"Absolute Power" is a high-toned potboiler, a reasonably engrossing and entertaining suspenser for most of its running time that is undercut by too many coincidences and some whoppingly far-fetched developments in the home stretch.

“Absolute Power” is a high-toned potboiler, a reasonably engrossing and entertaining suspenser for most of its running time that is undercut by too many coincidences and some whoppingly far-fetched developments in the home stretch. Venturing away from Warner Bros. for only the second time in 18 years, Clint Eastwood has delivered a clean, unfussy and straightforward piece of old-style narrative filmmaking that will generate solid late-winter business but won’t match the numbers achieved by his previous Castle Rock outing, “In the Line of Fire.”

A strong cast and stellar production values lend a tony feel to novelist David Baldacci’s scummy tale of capital crime and outrageous coverups at the top levels of American government. Account of a master thief’s dilemma after witnessing a murder participated in by the U.S. president represents melodrama of a juicy but peculiar nature, at once alluringly audacious and faintly ridiculous. One cannot take the characters and situations here seriously, but it isn’t hard to enjoy them in the context of this crafty package.

Immediately seizing upon popular beliefs about corruption in high places, William Goldman’s screenplay plunges right into the deep end. Veteran thief Luther Whitney (Eastwood), looking to pull one more lucrative job, deftly breaks into a well-protected mansion and is in the middle of bagging a huge stash of jewels and cash when he is rudely interrupted.

Into the bedroom adjoining the vault come an older man (Gene Hackman) and a sexy young woman (Melora Hardin), both drunk and hot to trot. But the foreplay turns rough, and, as an astonished Luther watches from behind a one-way mirrored window, the two start hitting each other and furiously fighting until the woman is on the verge of stabbing the man, whereupon two men rush in and gun the woman down. In the confused aftermath, Luther manages to slip away, unidentified but not unseen.

In short order, it is revealed that the man in the scuffle was none other than the president of the United States, Alan Richmond; the woman was the wife of Richmond’s prime backer, 80-year-old Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), in whose home the crime took place; and the two gunmen (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) were the commander in chief’s personal Secret Service agents. Also on the scene was the president’s chief of staff, Gloria Russell (Judy Davis), organizer of the coverup.

While senior homicide detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) begins analyzing the perplexing evidence — sexual contact, multiple-angle gunshot wounds, cleaned-up blood but signs of only one suspect having made a getaway — Luther decides that his only safe course of action is to leave the country, probably for good. Rebuffed in his attempt to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Kate (Laura Linney), a young prosecutor, Luther is at the airport ready to fly into happy retirement when he hears President Richmond, in Sullivan’s presence, rant hypocritically about violence in a televised press conference. Incensed, Luther decides to stay and attempt, in a way he only gradually figures out, to turn the tables on the all-powerful establishment and somehow pin the blame for the woman’s death where it belongs.

Picture is almost entirely given over to conveying the thick narrative in as lucid and succinct a manner as possible. Through the long, involving midsection, Eastwood’s sure-handed, no-nonsense direction brings to mind the work of his early-career mentor, Don Siegel; he goes right for the heart of a scene, shows exactly what is important, then moves right along to the next development.

No-frills method seems almost charmingly old-fashioned at times, and produces some genuine satisfactions, as in an excellent, very simply shot tete-a-tete between Luther and Seth in a museum cafe, in which the thief adroitly deflects the detective’s suspicions of him. (Sparring with Harris also seems to invigorate Eastwood as an actor.) Exchanges between Luther and his daughter are also nicely pitched to accentuate the love they feel for each other despite the years of separation.

For a good stretch, the screw-tightening works well, as both the president and old man Sullivan dispatch assassins to take care of Luther, who himself is quite adept at cat-and-mouse tactics and must decide how best to make use of his one trump card, a bloody letter-opener from the crime scene that bears the president’s fingerprints.

Toward the end, however, too many convenient coincidences start accumulating, and the climactic point concerning the president is both outrageous as a plot development and presented almost as an afterthought, sandwiched in between scenes involving Luther and Kate that are given much more weight. Net effect is more pulpy than was probably intended.

As Luther, Eastwood is in good, sly form, once again delighting in a character’s splendid solitude and singular skill at what he does. A major improvement in his work generally since “Unforgiven” is that, unlike before, he now readily surrounds himself with other fine actors, who bring the pedigree of the films up several notches. Harris and Linney make the most decisive contributions here, and Davis is a bit of a hoot as the seethingly neurotic chief of staff. Hackman has little to do as the prez but be odiously duplicitous.

Behind-the-scenes work by Eastwood’s usual support team is ultra-smooth.

Absolute Power

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release from Columbia Pictures of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation of a Malpaso production. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Karen Spiegel. Executive producer, Tom Rooker. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, William Goldman, based on the novel by David Baldacci.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Jack N. Green; editor, Joel Cox; music, Lennie Niehaus; production design, Henry Bumstead; art direction, Jack Taylor; set decoration, Dick Goddard, Anne D. McCulley; sound (Dolby SR/SDDS), Darin Knight; stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn; associate producer, Michael Maurer; assistant directors, Robert Lorenz, Bill Bannerman; casting, Phyllis Huffman. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Feb. 4, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 min.

With

Luther Whitney - Clint Eastwood
President Alan Richmond - Gene Hackman
Seth Frank - Ed Harris
Kate Whitney - Laura Linney
Gloria Russell - Judy Davis
Bill Burton - Scott Glenn
Tim Collin - Dennis Haysbert
Walter Sullivan - E.G. Marshall
Christy Sullivan - Melora Hardin
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