Eastwood on target again

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 1993, 12:00am

IN THE LINE OF FIRE, with Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich and Rene Russo. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Category II.

THERE is something peculiarly out-of-time about In the Line of Fire, perhaps because it is a blatant re-tread of mainly 1970s plot elements, gimmicks and stock characterisations. And perhaps because Eastwood returns to the outer fringes of Dirty Harry territory.

It would come as no surprise if the screenplay - like that of The Bodyguard, to which it bears some obvious similarities (like having a president's minder called Frank as its hero) - had been sitting on the shelf for the past two decades waiting to become fashionable.

It appears at least nominally new, and perfectly tailored to the actor's oth- er classic screen persona: the taciturn, hard-drinking, self-pitying but ultimately heroic old school maverick urban lawman.

Eastwood's immediate successor in the late '70s as American favourite tough guy, Sly Stallone, would probably never have fallen temporarily from grace if he had followed Rocky with a Rambo.

And Eastwood might have maintained his box office punch if he had stuck with Harry and the ''Man With No Name'' (we would have missed out on Bird, but been spared all those awful redneck road movies). To follow Unforgiven with this is a double-whammy proclaiming the real Eastwood is back - both of him! His character, veteran Secret Service field operative Frank Horrigan, is to Dirty Harry what Unforgiven's William Munny was to ''No Name'' - a mythic hard-man stripped bare, made human and vulnerable to fit the fancies of a New Age sensibility.

But the make-over here is far more superficial. Horrigan is wracked with self-doubt; he cries, even contemplates giving up his career for house husbandry to the woman he loves (Rene Russo in another tough-cookie role as a reliable fellow agent). But we never get close to glimpsing the darkness and terror in his soul as his adversary, John Malkovich's psycho-assassin and agent provocateur, tries to coax it out of him.

Dirty Frank fits the '90s new man mould about as comfortably as he fits his regulation suit, and when the going gets tough he still prefers the sanctuary of the seedy basement bar.

Horrigan's pain and disillusionment date from Dallas 1963 when, he believes, on presidential escort service he fatally hesitated and failed to take a bullet for JFK. Everything that has happened to the US in the past three decades is basically Frank's fault, and he's not taking it well. And just as he's beginning to put it behind him and ride the presidential limo once more, out from the woodwork comes Malkovich's evil genius Booth (after the man who shot Lincoln) to taunt him by trying to ''ice'' the president.

The plot's potboiler elements are cliched but the cumulative proficiency of Eastwood, Malkovich (in fine, malicious form) and director Wolfgang Petersen (most recently of the classy 1991 thriller Shattered ) carries it off in solid, dependable fashion.