All the elements are familiar:
--the law enforcement officer who's lost a step and wonders if he's also lost his nerve,
--the psycho killer who wants attention so badly that he establishes a dialogue with a journalist or officer,
--the killer who isn't content to just commit crimes and take credit, but wants to make it more of a challenge, more of a game,
--the psycho who tries to get into the cop's head,
--the law enforcement agency who doesn't trust the officer and either removes him/her from the case or reassigns them,
--and, of course, the obligatory partner and potential love interest.
But with Clint Eastwood in front of the camera and his hand-picked director, Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot") behind it, "In the Line of Fire" really works as a superior thriller with enough character development to spare. Petersen would go to direct another film out of the same mold, "Air Force One," and the two have much in common. They're both thrillers that are also star vehicles, borrowing their structure from the chess match in which each move offers some measure of both surprise and inevitability.
If you pull off John Malkovich's shirt, I'll bet that somewhere in the vicinity of his heart is a tattoo that reads Born to play creeps. The Steppenwolf Theatre co-founder is at it again in this 1993 film, playing an assassin trained by the CIA who goes off the deep end and becomes obsessed with the idea of picking off the ultimate target: the President of the United States. He plasters his apartment with a collage made up of JFK and other assassination coverage like your typical wack-job, but he's far from typical. This guy devises more elaborate ways of inching closer to his goal and spends much more time and money than the average nut-case who wants to grab his 15 minutes of fame--albeit negative minutes.
There are two spots where the artifice shows through and we become conscious of the screenplay's structure, but aside from that Jeff Maguire gives us an intelligent script with believable situations and dialogue. It's the only movie I've watched where you actually see Secret Service doing routine things like sealing manhole covers at every location before the presidential motorcade passes through. Some women might object to a side plot that probably didn't need to be--one which shows Secret Service Agent Lily Raines (Rene Russo) going from being insulted by Frank Horrigan's old-fashioned sexism and feeling sorry for him being the only living Agent who lost a president, to quickly hopping in the sack with him. He should be so swift in the field, where he's clearly lost a step.
When the film opens, Horrigan (Eastwood) had been demoted from protecting the President to ferreting out counterfeiters--since the Secret Service is really a branch of the Treasury Department. He's brought back into the Presidential protection team after the would-be assassin targets him as the person he wants to talk to, his "friend." In a year that earlier saw Fred Thompson running for president, it's kind of fun to see him play the White House chief of staff who wants nothing to do with Horrigan-a man he thinks is so tormented by guilt over the JFK assassination that he's lost his worth, a man so on-guard now that he sees assassination attempts everywhere. Even in popped balloons at a rally.
The trouble is, the assassin, Mitch Leary, may have had something to do with those popped balloons, as he seems to be controlling much of the flow of the action. Malkovich relishes the role, and does a sneeringly good job of it, while the part of the agent going up against a psycho killer takes a page right from the Dirty Harry saga, so Eastwood is also at home as the veteran who still has his instincts. That, as we see, is worth an awful lot, even though he's conscious that everyone else thinks of him as "a borderline burnout with questionable social skills." Heck, if he wasn't, this movie wouldn't be as much fun as it is.
Given the mystique that still surrounds John F. Kennedy and his assassination, it's fascinating (and yes, disturbing) to contemplate the burden that those Secret Service agents might have carried for the rest of their lives after that dark day in November. Petersen clearly feels that too, and explores the idea without turning it into the typical psychological wound that cripples a person. Horrigan is still plenty functional, and the way he deals with his guilt is almost as interesting as the way he follows his instincts in order to prevent that worst-case-scenario from happening again. If there's a thankless part, it's the role of Horrigan's partner, the reluctant Agent Al D'Andrea, who only seems to be written in as someone for Horrigan to instruct in semi-haughty Diry Harry fashion. Even Gary Cole's role as an agent in charge has some snippy moments that must have been fun to play, but poor Dylan McDermott is mostly the logistical sidekick, and not a lot more. That's not a huge weakness, though, because our interest is, after all, in what Dirty Harry . . . I mean, Frank Horrigan is thinking or doing. And in that regard, both Eastwood and Petersen deliver. There are some hokey and predictable moments, but by and large this film holds its own.
"In the Line of Fire" was transferred to a BD-50 dual-layered disc using AVC/MPEG-4 encoding, and for the most part the 1080p picture looks very good. Presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the film offers pleasingly saturated colors for a catalog title and a nice amount of detail. Black levels are satisfactory, but there's a light graininess that's noticeable in a number of scenes, especially outdoor shots where the sky is light.
Sony went with a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 on this title, with audio options in English, French, and Portuguese, a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Dutch, Bahasa, and Korean.
This is a quiet thriller, meaning it's a little more cerebral than it is whiz-bang action frame after frame, and so you don't really get the feeling that this audio soundtrack has been put through its paces--kind of like driving a Corvette Stingray at 30 miles per hour. What's here, though, is well mixed, with a nice balance between the dialogue and FX. The bass is robust but not rumbling, and while the spread across the front speakers could have been wider, it's still not so narrow that it confines the sound centrally.
All of the bonus features are in standard definition and English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with subtitles in French, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and Dutch. Two roughly 20-minute documentaries from the Special Edition appear here: "In the Line of Fire: The Ultimate Sacrifice," and "Behind the Scenes with the Secret Service." The latter gives us Bob Snow, former assistant director of the Secret Service and the film's technical adviser, along with the usual clips and interviews. Frankly, though, they're pretty average. I wanted a little more information. Then again, if they told us, they'd probably have to kill us. Two mini-features of half the length are also carried over from the Special Edition: "How'd They Do That?" and "Catching the Counterfeiters," which gives more basic overview. There are five deleted scenes as well-the same ones from the DVD-and a commentary by director Wolfgang Petersen that's also carried over from the DVD and is worth listening to, because Petersen talks about his other movies as well. Not feeling comfortable appearing by himself, Petersen asked J. M. Kinney, producer of the Special Edition DVD, to join him. It's an emotional crutch, though, because Petersen has no trouble talking through the process, prompted by Kinney's occasional questions.
"In the Line of Fire" is a solid entry in the Eastwood oeuvre, one which manages to sustain its tension while also giving viewers characters that aren't just driven by the plot. That's what good writing and good direction can do for a film.