Thrillers are ten-a-penny in Hollywood. Virtually every filmmaker has attempted to create a film that keeps audiences in suspense, while at the same time standing out in a very congested field. Some work, a lot don’t. In the Line of Fire is one that does, a smart, engaging movie made by people who know how to tell a well-constructed story. The film is the latest to receive the 4K release treatment and it looks as crisp and sharp as if it were made yesterday.
Clint Eastwood stars in the lead role of grizzled Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (although he doesn’t direct, handing the reins to Wolfgang Petersen). Horrigan is haunted by the events of November 22, 1963, when he failed to save the life of J.F. Kennedy. Thirty years later, a new President is running for re-election and Horrigan soon learns of a genuine threat against his life. The would-be assassin is Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a highly intelligent creep who gets under Horrigan’s skin. Not wanting to fail again, he gets himself assigned to protection duty, despite the protests of the President’s staff. Meanwhile, Horrigan finds himself developing feelings for fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), while his partner Al (Dylan McDermott) begins to doubt his ability to do his job.
The assassination of President Kennedy has long fascinated historians and filmmakers ever since that fateful nearly sixty years ago. The most famous film made about it is Oliver Stone’s JFK, a compelling, if somewhat inaccurate account of the real-life events and Natalie Portman recently made a biopic about the President’s wife. In the Line of Fire uses the actual assassination and produces a fictionalised agent haunted by his failings. As a plot device pitting a hero against a villain, it’s impeccably done, with high stakes and plenty of drama.
Unlike most thrillers, In the Line of Fire places a big emphasis on characters, turning them into real people. Horrigan initially feels like a Dirty Harry clone, but he’s a much deeper, richer protagonist, with a love of jazz, a life of regret and an urgency to prove himself. He’s given a female love interest who’s initially appalled by him, yet a genuine affection builds between them as she allows him to show his softer side through conversations that are realistic and believable. Even his sidekick and nemesis are real, flawed people, not caricatures and it gives In the Line of Fire a soul and heart other thrillers lack.
Around these characters, the story develops like clockwork. Director Wolfgang Petersen constructs a high-wire game of cat-and-mouse, with little in the way of wasted dialogue or unnecessary diversions. The set-up of the movie is excellent, enough time to create the outline, then it’s on with the plot. His use of foreshadowing is clever and insightful, with earlier scenes being recreated in the climax, leading to a pay-off that is both tense and deliciously logical.
The antagonism between Horrigan and Leary is masterfully created- Leary drip-feeds Horrigan clues, then slowly taunts his psychology by gnawing away at his long-held regret. Leary is cold, calculating and cunning, a truly superb antagonist who is the perfect foil for Horrigan. They are, in many ways, a mirror image of each other on different sides of the fence- as Leary says ‘the irony’s so thick’.
There’s a variety of little details in the film that reflect the emphasis that has been placed on its construction. The production design is surprisingly accurate, with recreations of Air Force One and scenes apparently shot inside the White House itself. A younger Eastwood is strategically placed in digital footage of Kennedy’s arrival in Dallas and the fateful parade- this helps give Horrigan’s history credibility. His love of jazz is reflected in the late Ennio Morricone’s excellent score, which increases the suspense and helps to build character- he knows how to use music to tell a story.
They say a good thriller can be judged by its villain and In the Line of Fire has an inspired one. As played by John Malkovich in an Oscar-nominated performance, Mitch Leary rivals Hans Gruber and Hannibal Lecter for pure malevolence and cruel intelligence. Leary is a man who has no limit, who is willing to do whatever it takes to see his mission through to the end, including creating his own plastic gun. Malkovich has since gone on to play a wide variety of villainous parts, but his work here is a high-point, the springboard that gave him the visibility he deserved. This is the kind of performance that makes your skin crawl and puts your senses on high alert.
As for Clint Eastwood, he’s also on terrific form. Horrigan is the perfect role for him, combining Dirty Harry with William Munny and allowing the veteran star to showcase an emotional edge, one that isn’t afraid to shed a tear or open up about his feelings. With him not directing the movie, he has to work harder in his on-screen role rather than simply going through the motions because it was easier than casting someone else, such as with his lesser directorial works. After the success of Unforgiven, this is Eastwood duplicating his past whilst also looking to the future.
The role of women in certain Eastwood films is often not very memorable, usually just generic love interests. Rene Russo’s Lilly Raines may fit that bill, but there’s more to her than meets the eye. Not only does she share a warm chemistry with Eastwood, she successfully holds her own against the leading man and crafts a character that feels like his equal, even if Horrigan displays the usual chauvinistic attitudes that are part of the ‘Eastwood trope’. She gets herself noticed. In supporting roles, Dylan McDermott fills the ‘son’ to Horrigan’s ‘father’, with Fred Dalton Thompson, Gary Cole and John Mahoney as Horrigan’s stubborn superiors.
In the Line of Fire is superior, high-quality entertainment. It has Eastwood on top form, a sublime turn from John Malkovich and plenty of twists and turns. Its new, glorious home release should give it a new audience, who will get the opportunity to experience one of the finest and most overlooked thrillers of the 1990s. It treats its audience with respect and that’s a very rare thing indeed.
NEWLY REMASTERED IN 4K FROM THE ORIGINAL CAMERA NEGATIVE WITH HDR10
ALL NEW DOLBY ATMOS TRACK and original theatrical 5.1 and stereo
AUDIO COMMENTARY WITH WOLFGANG PETERSEN
‘THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE’ FEATURETTE
‘CATCHING THE COUNTERFEITERS’ FEATURETTE
‘HOW’D THEY DO THAT’ FEATURETTE
‘BEHIND THE SCENES WITH THE SECRET SERVICE’ FEATURETTE
IN THE LINE OF FIRE, FULLY REMASTERED 4K ULTRA HD™ DEBUTING ON JUNE 14