Picks and Pans Review: In the Line of Fire

updated 07/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/12/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, Dylan McDermott, Rene Russo

Preposterous but still thoroughly involving, this tense, kinetic, ingenious thriller is the thinking fan's action movie.

Eastwood is a veteran Secret Service agent who describes himself as "a borderline burnout with little in the way of social skills." He is laboring under the guilt of having worked the Dallas presidential motorcade on Nov. 22, 1963, and feeling he might have or should have saved John F. Kennedy.

His life is given new meaning, ironically, by the threats of a present-day assassin, Malkovich, who is determined to kill a current, anonymous President. The cleverest part of Jeff Maguire's screenplay is maintaining mystery over Malkovich's identity and motives until midway through the film.

Don't worry, though. This isn't another knuckle-gnawing, Oliver Stoned bit of revisionist history. While Eastwood does sneer at Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists as "idiots on bar stools," Malkovich is connected to Kennedy only by a mundane kind of nostalgia.

The inexpressive Russo is one of Eastwood's fellow agents; their romantic interludes are nonetheless implausible in spite of being inevitable in a film where Russo is the token female star.

McDermott is Eastwood's nervous partner, and the professionally paternal Mahoney is an old Eastwood pal who is now head of the Secret Service.

As he ages, Eastwood, like John Wayne, is doing less fistfighting and shoot-outing, which gives his acting ability more chance to surface. He is effectively anguished in this film, though his growly toughness still comes through. This makes a strong contrast with Malkovich, who always seems effete even when he's playing a manic killer. There is much ponderous palaver about the whole thing being a game and about the supposed similarities between Eastwood and Malkovich.

The agents' sleuthing techniques, including a fascinating computer projection of Malkovich's appearance in various disguises, complement the interim action scenes, and German director Wolfgang Petersen stages the final confrontation, at a fund-raising dinner in a Los Angeles hotel, with great resourcefulness. (R)

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