There is much to be said for Clint Eastwood's brand of no-bull heroics. Just watch big, bad Arnold Schwarzenegger huff and puff and not blow the box office down as he tries to turn an $80 million white elephant called Last Action Hero (rated PG-13) into a Terminator for tykes. It's a pleasure to report that Eastwood is on firm, R-rated action ground with In the Line of Fire. But don't set your hopes too high. We're a long way from the profundities that covered the big guy in Oscar glory for Unforgiven. Fire is formula stuff that pits Eastwood as Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan against John Malkovich as assassin Mitch Leary.
The target is the president, who is particularly vulnerable because he's campaigning for re-election. In a series of menacing phone calls, Leary tells Horrigan he's going to shoot the prez right in front of the agent's eyes. "That's not gonna happen," says Horrigan in one of those "make my day" Eastwoodisms (mercifully, this one is downplayed). Horrigan is haunted by his failure to take a bullet for President Kennedy 30 years ago. (Since Fire is the first film made with Secret Service cooperation, there's a lot of indigestible government propaganda to swallow in Jeff McGuire's bloated script.)
The references to JFK sometimes threaten to overwhelm the lightweight material. A flashback shows Horrigan in Dallas with the president and the first lady on the day of the assassination (computer magic transports Eastwood from Dirty Harry into the Kennedy footage, much in the same way that Paula Abdul joined Cary Grant in those TV commercials). One admires the technical feat without ever seeing it as more than a gimmick.
That said, In the Line of Fire is often an explosive blend of pounding tension and wisecracking humor. This is formula dished out by experts. Director Wolfgang Petersen, who followed the dandy Das Boot with the deplorable Never Ending Story, Enemy Mine and Shattered, shows he can still fry an audience's nerves. Even at two hours plus, the film benefits from the deft touch of editor Anne Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), the keen eye of cinematographer John Bailey (Silverado) and the tingling sound of composer Ennio Morricone, who scored Eastwood's Fistful of Dollars.
But it's the star, 63, who wins the day. Eastwood hasn't had this much fun with a role in years, and his joy is contagious. He plays Horrigan as something out of Jurassic Park, a dinosaur in a field of young technocrats who consider him "a borderline burnout with questionable social skills." Horrigan gets winded running alongside the presidential motorcade, and when he takes a nap in his office, jokesters call the medics, claiming the old warhorse has been felled by a heart attack.
In one potent sequence, during a campaign speech, Horrigan — feverish from the flu — is accused of mistaking a bursting balloon for a gunshot. The chief of staff, played by Fred Dalton Thompson, orders him off the field for humiliating the president. Nothing galls Horrigan like a bureaucrat. And don't even talk to this cranky, rumpled throwback about newfangled procedures. Though he appreciates the long legs of agent Lily Raines, smartly played by Rene Russo, he can't resist teasing her for taking what he considers a man's job. At a staff meeting he tells her that panache (Leary used the word in a phone call) means "flamboyance." "I knew that," says Raines, defensively. "Oh, really," says Horrigan with a wicked twinkle. "I had to look it up."
Before long, Horrigan is wooing Raines by playing jazz piano — he once did a duet with Nixon on "Moon-glow." He kisses her hard in an elevator and later, in bed, tries to get his and her clothes off before she is called back on the job. The relationship is wholly improbable, but Eastwood and Russo get such a kick out of their sexual sparring that complaints seem downright churlish.
The humor grows malignant in Horrigan's phone conversations with Leary, who taunts the agent about his failure with Kennedy and reminds him of how guilt turned Horrigan to alcohol and ruined his marriage. Leary, a master of disguise, is an evil charmer who can wheedle his way into the house of two single women and break their necks without breaking a sweat. Malkovich is venomously funny and scary enough to freeze the blood. Leary says he and Horrigan have both been betrayed by the government. Without giving away Leary's secret, the maniac does have a legitimate gripe.
For a while the story takes a promising turn into the dark waters of Tightrope, a landmark 1984 film directed by Richard Tuggle, in which Eastwood's character is linked to the sex killer he's tracking. But the script doesn't have the heft to tackle moral ambiguity. Petersen compensates by intensifying the suspense as Horrigan and Leary face off in a hotel where the president is speaking, letting the film get down to the entertaining business of good, old-fashioned bang-bang. At its best, Fire is terrifically exciting — the kind of lean, mean Eastwood fare that shames the overblown antics of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and the other pecs bad boys. Clint is the class act of summer-movie heroes. He laces his action with dry wit and serves it up straight with a twist of sexual swagger. Now that's muscle.