To Catch An Old Thief

LUTHER WHITNEY, THE perfectionist cat burglar played by Clint Eastwood in Absolute Power, is as meticulous in his craftsmanship as Vermeer, as adept at disguise as Alec Guinness, as elusive as Houdini, as solitary as a monk and, when he wants to be, as crustily charming as ... well, as Clint Eastwood has ever let himself be.

This veteran prince of thieves is pulling off his felonious masterpiece--cleaning out the manor of a rich Washington power broker--when unexpected intruders force him to hide behind a one-way mirror. There he witnesses a young woman and an older man engage in some drunken foreplay that turns rough, then nasty, then ends when two men in suits enter the room and blow the woman away. Unfortunately, Luther knows both participants. She was the wife of the tycoon he was robbing. The adulterous man (Gene Hackman) is the president of the United States. Oops.

The men with guns (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) are Secret Service agents, and the Machiavellian virago who now rushes into the bloody bedroom and starts cooking up the cover-up is Gloria Russell (Judy Davis), the White House chief of staff. What's striking about the queasy, tense scene that Luther witnesses, as they concoct an outrageous story about a burglary attempt gone awry, is that it is also terribly funny.

There has never been a movie quite as deeply cynical about the leader of the free world as ""Absolute Power.'' President Alan Richmond is an unscrupulous swine and will do everything he can to eliminate the one witness, our hero. The widower (E. G. Marshall), led to believe that Luther is his wife's killer, hires his own freelance assassin as well. How will the old thief get out of this one?

In ways that are as preposterous as they are delightful. In screenwriter William Goldman's blithe adaptation of David Baldacci's best seller, Luther's solitary battle with all the president's murderous men plays out not as a paranoid thriller but as a comedy of bad political manners. The tale's cynicism never curdles because we're under no obligation to take anything in this movie seriously, except its skill in entertaining us.

As a director, Eastwood is at his effortless, slyboots best: he deftly cranks up the suspense at the beginning, but by the end he's cruising along so briskly that he can afford to throw away the climactic, violent scenes other directors would belabor--or even leave them out entirely. As a star, he's at his most disarming. Watch him playing cat-and-mouse with Ed Harris's homicide detective: rarely has Eastwood had such playful chemistry with another guy. The whole cast looks to be having a fine old time, particularly Davis, the infernal screwball villainess. What a fun, nutty movie Eastwood and Goldman have conjured up. And what a beguilingly improbable protagonist: Luther Whitney, the first Hollywood superhero to claim he's a member of AARP.