), but it’s to Malkovich’s credit that the ending never actually seems like it’s a foregone conclusion and the fact that he genuinely cares about Frank’s involvement is utterly fascinating. Also, for a film about the President Of The United States, it’s refreshingly light on politics and doesn’t even feed us on what kind of guy the commander in chief actually is – it shouldn’t matter to his security so therefore it doesn’t matter to the story. In fact at one point Frank even remarks that he actively doesn’t try to get to know the man he’s defending in case it leads him to not fling himself in front of a blazing muzzle flash and that JFK was a different case.
Tying it all together is Wolfgang Peterson who is a past master at cranking tension out of an audience thanks to his classic U-Boat stress-a-thon, Das Boot and In The Line Of Fire may be the best thing he’s made. Balancing out the usual cat and mouse shenanigans with some real flare (a scene where Frank dangles from a roof while having his quarry at gunpoint is magnificent), while crucially all the age related drama never feels stodgy, forced or overplayed, the film manages to hold the balance in a way that thrillers genuinely seem to do anymore while still giving you the scenes you’re expecting. A moment where someone desperately scans a room looking for a suspect before time runs out? Check! Someone heroically diving in front of a bullet? You’ll have to wait and see…
The supporting cast work well with extra credit going to Rene Russo who at the time was carving out a niche along with Lethal Weapon 3 as a hugely charismatic and capable female lead who didn’t get lost in the noise and smoke the second the action kicked in and whom without this film certainly wouldn’t have worked. The various conversations she and Clint have where they test and tug at each other’s professional beliefs are great examples of sparring/flirting that’s subtle and fun (he may be old, divorced and downright forthright, but he still gets modern women, by gum) and when they lead to the inevitable romance it thankfully doesn’t feel as awkward as a later Roger Moore Bond film – if you know what I mean.
A smart psychological thriller that never wisely forgets that it also has to be fun too, In The Line Of Fire is an exemplary 90’s thriller that never really gets mentioned these days as much as it should.
Nimble as a film half it’s age, yet carrying the wisdom of someone whose seen it all, In The Line Of Fire is a total package that confidently hits the target – which I understand is magnificently a poor choice of words for an assassination movie…