Here’s a movie not directed by Clint Eastwood (it’s Wolfgang Peterson, the DAS BOOT guy) but like alot of his directorial works of the past 20 years it deals with him getting old. Clint plays a Secret Service agent named Frank Horrigan. He’s still working but he’s washed up – he was there when JFK got shot and is still haunted by his failure. After that he became a huge asshole, he started drinking and his wife and daughter left. But this is Clint we’re talking about so we still like him, and also he plays jazz piano.
This is a good example of those ’90s big budget studio action thrillers along the lines of EXECUTIVE DECISION and DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE, movies that depict the workings of a city and its various departments as they respond to an emergency. In this case it’s the Secret Service responding to a threat against the president. We see Clint and his new partner (Dylan McDermott, or possibly Dermot Mulrooney – I don’t know which is which so if it’s important to you check IMDb) making their rounds, so first they have to shoot some guys over counterfeit money, then they have to check out a report of “some weirdo.” It just so happens that this is the one in a thousand of those calls that really is a dude planning to kill the president. He’s not home but he sees Clint in his apartment from afar and the game begins.
If you can rent this without knowing who plays the villain then you should go ahead and do that right now. I’ll wait. But most of you already know that the villain is played by former WWF superstar Jake “The Snake” Roberts in a career-defining role. Actually that’s not true, that was a spoiler buffer, it’s actually John Malkovich. He’s a challenge for Clint because he’s real devious and smart. He hand makes his own metal-free zip gun and sets up a false identity to get into campaign rallies. He’s a master of disguise. He finds a way to scramble his phone line so he can call Clint untraced and taunt him about things he read about him in magazines, or to pretend like he thinks they’re buddies.
The guy is bitter toward the government, he’s a master killer and certain agencies are not cooperative in catching him. And you know what that means: disgruntled CIA assassin. But instead of playing him like a Seagal character this is a creepy Malkovich character. He’s arrogant because he knows he’s smarter than you, but he’s emotionally vulnerable because he’s, you know, crazy. In one scene he gets a gun pointed in his face so he puts it in his mouth and smiles (apparently that was improv – Malkovich you sick fuckin bastard). He calls himself “Booth” because he thinks John Wilkes had “panache” and he’s a showman himself. He takes unneccessary risks to spy on Clint or embarass him with false alarms. I think he’s actaully pretty scary and one of the great villains of ’90s film and cinema. He deservedly got a supporting actor Oscar nomination but lost to Tommy Lee Jones in THE FUGITIVE, another one of these big budget respectable actor action thrillers of the era.
According to IMDb Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman were both attached to the role of Frank Horrigan (at different times – it wasn’t some weird Bunuel shit I don’t think). They say it was also offered to Sean Connery and that Val Kilmer (!?) was considered. So there were probaly some rewrites, but by the time Clint was on board the character almost could’ve been Dirty Harry with a new job. He’s got the doomed partner. He’s got the reckless abandon (while undercover he fires a gun at McRooney/MulDermott’s head even though he’s not 100% it’s empty). There’s a rooftop chase like in THE ENFORCER (unfortunately without the jazz). There’s even a bit of his ENFORCER era chauvinism when he tells Renee Russo that as a female agent she’s just “window dressing.” Funny, because this ain’t the ’70s, this is 1993. So that’s pretty Dirty. But he’s older now, he gets so winded from running that people think he’s gonna die.
Frank Horrigan has one thing Harry Callahan doesn’t, and that’s the top shelf badass juxtaposition of being a pianist. I know Clint really plays – not sure if he did for the movie – but it’s the perfect sensitive side for this character to have. With the pressure of protecting presidents on your back you might as well have an outlet, and this is a sad and beautiful one. After a long day of almost getting killed he slips into a little bar for some piano blues. He also uses it to woo Renee Russo and to make her laugh when she rejects him. At home he has a Miles Davis CD – a jazz musician who presonifies COOL just as much as Clint does.
Speaking of music, it’s worth noting that Ennio Morricone did the score. That’s kind of cool seeing as how both are best known for THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. According to my calculations this was the first movie they did together since TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA 23 years earlier. (they did it 23 years earlier, it was not a part 23 they they did an unspecified number of years earlier)
I like that after UNFORGIVEN got him best director and best picture Oscars Clint still had another commercial movie like this in him. People were probaly saying “Okay, you win Oscars now, you’re a serious director. You’re too old to do action movies.” And okay, by then he probaly already had this one in the can. But fuck reality, I like to believed that just like Horrigan Clint is stubborn and knows what he wants, and made this movie to prove that he could still do it. Also like the character his cover was blown at the end so he couldn’t do that anymore. He really did become a full time director, not acting in other people’s movies after this one.
Seeing him in a movie like this, though, makes me wish that he would feel like doing another DIRTY HARRY. He doesn’t seem entirely opposed to doing one except that he can’t see what a good story would be. I would love to see a movie about what happens when somebody wrongs a long retired Inspector Callahan. He would still be a gun nut of course, but he couldn’t jump across roofs or off bridges. So he’d really have to out-think this guy.
Well, that’ll probaly never happen. But at least this one did. If you’re into this type of picture then please be aware that IN THE LINE OF FIRE is one of the good ones.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.