`Line Of Fire': To Serve And Reflect -- Eastwood Makes The Most Of Guilt

Movie review

XXX "In the Line of Fire," with Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, John Mahoney. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, from a script by Jeff Maguire. Alderwood, Enumclaw, Everett 9, Factoria, Gateway, Kirkland Parkplace, Metro, Newmark, Oak Tree, Parkway Plaza, Puget Park and Valley drive-ins. "R" - Restricted, due to violence, language. -------------------------------------------------------------------

"A living legend, the only active agent who ever lost a president."

That's how Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who has punished himself for three decades for "losing" JFK in Dallas, identifies himself in "In the Line of Fire."

Before the movie is over, Frank will have more to feel guilty about, as he endangers the life of his partner (Dylan McDermott), takes risks that embarrass the current president (a nonentity played by Jim Curley) and reluctantly joins in the mental games played by Mitch Leary, a would-be assassin who's got his number.

John Malkovich plays this initially mysterious telephone crank, who gradually becomes more dangerous and understandably nihilistic as the plot advances. Mitch has his reasons as well as his methods. Given his background, it's not surprising that he has nearly telepathic powers.

Like Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs," Mitch enjoys seeking out psychological weak spots and manipulating people, constantly reminding Frank of his failings and questioning whether a bodyguard's job is ultimately heroic or absurd. Malkovich plays the role with wicked enthusiasm.

As Frank, Clint Eastwood is even better. Now 63, Eastwood seems to have been saving himself up for parts like this, in which he can appear spiritually and physically exhausted, yet remain as determined and defiant as Dirty Harry. He makes Frank's guilt much more than a plot device, carefully turning it into the underlying motivation for most of Frank's professional behavior.

This is a worthy follow-up performance to Eastwood's "Unforgiven" Oscar victory, even if the script by Jeff Maguire isn't as ambitious or as literate as David Webb Peoples' writing for "Unforgiven." Maguire spends too much time working up an implausible romance between the aging Frank and a younger agent (Rene Russo) that unfortunately recalls "The Bodyguard" (so does the climax), but eventually he gets back on track.

For the most part, this is an exciting, engaging thriller, well-directed by Wolfgang Petersen, a German filmmaker whose best movie, "Das Boot," was released more than a decade ago. Like many European directors disoriented by the Hollywood system, Petersen has made some overblown misfires ("Enemy Mine," "Shattered"), but "In the Line of Fire" demonstrates again that he is a world-class filmmaker.

Working with veteran cinematographer John Bailey ("Silverado") and editor Anne Coates ("Lawrence of Arabia"), Petersen uses the Washington, D.C., locations particularly well, making dramatic use of several D.C. landmarks and staging a suspenseful, vertigo-inducing rooftop chase with the Capitol in the background. Perhaps it takes a foreigner to make the familiar locations look so thrillingly exotic.

Petersen also makes the most of the script's ironies, including a wonderfully absurd showdown between CIA and FBI agents invading the same abandoned house, and he doesn't use the peripheral characters only to advance the plot. John Mahoney, Fred Dalton Thompson and especially McDermott are allowed to act as if their characters had lives and dilemmas of their own.