Ever since ‘Dirty Harry’ secured Clint Eastwood’s place in our collective consciousness, the Oscar-winner has tackled acting roles that take full advantage of his graying hair and wrinkling skin. Rather than settling on parts that favor contrived convenience over realistic storytelling, the aging actor has portrayed a collection of protagonists forced to resolve an immediate crisis and overcome their innate frailty and fallibility. While Eastwood’s most intriguing everyday hero is arguably ‘Unforgiven’s former gunslinger, William Munny, ‘In the Line of Fire’s Frank Horrigan is a close second.
Racked with guilt ever since JFK was assassinated on his detail, Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan finally gets an opportunity to pay his penance thirty years later when he stumbles across a plot to kill the current president. It seems a former CIA assassin named Mitch Leary (the ever-creepy John Malkovich) is as obsessed with Frank’s decades-old failure as he is with shooting the commander in chief. Regularly calling Frank and taunting him with his plans, Leary plays a sick game of cat and mouse that puts the government’s oldest Secret Service agent in a precarious predicament. With the help of a young female agent (Rene Russo), his partner (Dylan McDermott), and his immediate superior (John Mahoney), Frank has to contend with a stubborn White House Chief of Staff (Fred Thompson), battle his own fears and doubts, and save the President from a devious assassin.
So what’s so great about ‘In the Line of Fire?’ Eastwood and Malkovich. While the supporting cast does a fine job establishing a solid foundation to nurture the central conflict, it’s the film’s powerhouse leads that steal the show and give every scene a palpable sense of purpose and momentum. Whether they’re trotting across rooftops or firing insults at each other over the phone, the legendary actors manage to mold Horrigan and Leary into two opposing sides of the same coin. Eastwood injects Frank’s every word and action with remorse and regret, allowing his character to wallow in the past and spend his life searching for redemption. On the flipside, Malkovich allows Leary to simmer in hate and disgust, spouting his character’s rhetoric with a conviction that registers as all too real. The true testament to their performances is the fact that each actor's presence is felt on screen, even when they are not appearing in a particular scene. Each adversary is so entrenched in the other’s mind that they become linked, archetypal hero and villain, until the inevitable moment that a president either lives or dies.
’In the Line of Fire’ does come up a bit short, if only because it’s bound by the clichéd conventions of its genre. While director Wolfgang Petersen does his best to keep his audience guessing, the film flounders every time the filmmaker can’t see past the story’s procedural roots. When Horrigan and Leary are engaged in a psychological battle of will, the story sinks in its claws and refuses to let go. However, when Horrigan and his colleagues are piecing together clues and playing catch up with Leary, the film briefly transforms into a gloom-and-doom version of “The Hardy Boys” with an implausible love story tossed in for good measure. These flaws and tonal inconsistencies never ruined the film for me personally, but I can easily see how Petersen’s adherence to expositional developments could turn off fans focused strictly on the story rather than the nuances of the performances.
Regardless, ‘In the Line of Fire’ is a classic thriller that’s aged incredibly well in the fifteen years since its original theatrical release. Eastwood and Malkovich anchor the film with a pair of stunning performances and inject a fairly ordinary thriller with enough doggedness and soul to set it apart from the pack. Are there a few clichéd missteps along the way? Sure. Luckily, Petersen’s more questionable decisions and the script’s unnecessary subplots are a moot point every time Eastwood or Malkovich reenter the story. ‘In the Line of Fire’ has cemented a permanent spot on my shelves over the years and I’m happy to report that it will continue to stay right where it belongs.
If I was asked to reduce all of my thoughts about ‘In the Line of Fire’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer to one word, I would simply shrug my shoulders and mutter, “meh.” Petersen’s undersaturated palette looks slightly weathered and bland -- primaries don’t pop with much vibrancy, skintones look dull from time to time, and the American flag occasionally looks as if it’s been composed of dreary reds and blues. Contrast is also generally strong, but randomly falters, creating an inconsistent and comparatively flat high-def image.
Adding insult to injury, fine object detail is unpredictable and a bit underwhelming. While faces, clothing, and newspaper clippings boast crystal clear textures, other shots are undermined by soft elements and hazy backdrops. Thankfully, the main culprit isn’t a lazy studio or a mediocre remastering, but rather the original print itself. The film's cinematography delivers a series of shots that no amount of artificial tinkering could fix -- backgrounds, landscapes, and long distance camera pans simply lack the clarity granted to the close-ups. In fact, I doubt anyone could transform ‘In the Line of Fire’ into a consistent visual experience and maintain the director’s intent.
That’s not to say the BD transfer doesn’t offer DVD owners a generous upgrade -- it easily trumps the film’s murky SD DVDs (especially the 1997 DVD release) and even manages to sparkle a bit from time to time. Aside from some elusive edge enhancement, the picture is impeccably clean and doesn’t suffer from artifacting, crushing, pesky DNR, or other source noise. Better still, black levels are strong, steady sheets of light grain help maintain the integrity of the film, and shadow delineation is more revealing than it’s ever been before. Overall, ‘In the Line of Fire’ offers a high-def upgrade that surpasses other less-attractive BD releases, but can't quite outclass the best catalog transfers Sony has on the market.
The Blu-ray edition of ’In the Line of Fire’ may not benefit from the same snazzy high-def visuals as other Sony catalog titles, but it does deliver an impressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track that handles the film’s quietest conversations and intense chase scenes without any significant problems. Right off the bat, dialogue is crisp, clean, and properly prioritized in the mix -- even the music and sound effects of a pulse-pounding rooftop pursuit don’t overwhelm Eastwood’s raspy voice or the subtle ambience emanating from the rear speakers. Likewise, the soundfield is immersive and inviting without ever feeling forced or artificial. Directionality is consistent and precise, hushed conversations are presented amidst natural interior acoustics, and a series of seamless pans allow objects and voices to realistically pass through the soundfield without disruption.
If I have any complaint, it’s that ‘In the Line of Fire’s new TrueHD mix doesn’t quite overcome a few trailing issues I had with the Dolby Digital track on the standard DVD. First and foremost, the LFE-channel doesn’t get to have much fun -- low-end tones are prevalent, but rather subdued in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t help that gunfire sounds a bit tinny compared to shootouts in other catalog films of the era. Finally, treble runs in the film’s score occasionally sound too weak and unstable for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, most of these minor problems can be traced back to the original mix and aren’t indicative of a technical deficiency in the track. Ultimately, ‘In the Line of Fire’ sounds much better than it ever has and should easily please fans of the film.
The Blu-ray version of ‘In The Line of Fire’ includes all of the special features that appeared on the 2001 Special Edition DVD. Unfortunately, the content is presented in standard definition and doesn’t dig into the film’s production as thoroughly as I would have liked.
’In the Line of Fire’ isn’t perfect, but it's an exciting thriller that offers a pair of outstanding performances from Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich. Alas, this new Blu-ray edition is a hit-or-miss release that doesn’t justify its price. While the disc features an excellent TrueHD audio track, it suffers from an underwhelming video transfer and a collection of boring supplements. At the end of the day, this BD release definitely offers a technical upgrade from the standard DVD, but newcomers should check out the film before picking this one up on a whim.