A solidly commercial contemporary thriller in its own right, "In the Line of Fire" makes one appreciate the extra shadings and textures Clint Eastwood brings to his own films. The star's first outing since his Oscar-winning "Unforgiven" is, by current standards, a proficiently made thriller pitting Eastwood's vet Secret Service agent against John Malkovich's insidious would-be presidential assassin. B.O. promises to be sturdy worldwide.

A solidly commercial contemporary thriller in its own right, “In the Line of Fire” makes one appreciate the extra shadings and textures Clint Eastwood brings to his own films. The star’s first outing since his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” is, by current standards, a proficiently made thriller pitting Eastwood’s vet Secret Service agent against John Malkovich’s insidious would-be presidential assassin. B.O. promises to be sturdy worldwide.

Castle Rock release via Columbia is Eastwood’s first venture away from Warner Bros. since “Escape From Alcatraz” in 1979, and his first as an actor for another director since “Pink Cadillac” in 1989. His role is pretty familiar, a maverick enforcement officer of flawed character who could be a brother to Eastwood’s characters in “Tightrope,””Heartbreak Ridge” and even the “Dirty Harry” series.

But Frank Horrigan’s flaw approaches tragic dimensions, as he has been haunted since Nov. 22, 1963, by the possibility that he could have saved John F. Kennedy’s life. As JFK’s favorite Secret Service agent, Horrigan was with the president in Dallas, and was closest to him when the first shot rang out. But Horrigan didn’t react, and has spent the intervening 30 years trying to live with his failure to cover him before the fatal bullet hit.

It’s this weakness that is manipulated by Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a professional assassin who makes no secret of his intention to kill the current president sometime before the election, which is six weeks away at the start of the action.

Horrigan wins an assignment to cover the chief of state while he tries to nail Leary, who calls every so often to taunt him, and at the same time must endure the gibes of his colleagues, who consider him “a borderline burnout with questionable social skills,” and “a dinosaur.”

There are signs that Horrigan might soon want to consider hanging it up. He huffs and puffs and practically passes out when required to run alongside the president’s limo in a Pennsylvania Avenue motorcade, and can’t keep up with Leary when chasing him on foot.

But his saving grace is his sense of humor about himself, and his vulnerability is especially appealing to fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), who hesitates for a quite awhile before getting involved with an older man who makes such crude jokes, but who finally gives him an unfortunately abbreviated tumble, the lead-up to which provides film’s comic highlight.

What neophyte scripter Jeff Maguire’s plot comes down to, however, is the cat-and-mouse game between Horrigan and Leary, and the craftiness and strategies involved on both sides, while not exactly ingenious, are tantalizing enough to compel interest.

Cleverly withheld from full view early in the picture, Malkovich’s Leary is established as a master of disguise, an entirely demented soul who admires John Wilkes Booth for having had “panache” and viciously kills a few people along the way just to assert his credentials.

When Horrigan loses his cool at a Chicago rally and sets off panic by yelling out, “Gun!” he is dismissed from the presidential detail. But Horrigan continues his hunt anyway and, in perhaps the film’s tensest scene, the aging agent chases his prey across some D.C. rooftops, misses a jump between buildings and must take his nemesis’ extended hand if he has a hope of surviving.

This thematic situation is reversed in the film’s action climax, a pseudo-Hitchcockian sequence set on board a glass elevator at L.A.’s Bonaventure Hotel, where Leary has finally hunted down the president. Script’s only moral concern relates to an agent’s willingness to take a bullet to save the person he’s meant to protect, something Horrigan claims he’s willing to do but which he didn’t prove in Dallas.

Director Wolfgang Petersen sends the story efficiently down its straight and narrow track, indulging Horrigan a few endearing character traits such as a taste for jazz, a minimal apartment (his wife left along with the kids years ago) and a preference for public transportation, and deftly engineering the battle of wills between two desperately committed men.

Here, Eastwood splendidly gives Horrigan humor, grit and imagination along with the wounded quality, but the specter of Nov. 22 stands alone as his psychological motivator.

Such pictures are often made by virtue of their villains, and Malkovich provides a delicious one, a true psychopath so sure of himself that he’s willing to give his pursuer half a chance of catching him.

Fresh from her turn opposite Mel Gibson last year in “Lethal Weapon 3,” Russo is pleasant but has little to work with and can’t entirely stand up to her accomplished co-stars. Supporting perfs are basically one-note affairs, although Patrika Darbo makes a strongly sympathetic impression as a friendly bank clerk who has the misfortune of meeting Leary.

Lenser John Bailey, editor Anne V. Coates, production designer Lilly Kilvert and composer Ennio Morricone contribute heavily to the ultra-pro sheen of the production, which reportedly cost upwards of $ 50 million, far too much for such a straightforward character and action piece.

In the Line of Fire

(Suspense drama -- Color)

Production

A Columbia release of a Columbia and Castle Rock presentation of an Apple/Rose production. Produced by Jeff Apple. Executive producers, Wolfgang Petersen, Gail Katz, David Valdes. Co-producer, Bob Rosenthal. Directed by Petersen. Screenplay, Jeff Maguire.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor; Panavision widescreen), John Bailey; editor, Anne V. Coates; music, Ennio Morricone; production design, Lilly Kilvert; art direction, John Warnke; set design, Jann K. Engel; set decoration, Kara Lindstrom, A. Charles Carnaggio (Washington, D.C.); costume design, Erica Edell Phillips; sound (Dolby; SDDS), Willie Burton; assistant director, Peter Kohn; campaign unit camera, Mark Vargo; casting, Janet Hirshenson, Jane Jenkins. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, June 25, 1993. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 128 min.

With

Frank Horrigan ... Clint Eastwood Mitch Leary ... John Malkovich Lilly Raines ... Rene Russo Al D'Andrea ... Dylan McDermott Bill Watts ... Gary Cole Harry Sargent ... Fred Dalton Thompson Sam Campagna ... John Mahoney President ... Jim Curley First Lady ... Sally Hughes Jack Okura ... Clyde Kusatsu Tony Carducci ... Steve Hytner Mendoza ... Tobin Bell Pam Magnus ... Patrika Darbo Sally ... Mary Van Arsdel Professor Riger ... John Heard

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