In the Line of Fire

A twisted yet ingenious killer torments a veteran Secret Service agent who’s haunted by his failure years ago to save President John F. Kennedy.

Year: 1993
Certificate: 15
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: Gary Cole, Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Dylan McDermott, Wolfgang Petersen, Rene Russo, John Mahoney, Fred Dalton Thompson, Gregory Alan Williams, Jim Curley, Sally Hughes, Bob Schott, Tobin Bell, John Heard

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“In the Line of Fire” would make for a very different film in 2017. You see, the narrative is predicated on the patriotic willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to save the President of the United States. I think most of us can agree that’s a harder sell in the current climate.

After witnessing the assassination of JFK first-hand, secret service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is taunted back to the presidential protection team by mysterious threats aimed at a 90s-era President. A highly personal game of cat and mouse develops between Frank and the killer-in-waiting (John Malkovich).

The film is deep in only-in-the-movies territory. The President is little more than a narrative pawn, and even the very well performed secondary characters are left to the sidelines. This is all on Eastwood and Malkovich, and their clashes make for enjoyable cinema.

Malkovich is especially watchable. The would-be killer uses disguise and performance – across a spectrum of the US population, from the homeless to a businessman – to shadow Frank’s every move. Malkovich slides thrillingly between characters and gifts us with a compelling villain. Eastwood’s performance is good (and surprisingly lively), but the character lacks the political thoughtfulness of Eastwood’s directorial efforts (this was his second to last starring role in a film he didn’t also direct).

Eastwood’s directorial work has often explored macho narratives through a decidedly political lens, but Wolfgang Petersen, who directs here, displays little of that political nous. Rene Russo fights her corner as a female agent, but the character is dropped when the “manly” stuff gets going, all the while being turned into a (24 years younger) love interest for Frank. It’s touched upon in the dialogue, at least early on, but it’s depressing nonetheless.

It also turns out Eastwood was delivering “geriaction” while Liam Neeson was still a Hollywood fledgling, and with more depth. This is the year after the Oscar triumph of “Unforgiven”, and Eastwood’s very much in late career reflective mode. He may not engage in too many gritty fight scenes, but this isn’t a novelty act. The film actually engages with the reality of its aging protagonist (read: “dinosaur”).

Although, that’s another dropped thread, as the film gives in to, and satiates, a deluded American hero complex. More dangerously, the film celebrates the unfit for office. Frank should absolutely not be given the responsibility he is, yet he defies his failures to save the day. It could be empowering, but Frank’s gun-loving, sexist machismo leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Frank’s penchant for jazz piano hints at 1940s film noir, but this is a character straight out of Eastwood’s 1970s thrillers. However, the 70s paranoid thriller/90s serial killer film crossover never really comes together as hoped. Instead, it’s simply a question of: can Dirty Harry’s conservative vigilantism cut it in the 90s? The answer’s ultimately a hoorah “yes”.

Despite the entertaining acting and some sharp ideas, “In the Line of Fire” is still a by-the-numbers thriller let down by some regressive politics. Heck, even the Ennio Morricone score doesn’t stand out.

Have you seen this film? Let us know your opinions in the comments below and of course if there are any films on Netflix UK you want us to review let us know!

About Benedict

Freelance culture journalist and Film Studies graduate. Netflix is his happy place.

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