In The Line of Fire (1993)

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen; Written by Jeff Maguire

There’s a scene in Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire where Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan runs along the presidential motorcade. Played by a 62-year Clint Eastwood, he looks like a metaphor for white men’s arrogance. Eastwood, an icon but here a grandpa-looking man, tries to keep up with a car, hacking, sweating, with one hand on the hood seemingly more for support than to protect. 

Horrigan knows the optics are bad; he doesn’t care. Eastwood knows it too; he doesn’t care. More importantly, Petersen knows it too, because he wanted it this way. All three men, fictional and real, know it’s a young person’s world, yet they insist on doing their thing, because they know there’s a point to it and one day their kind will be all but gone. 

For Horrigan, it’s protecting a president from a sharp assassin and exorcising the demons that have tormented him since November 22, 1963 when John F. Kennedy was shot and killed right beside him. For Eastwood, it’s a standout example of his late-career penchant for playing subversive takes on the tough men archetypes he helped create. For Petersen, it’s making the only movie he knows how to make, which happens to be the best kind of Hollywood action flick. The one that knows its silly excesses, embraces them in full earnestness, and attains a certain greatness by riding roughshod over those who would look down on it for it. 

Because it is crazy and over-the-top. Eastwood hisses at his adversaries, conducts his police work in a matter we might deem to be fascist-esque today, and opposite him as the hopeful assassin you have John Malkovich as an oily operative who almost coos at Frank as he taunts him over the many phone calls they share. It’s intrigue in an alternate universe, a fantastical one, produced in plastic and likely to snap if you apply too much pressure to it. But it’s a treat to look at. 

Yes, In the Line of Fire feeds you the standard diet of explosions, chases and fisticuffs, and does all these things well too, but there’s also sentimentalism that Petersen doesn’t shy away from. Ennio Morricone’s score is both bombastic and mournful, mirroring a film of hard men doing action hero things while the sands of time are slipping through their fingers and they wonder if there’s enough left for what they want to accomplish.

As an overall production, In the Line of Fire is closer to the 80s than its 1993 release date. Eastwood might have been slightly more believable in the role of Horrigan, who despite his old-man energy still can pack a punch, do investigative work and scamper across rooftops with the best of them. Cinematographer John Bailey isn’t quite as lively with his lens and artful with his framing like some of his contemporary peers, like Donald Peterman in Point Break and Oliver Wood in Face/Off. Compare this film’s rooftop chase with the one that opens The Matrix, released six years later, and In the Line of Fire feels like it’s closer to Vertigo in time. 

Perhaps the only thing that feels truly outdated is the unlikely romantic subplot between Harrigan and fellow Secret Service Agent Raines, played by Rene Russo. With a 24-year age gap between her and Eastwood, and a courting process rich on hammy jokes (and some thinly misogynistic), the old boys club shines through. 

What does Petersen’s film offer, squeezed in between these action film classics that still have caché today and whose influence is still felt? A sense of irony and an embrace thereof. We now live in a cynical age. Superheroes are worshiped, but these fantastical universes want so badly to be taken seriously. Batman ponders the limits of fascism. Iron Man considers his role in the escalating cycle of violence. Hawkeye despairs at the futility of what they do. The gilded kid’s table isn’t enough. 

In the Line of Fire offers no such pretense. Eastwood is great as a self-effacing, even emotional, tough guy, Malkovich is pitch-perfect ludicrous opposite him, and they circle each other in a mad dance that’s so of its time and made all the more captivating by its kind now gone extinct. True popcorn fare.

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