The commercial and critical success of Unforgiven (1992) gave Clint Eastwood the opportunity to direct projects that interested him and be choosier in which films he acted. During the 1990s, he focused on appearing in and directing his own films with some he starred (White Hunter, Black Heart), others where he took on a supporting role (A Perfect World) and some where he wasn’t in them at all (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). The notable exception was In the Line of Fire (1993), which Eastwood starred, but did not direct – instead Wolfgang Petersen was brought in to helm the project.
There was a lot of anticipation for In the Line of Fire as Eastwood would be appearing opposite John Malkovich, a highly-regarded actor that got his start in the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago and broke through in films with a deliciously amoral turn in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Line of Fire would see him playing a more standard villain, but no less compelling thanks to the actor’s trademark commitment to the part. The film went on to be a big commercial and critical success.
Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) is a veteran Secret Service Agent breaking in a new, younger partner, Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott), by throwing him into an undercover sting operation that shows how much he has to learn. Frank effortlessly shoots two assailants and casually arrests the ring leader while Al barely escapes with his life. This entire sequence is done in the kind of economical fashion we’ve come to expect from Eastwood films while providing insight into Frank and Al and their new partnership.
After the bust, Frank follows up on a complaint about an apartment’s missing tenant and makes a chilling find: on a wall is a collage of photographs and newspaper clippings about the John F. Kennedy assassination with suggestions that the apartment’s occupant plans to kill the current President of the United States. Frank checks up on the man renting the apartment and finds a fake identity so he and Al go back the next day to find the place cleaned out except for a solitary photo of the Kennedy motorcade with Frank circled in red. It turn outs that he was one of the men protecting Kennedy that day and failed to save him – something that has haunted Frank ever since.
That night, a man calling himself Booth (John Malkovich) calls Frank at home to inform him that he plans to kill the President. Frank uses what clout and seniority he has to get assigned to protect the President despite his age and reputation as a “borderline burnout with questionable social skills,” while also teaming up with a beautiful fellow agent by the name of Lily Raines (Rene Russo). Booth continues to call Frank at his home, taunting him and so begins an intense cat-and-mouse game as the latter tries to figure out where and how the former will try to kill the President. Will Frank be able to protect the President or will he fail like he did with Kennedy?
Thankfully, In the Line of Fire doesn’t shy away from Eastwood’s age or question his ability to do his job alongside much younger people. When his boss and good friend (the always terrific John Mahoney) calls him a dinosaur, incredulously asking if he can still cut the mustard, Frank replies wryly, “I’ve at least one pair of good shoes in the back of the closet somewhere.” The film makes a point of showing Frank huffing and puffing as he sweats it out running alongside the Presidential motorcade. There is even an amusing scene where his coworkers pull a prank on him with paramedics waking him up, while he’s on a break, with a heart attack scare. And yet, what he lacks in physical prowess, Frank more than makes up for in experience and instinct.
Eastwood has always been a smart actor that knows how to work within his limited range while managing to add little flourishes and variations to the kinds of roles he’s played many times over the years. Frank is yet another maverick law enforcement character that the actor effortlessly inhabits. One gets the sense that Eastwood knows he’s too old for the role and has fun with it. He’s also not afraid to play a flawed character. Wracked with a nasty bout of the flu that impairs his judgment, Frank misreads a moment and the President is publicly embarrassed. Eastwood also has a nice scene towards the end of the film when Frank tells Lily about that fateful day in Dallas, 1963. The stoic actor shows an impressive amount of vulnerability as his voice wavers at one point and his lip quivers as Frank comes close to breaking down. It shows how much is at stake for Frank and how personal stopping Booth has become. It makes the final showdown between the two men that much more important because so much is at stake.
Booth is a wonderfully evil role for Malkovich to sink his teeth into, which he does with gusto. Booth is a master of disguise so that no one can remember what he actually looks like and Malkovich approaches the role as if Booth was an actor preparing for the part of a lifetime. The actor brings a chilly determination to the role, playing a ruthless killer not afraid to kill two women who witness a slip-up in one of his disguises. One of the most fascinating aspects of In the Line of Fire is when Frank finds out about Booth’s true identity and how he used to be a CIA assassin by the name of Mitch Leary as recounted in a nicely played scene where Frank and Al cross paths with a CIA agent (an uncredited Steve Railsback).
Once Frank confronts Leary about his true identity, it is the first time the killer breaks his controlled façade, which Malkovich handles brilliantly. Leary blames the government for making him what he is: “Do you have any idea what I’ve done for God and country?! Some pretty fucking horrible things! I don’t even remember who I was before they sunk their claws into me!” Frank goads him by calling Leary a monster to which he replies, “And now they want to destroy me because we can’t have monsters roaming the quiet countryside now can we?” This is perhaps the best exchange between Frank and Leary as Eastwood and Malkovich rise to the occasion. The best parts of In the Line of Fire are the battle of wills between Frank and Leary that play out largely over the phone. As the film progresses Frank gets increasingly frustrated and Leary coolly confident as he tries to get inside the agent’s head. It is great to see the likes of Eastwood and Malkovich square off against each other, their different approaches to acting bouncing off each other.
Rene Russo does her best with an underwritten role and shares some nice scenes with Eastwood, including one early on where Frank and Lily casually flirt on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, a romantic subplot between the two agents is awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative and could have easily been removed as it is completely unnecessary. It seems only to serve Eastwood’s vanity. Thankfully, this subplot plays a small part and is dropped partway through when the pursuit of Leary intensifies.
Director Wolfgang Petersen does a nice job juggling all the thriller aspects with the more personal, character moments so that we care about what happens to Frank and understand what motivates Leary. As he demonstrated with Das Boot (1981), Petersen is adept at orchestrating action sequences as evident in the exciting rooftop chase between Frank and Al and Leary. I also like how the film shows Frank doing all kinds of investigative legwork. He follows up leads, interviews people and so on to track down Leary. Frank has to rely on his intelligence to piece together the clues that Leary has left scattered behind like a trail of bread crumbs.
Producer Jeff Apple first became fascinated by the Secret Service as a teenager. In 1983, he decided to develop his idea into a film. He raised enough money independently to hire fellow New York University classmate Ken Friedman to write the screenplay. This version featured a flawed older agent with a younger one involved with a television anchor. The Kennedy assassination was not included at this point. They were shopping it around Hollywood 18 months later. Two months after that, director Michael Apted showed some interest in the concept, but wanted a few script revisions.
Dustin Hoffman was the next person to show an interest in the script. He had a deal with Columbia Pictures and the project came close to getting the go-ahead. However, a week later the studio’s management team was replaced. The new chairman did not get along with Hoffman who left Columbia as a result. Two years later he had a new deal with Warner Bros., but had lost interest in the project. Apple spent two more years shopping the script around again.
A young executive at Disney’s Hollywood Pictures was interested and asked for a rewrite. After struggling for years, screenwriter Jeff Maguire met with Apple (the two were friends) and rewrote the script on spec. This version drew the attention of Robert Redford. After he moved on, it was then suggested that they go after Sean Connery. Maguire revised the script so that the older Secret Service agent was Irish-born and liked Kennedy. Connery was given the script, but decided to appear in Rising Sun (1993). Executives at another production company requested that Maguire rewrite the script for someone younger, like Tom Cruise, to play the agent. This involved jettisoning the Kennedy assassination element and the screenwriter refused, holding out for a better offer despite being broke.
A friend gave his script to a casting director who gave it to someone at United Talent Agency. Within a few days, Castle Rock Entertainment and Paramount Pictures were bidding for it. The former won in April 1992 and Eastwood got involved soon afterwards. Eastwood and Maguire met and discussed who should be cast as the villain with the likes of Robert Duvall and Jack Nicholson mentioned. Eastwood’s agent said that another of his clients, John Malkovich, was available. When Malkovich first read the script he didn’t think it was right for him because it was so mainstream and he was used to doing art house fare. However, he was a fan of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra, a fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, and was interested in playing an assassin. He was also a fan of Eastwood’s work and thought it would be fun playing opposite him.
Eastwood had final approval of the film’s director and chose Petersen because he liked the man’s work on Das Boot. He felt that the European would have a different perspective on the American subject matter. “I didn’t want somebody who was brand new to the field. I wanted somebody with experience.” Years before, Petersen had actually written his own Secret Service script entitled, The Invisible Men. There were problems with it and he postponed the project, but remained interested in the subject matter. Petersen was a long-time fan of Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns and so when the actor brought him on board to make In the Line of Fire, the director called and got Ennio Morricone to score the film. Petersen encouraged Malkovich to improvise during principal photography and this included messing with Eastwood. For example, during one of the phone conversations between Frank and Leary, Malkovich unexpectedly yelled the line, “Show me some goddamned respect!” This actually made Eastwood break into a sweat.
In the Line of Fire enjoyed most positive reviews among critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Eastwood is perfect for the role, as a man of long experience and deep feelings. He is set off by an inspired performance by Malkovich, who is quiet and methodical and very clever … Most thrillers these days are about stunts and action. In the Line of Fire has a mind.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “In the Line of Fire is so neatly constructed that even though Frank and Mitch confront each other quite early, the tension of the virtually movie-long chase does not let up until the end … In the Line of Fire is one of the few Hollywood suspense melodramas that don’t seem to ignore the realities of the world outside. It uses them.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “it’s hard to see how In the Line of Fire could be anything less than rock-solid entertainment-and indeed, it is. Yet it’s never more than that. Though the movie is engrossing, it lacks something: fire, weirdness, originality.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “In his uniquely snaky way, Malkovich is terrific. He’s a particularly effective antagonist for Eastwood because Malkovich’s powers are verbal – he can twist a word like a pretzel – and Eastwood’s are physical.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Petersen brings many of the same qualities as Eastwood himself would to the project, including a lean, unadorned style, a concern with pace and an emphasis on keeping the audience intrigued.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe called it, “watchable, great fun.” Finally, Gene Siskel gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “Eastwood gives a captivating performance as a flawed hero, the same sort of role he’s been playing for years, most recently in Unforgiven. Because of the praise he’s received lately as a director, people may forget he’s a classic, minimalist actor.”
In the Line of Fire is an expertly made political thriller with an enthralling cat-and-mouse game at its heart and two fascinating characters pitted against each other. Petersen orchestrates all the elements like a seasoned pro with no-nonsense direction that doesn’t draw attention to itself, instead letting us get caught up in the story and the struggle between Frank, the determined agent, and Leary, the equally committed assassin. The end result is an engaging popcorn movie with nothing on its mind other than to entertain, which it does admirably.
Cagle, Jess. “The Touch of Evil.” Entertainment Weekly. August 6, 1993.
Eller, Claudia. “In the Line of Fire: Whose Movie Is It Anyway?” Los Angeles Times. July 13, 1993.
Rea, Steven. “For Line of Fire Director, A Chance to Work with a Long-Ago Hero.” Philadelphia Inquirer. July 11, 1993.
Verniere, James. “Clint Eastwood Stepping Out.” Sight & Sound. September 1993.
Weinraub, Bernard. “With Line of Fire Writer Discovers Ending for Hollywood-Failure.” The New York Times. July 20, 1993.