This is possibly Clint Eastwood’s best movie. The Wikipedia entry, from which I’m getting details, notes this is Eastwood’s last film he did not direct. It’s In the Line of Fire from 1993 out of Columbia Pictures. Images are from Amazon Prime Video.
This is an action, personal crisis, psychological mind game, romantic entanglement plot, and there’s enough action, intrigue, and psycho gaming to keep the audience going for two hours and eight minutes. Opening scenes build to a heart-stopping peak.
Eastwood is Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan, working under cover with his partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) to bust a counterfeiting gang. Things go immediately wrong as gang leader Mendoza (Tobin Bell) tags Al as a government agent, and orders Frank to shoot him as a demonstration of good faith. As Al sweats, Frank pulls the trigger. “Click.” The gun is empty. This has been only a test of faith and nerve. Frank hands over the empty gun and gets his own back. He immediately uses it to neutralize Mendoza’s two henchmen and turns to cover Mendoza, who’s holding the empty gun. Click. It’s all over, and Mendoza heads for the clink with unkind thoughts about Agent Horrigan, to be sure.
The shift is not over for the dangerous duo, and they swing by to talk to an overly suspicious landlady. She has several times called the feds about her tenant, and she lets Frank and Al into the room to check it out. What they discover is the refuge of a mind with an unhealthy obsession with killing presidents. Not only is this kind of obsession unhealthy, it is also illegal. One thing sticks out. It’s a news photo of the Kennedy assassination featuring an image of Agent Horrigan in his younger days (by about 30 years). And Frank’s face has been circled with a felt-tip pen. This is getting personal.
Unfortunately, psychotic assassin Mitch Leary is one step ahead. He observers from afar the two agents scoping out his apartment, and when they return to clean up and make a nab the place is empty, save a blunt warning to Agent Horrigan posted on the wall.
The case ramps up, and additional agents are assigned, including Agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo), no shrinking violet, but with enough X chromosomes to get Frank’s attention.
Meanwhile, the psycho with a hard on for the President of the United States (Jim Curley) is busy cooking up his assassination plan, which involves opening a phony bank account. He is Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), who formerly performed wet work for the CIA. His termination skills come in handy multiple times, as in this case, where he shows up at the home of the bank clerk, who had asked embarrassing questions back at the bank.
Meanwhile, biology kicks in, as Agents Horrigan and Raines go off-shift and horizontal. Wouldn’t you know it? The telephone again claims first place as a contraceptive.
For some reason Leary has the need to test a homemade plastic pistol at a wilderness pond. Two hunters happen by at the wrong time and go the way of the bank clerk and her house mate.
Running the length of the plot is Frank’s failure to stop Lee Oswald’s second shot 30 years before. Leary taunt’s Frank from time to time, promising to embarrass by making him the only agent to lose two presidents. To cap it all, Leary kills Agent D’Andrea while the two are attempting to run him down. Frank’s aggressive campaign to thwart Leary puts him at odds with the administration and finally the Secret Service command. He is ordered off the presidential detail and on to San Diego on the advance team.
Then lightning strikes. Frank asks Agent Chavez (Joshua Malina) for the phone number of the San Diego office. Chavez gives it to him as seven-letter word, “ukelele,” misspelling it. Misspelled or not, that’s the phone number.
Now another word makes sense. Frank punches “skellum” into the phone pad, and he gets the office of South West Savings, where Leary opened the bank account. It’s soon learned the clerk has since been murdered.
Yes, Leary opened the bank account in order to write a large check for the President’s campaign, earning him a seat at a front table at a fund-raising dinner in Los Angeles. Frank arrives in time to spot Leary and to take the bullet.
And that about ends the movie. Fortunately Frank was wearing body armor, and he is able to pursue Leary and engineer his exit from the plot. Frank is heading for retirement and some serious sack time with Agent Raines. And it has all been fun to watch.
What there is about this plot are some points difficult to absorb. When Abraham Lincoln became the first president to be killed in office, there were no news photographers around, let alone video. By 1981, when John Hinkley shot President Reagan, the cameras were rolling as Hinkley emptied his revolver at the President. We got to see how real Secret Service agents act in such a situation, and if the Dallas Cowboys could only get that much coordination they would be the national champions right now.
What we saw in Washington D.C. was a swarm of agents on top of Hinkley in a flash while at the same time another swarm of agents was hustling the President into the car.
Fiction is supposed to make sense, but this plot does not. Here is the President, surrounded by agents when Leary gets off his one shot. Where is the swarm of agents on top of him before he can use his second, and last, shot to kill the agent who orders him to drop his weapon? No, people. That is never going to happen.
We see Leary drag the injured Frank Horrigan onto an elevator while agents stand around, unable to do anything. That’s necessary in order for the plot to feature Leary’s dramatic death scene as he plummets from the several stories up onto a glass roof. In the end, fiction has defeated reality.
The plot does leave open the fate of the two unfortunate hunters. Possibly off-camera the Secret Service is able to tie Leary’s zip gun to their deaths.
Fred Thompson is featured prominently as the President’s chief of staff, Harry Sargent. He followed up by taking over Al Gore’s seat in the Senate when Gore became Vice President the following year. He followed that up with a role as a district attorney in Law and Order on TV. In 2008 he was briefly a candidate for the Republican nomination for President. He died last year.
This appears to be Joshua Malina‘s second major film, having previously appeared in A Few Good Men, based on a plot by Aaron Sorkin and previously reviewed. Shortly thereafter, he popped up in another Sorkin plot, The American President and again later in Sorkin’s The West Wing. He may be type cast as a government employee.
John Malkovich earned the Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role, and the film garnered additional nominations. Latest word is a TV series is planned.