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By Alan Scherstuhl
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Poor Al D'Andrea. He's doomed. It's hard to look him in the eye because you know he's going to die soon.
Al is not an AIDS patient, a Somali warlord, a gangbanger, or a journalist in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's worse than that. Al is the latest guy to hold the job with the world's highest mortality rate: Dirty Harry's partner.
Well, okay, technically Al's partner's name isn't Harry Callahan. It's Frank Horrigan. And he's not a cop in San Francisco playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a psychotic serial killer. He's a Secret Service agent playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a psychotic assassin.
But if you doubt for one second that the character Clint Eastwood plays in his first film since he and his Unforgiven cohorts held up the Academy Awards and got away with four gold statues is anything other than an updated Callahan in a better-fitting suit, try explaining away these uncanny similarities:
Horrigan is a loner -- tough, uncompromising, constantly at odds with his supervisors. He's certain of his correctness even in the face of everyone else's doubts, and he's not afraid to confront and upbraid his peers when he thinks they've screwed up. He's also a workaholic; his devotion to his job cost him his first wife. He's never gotten over it. And, most tellingly, Horrigan's partner Al, who has a family and a life beyond his badge, will die because of his proximity to the man.
The plot is all conveyed in the trailer. Horrigan was a young buck assigned to the Secret Service detail whose job it was to protect JFK that fateful November day in Dallas. Horrigan failed to react quickly enough to shield Kennedy from the second bullet and has never forgiven himself for it. Three decades later, a rogue CIA assassin with an axe to grind decides to take out the chief executive. Horrigan has to stop him. Sure, the hundreds of other agents assigned to looking after the president's health have something to do with it, but what's a Clint Eastwood movie without the mano a mano slant? Dirty Harry boiled down to Callahan versus Scorpio on a school bus. In the Line of Fire stages the final confrontation in the glass-walled exterior of a posh hotel. The only real suspense is whether Horrigan takes a bullet for the Prez. (And if so, will he live?) Dirty Harry fans already know the answer.
So In the Line of Fire is predictable. Why, then, is it so damned enjoyable?
Quality acting goes a long way toward explaining the film's appeal. Clint is aging wonderfully. At 63, he still looks like he could take out a bank-robbing punk with one punch (or one bullet, depending upon his mood). As he did in Unforgiven, the Nineties Eastwood allows the screenplay to poke fun at the carefully constructed macho image he's fashioned for himself, without going over the edge. (Are you listening, Arnold?) Frank Horrigan is classic Clint: tenacious as a mongoose, stubborn as a bureaucrat, yet with a window of physical as well as emotional vulnerability. Who better than Eastwood, the quintessential violent action hero, to drag the archetype to higher moral ground as the actor matures?
Whether Horrigan puffs and wheezes alongside the Presidential motorcade as he struggles to keep pace on foot, or fights back tears as he admits that even he doesn't understand his hesitation in Dallas, Eastwood is the picture of restraint and understatement. When he teaches the female Secret Service agent he's sweet on how to keep a crowd at bay with nothing more lethal than an icy stare, the inside joke is at once impressive and disarming. Like Unforgiven's Bill Munny, this hero is flawed, haunted, complex, and only too human. He might even be chicken (Horrigan's unwillingness to sacrifice his own life figures into Al's death as well as JFK's).
John Malkovich as the bad guy, Rene Russo as the feisty love interest, and Dylan McDermott as the unlucky partner all do justice to the example set by Clint's accomplished portrayal. Malkovich's assassin deserves special mention because of the breadth and depth the actor imparts to a character who is essentially a loose cannon with no qualms about murdering for the sake of expediency. You don't really sympathize with him, but you understand him.
Director Wolfgang Petersen made Das Boot and The Neverending Story before succumbing to the temptations of a bloated Hollywood budget and churning out the muddled Shattered. Almost as much as Frank Horrigan, he was a man in need of redemption. By generating suspense out of a story with a foregone conclusion (the president does not get assassinated) and making a two-hour movie from a premise that can be fleshed out in a 30-second TV commercial, he's earned it.
Too bad he couldn't do anything to save Al.
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