Sunday, November 23, 2008

Flick of the Week: "I know things about people, Lilly"

The week's Flick of the week takes us from a young Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare, to an aging Clint in In the Line of Fire.

In the Line of Fire is about John Malkovich playing an ex-CIA assassin, Mitch Leary, who has taken a trip to nutsville and decided to kill the President. Clint Eastwood plays Frank Horrigan, an old Secret Service agent who was on JFK's protection detail when he was assassinated in Dallas, and who is now targeted by Leary in a bit of old pre-assassination cat'n'mouse. Along the way Frank is helped by fellow Secret Service agents Renee Russo and Dylan McDermott (with John Mahoney playing the boss).

It is a great action film/thriller. It has that indefinable thing that is lacking from similar types of films around these days. Oh wait, no it's not indefinable... it's called intelligence.

A couple months ago I was unfortunate enough to waste 2 hours of my life watching Eagle Eye. That film is also about a plot to kill the US President, only it's not a mastermind who is planning it, but a 'super computer' that can think for itself and has gone rogue (don't they all - surely someone would think to write in a "must not be allowed to plot to kill mankind" bit of computer code in the program). That film was all about car crashes, explosions and impossible coincidences. It was utter shite.

In the Line of Fire has no car chases, no explosions, and yet is edge of the set stuff all the way. Director Wolfgang Peterson was still coming off his success in Germany of Das Boot, and this signalled a strong future. And while he has not exactly gone on to auteur greatness, the run of films after this of Outbreak, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm, Troy and Poseidon shows that the guy is a pretty solid director - apart from the last one, he has been stinker-free.

But where ITLOF really shines is the cast. Clint is as good as it gets in these types of roles - the aged warrior. He plays it better than anyone, and it was the first film he did after Unforgiven, where he plays an aged gunfighter. Throughout this film he is all charm and effortlessness. One of the great things about Eastwood is virtually every role he plays has the ring of truth about it. Whether he's Blondie in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Harry Callaghan in the Dirty Harry movies, or the old boxing manager in Million Dollar Baby, you think Eastwood could be those guys - in fact he doesn't seem to be acting - he just is the perfect no-name western outlaw, renegade plays-by-his-own-rules cop, or crusty old boxing manager. And in this film you believe he could have been an agent under JFK, and he most definitely could be the old single guy who goes home and listens to jazz.

The supporting cast is amazing for a film of this type - Malkovich in the role that truly made him. He was nominated for Best Supporting Oscar, but lost to Tommy Lee Jones for his "hen house, outhouse and doghouse" role in The Fugitive. It was a bad choice - Jones's role is pretty much limited to him swaggering around being a smart arse. Malkovich is much more intense and mannered (though he shouldn't have won the Oscar either. In just about the worst decision ever in Oscar history, Ralph Fiennes was overlooked for his role as Amon Geoth in Schindler's List - perhaps the best supporting actor performance ever.). In the following scene you see him first appear and interact with Eastwood; the two working off each other brilliantly.

As the female lead, Renee Russo brings about as much sexiness and intelligence to the role that is humanly possible. She is just fantastic to watch on the screen. And at 39 was proof against all those idiots in Hollywood who think women over 30 (25?) can't sizzle up the screen. For the rest of the 90s she was the go to woman for any role that demanded a woman with (to quote the great line from Bull Durham) "long legs and brains". She hasn't been in a film since 2005. A tragedy.

The other cast members of note were Dylan McDermoot in his pre-The Practice days, and John Mahoney in his pre-Frasier days (it started that year). They're both good and everyone else comes to the party as well - good cast, with a good script. What more can you ask? The script incidentally was written by Jeff Maguire. He was nominated for an Oscar (lost to Jane Campion for The Piano - no I didn't get it either), and then his next film came out 10 years later! It was called Timeline, and no I didn't see it, and I'm betting you didn't either.

The plot has enough twists to keep you guessing, but not so many that you start doubting everything. The story isn't so much about trying to trick the audience (as is so often the case in films nowadays), as it is about watching Leary toy with the secret service, and also watching how Horrigan tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together, while also facing his demons from JFK and, in a lovely old movie kind of way, falling in love with Renee Russo's agent, Lilly Raines. The dialogue between the two of them is witty and believable - they shadow box around their feelings, but the flirting is quite sweet really.

The climax is also well handled as Leary and Horrigan finally face off with a result far more deep than action thrillers are allowed to be now.

It's only 15 years old, and yet it seems to have come from some time long, long past. It doesn't try to be Citizen Kane, but it does expect the viewers are at least adults. An action film with brains, and a thriller that eschews violence in favour of thought. There's little wonder whenever this is repeated on TV, I feel perfectly happy to sit down and watch it again, because like all good thrillers, knowing the ending doesn't diminish the film at all.

Best line:
Lilly Raines: What makes you think he'll call again?
Frank Horrigan: Oh, he'll call again. He's got, uh, "panache."
Lilly Raines: Panache?
Frank Horrigan: Yeah, it means flamboyance.
Lilly Raines: Mm, I know what it means.
Frank Horrigan: Really? I had to look it up.

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