Go Ahead, Take My Prez

It remains to be seen how Clint Eastwood the director-producer is going to try to follow that tough act "Unforgiven." But Clint the actor-star returns in full stride in "In the Line of Fire," a crisp and lean cat-and-mouse thriller that is, pound for pound, the most accomplished Hollywood entertainment so far this summer. He's playing a tough, cranky, aging Secret Service agent named Frank Horrigan. Frank's a bit of an anachronism, a jazz-loving leftover from another generation. He's still got great loner instincts, but he's damaged goods: he was on duty protecting JFK in Dallas that day in 1963, and his failure to take the bullets intended for the president has been gnawing at his conscience ever since. Now there are new death threats against a new president, and Frank wants a chance to redeem himself. The strange thing is, the assassin, a man of many names and disguises (John Malkovich), seems to have handpicked Frank as his opponent. As the president, campaigning for re-election, crisscrosses the country, a creepy game develops between the two men: the one willing to give his life to save the president, the other willing to sacrifice his to kill the president.

Eastwood played with this theme in "Tightrope," blurring the psychological line between virtuous hunter and depraved prey. It's an old riff, but Jeff McGuire's deft screenplay plays smart variations on the theme. And Eastwood and Malkovich, though they may seem to come from two different acting traditions, prove a brilliant pairing, less cat and mouse perhaps than lion and snake. The slippery, soft-spoken Malkovich is a master of wormy menace. Like Peter Lorre, the paradigm of twisted, dead-behind-the-eyes psychos, he has the delicious gift of showy understatement. Eastwood is never showy, but his laconic simplicity has never been so sly. Age has deepened him: it gives the strain in his face resonance, and wit to his romantic fervor. One of the pleasures of "In the which it meshes the suspense Line of Fire" is the grace with with Frank's amorous pursuit of a younger Secret Service agent (Rene Russo), a woman who'd like to write Frank off as a sexist dinosaur but can't resist his seasoned charm. The tough-tender chemistry between them feels lived in, comfy.

The man behind the camera is Wolfgang Petersen, returning to the gripping form of "Das Boot." You can sense he's made a careful study of Eastwood's movies, but he brings his own special flair to the action scenes-there's a cliffhanging roof-top-chase sequence that pumps new blood into that oldest of conventions-and he shifts the comedy and the tension with no gearstripping. Maybe it takes a German director, an English editor (the accomplished Anne Coates) and an Italian composer (Ennio Morricone) to make a movie in the classical Hollywood style these days. Generously exciting, "In the Line of Fire" is mercifully free of that artificial energy that makes so many new movies look as if they were created with steroids. To use a word that Malkovich's psycho is anachronistically fond of, this thriller has panache.