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Silver Screen Streak List #24: 03. In the Line of Fire (1993)

Silver Screen Streak List #24: 03. In the Line of Fire (1993)

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Written by dorrk
24 February 2024

The year 1993 sometimes looks like it was the peak of mainstream Hollywood action/thriller blockbusters. The roster that year was ridiculous: Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, The Firm, Cliffhanger, and In the Line of Fire all came out between Memorial Day and Labor Day, making it a summer of Box Office riches. Looking back, the more interesting thing about that period in mainstream thrillers is how this blue-collar genre very briefly crossed over with the prestige drama and was taken seriously by critics. One of those movies, The Fugitive, was one of five Oscar nominees for Best Picture; and its co-star Tommy Lee Jones picked up the Best Supporting Actor prize, beating out In the Line of Fire's nominee John Malkovich. In the Line of Fire also got a nomination for Jeff Maguire's original screenplay, a highly unusual nod of respect for a genre accustomed to buckling down for more visceral stimulation.

That this prestige didn't stick shouldn't be a surprise: the most explosively successful, enduring, and transformative of that crop, Jurassic Park, was also the most spectacular and cartoonishly written (arguably; Cliffhanger was no literary accomplishment). Comparatively, In the Line of Fire is, today, little more than a footnote of its time, but in 1993 it was marrying the previous years' triumphs of Clint Eastwood's agile spin of his crusty aging persona into the Oscar-winning Unforgiven (1992) and the sincere paranoid Boomer nostalgia of Oliver Stone's JFK (1991). 

I went to see In the Line of Fire on its opening weekend in July 1993. At that time, I was far more interested in the upsurge of indie/cult thrillers signified by Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the imported John Woo and Jackie Chan movies playing at the arthouse cinemas, and In the Line of Fire left me largely unimpressed.

With that context, here's my mental journey while revisiting Wolfgang Petersen's 1993 thriller In the Line of Fire:

  • Malkovich Malkovich. Now, as then, the jewel in this movie is John Malkovich, who ably upholds the trend of Alan Rickman-inspired sophisticated thriller villains, the main factor responsible for the genre's newfound respect. Malkovich was at his peak. Bizarrely, this movie earned him only his second and last (to-date) Oscar nomination. In the last two decades, he has almost completely disappeared from mainstream cinema. Maybe once he became the most profound pre-social media meme in Spike Jones' brilliant Being John Malkovich (1999) he felt there was little left for him to accomplish in film.
  • The cast in this. John Mahoney is always perfect. Gary Cole is always a douche. Future Senator Fred Dalton Thompson gets a peek, as do John Heard, Steve Railsback, and future West Winger Josh Malina. It was an era of character actors with gravitas.
  • It is no spoiler to guess that Dylan McDermott's character is going to die. He's the bumbling partner of Clint Eastwood. He's doomed.
  • Late-stage (then it seemed like 'late-stage;' I guess it was actually 'middle-stage') Eastwood's gruffness was perfectly seasoned in this. It's so comfortable. I don't know that this dynamic helps in a tense thriller, but it's fun to watch.
  • The insertion of Eastwood's character into photos and footage of the Kennedy assassination beats Forrest Gump (1994) to this special effect by a year and, by my derisive recollection of Gump, does it better. (Zelig (1983) did even earlier and to better effect.)
  • A masterful showcase of premium 'angry phone acting.'
  • Am I the only one who gets a thrill when I recognize locations from other movies? I instantly associated the Biltmore Hotel's lobby with Suicide Kings (1997), which I didn't care for but watched for the first time about a year ago. Hold this thought, though, as one of my favorite movie locations of all time is coming up later.
  • It's a bit of a stretch to buy Eastwood's aging Frank as an active Secret Service agent; the script at least acknowledges this and makes it a facet of the story. Even more of a stretch, Frank seems easily distracted and not even particularly good at his job.
  • Looking back, this is an oddball candidate for the "Prestige Thriller" era: the script is more playful than it is serious, especially concerning Frank's life outside of work and specifically in the forced romance with the much younger Lilly (Renee Russo, 24 years younger than Eastwood). It's self-aware of this, and makes fun of it, but does it work within the movie?
  • This is maybe the only movie ever to try and eke romance out of a young woman helping an elderly man wipe his runny nose.
  • Frank is a completely different character in his scenes with Lilly, and so much so that they seem like scenes from different movies.
  • The better movie is the one with the scenes between Eastwood and Malkovich; anytime Malkovich disappears, the movie sags into an awkward semi-comedy.
  • The screenwriting cope for the silly personal life material is that Booth (Malkovich) taunts Frank with the emptiness of his life outside of work, a trait he says that they share. So, part of Frank's tension is attempting to discover a new facet of his life as he nears the end of his career, something Booth has been unable to do. This doesn't fix the awkward off-beat tone shifts between the work/life scenes, but it's something.
  • I'm briefly diverted by the parallels between the Frank/Booth rivalry in In the Line of Fire and the Harry Callahan/Scorpio rivalry in Dirty Harry (1971), but that cop/criminal mirroring had become essentially cliched by 1993.
  • The rooftop chase scene is one of the best of its era, despite some classic unconvincing stuntman cutaways.
  • When the grating romance subplot gets sidelined for the investigation in the final act, the movie comes to life again.
  • Great Movie Locations: The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. Any movie that features the Bonaventure gets an extra star from me. I first noticed it in Midnight Madness (1980) and ever since I get a weird thrill when I spot its unique elevators.
  • The scene in which Frank recounts the day of JFK's assassination is some of Eastwood's best acting, showing a vulnerability that is uncommon for him.
  • Not only does Wolfgang Peterson attempt to match Die Hard's sophisticated villainy, but he ends his movie with a similar and much better-executed falling effect.
  • In keeping with its problematic tonal shift, In the Line of Fire ends with a weird gag that seems like it was written for another movie and shoehorned into this one.

In summary: The script for In the Line of Fire is its biggest problem. It's two different movies that don't fit together. The semi-comic May-December romance movie has little to recommend it and its presence is bewildering inside a much better thriller with a solid-to-great Eastwood performance, a memorable villain, and one great action scene. Not an enduring classic, but a curiosity that will please and/or amuse Eastwood fans and prompt the question: "Why has Malkovich disappeared?"

Silver Screen Streak List #24: 03. In the Line of Fire (1993)

Silver Screen Streak: "Flickchart's Best Crime Thrillers"

In the Line of Fire (1993), in Crime Thrillers, Ranked

In the Line of Fire (1993), Ranked

The third movie from Nigel Druitt's list of The Best Crime Thrillers according to FlickchartIn the Line of Fire (1993) finds its way to a generous position of #2472 (59.71%) on my Flickchart. The next movie from this list: a 1940s film noir, The Woman in the Window (1944), directed by Fritz Lang.