NEW YORK — CLINT EASTWOOD belongs to that sturdy group of movie stars who grow more interesting as they grow older. Like his contemporary Robert Redford, he has never been particularly bold or expressive as an actor. But also like Redford, he has aged in fascinating ways - taking on more complexity as an artist, an icon, and a personality with each year and every new crag that arrives on his ruggedly handsome face.
Another thing Eastwood shares with Redford is a willingness to poke good-natured fun at his own screen image. Redford did this in his recent "Sneakers," and Eastwood has done it in a number of pictures - including the popular western "Unforgiven," where he played an over-the-hill farmer who had more trouble getting on his horse than vanquishing the bad guys.
Frank Horrigan, the Secret Service agent played by Eastwood in "In the Line of Fire," isn't so far gone. But he's a far cry from the energetic up-and-comer he was in his early days. The decades have taken their toll - especially since the moment in 1963 when he and his fellow agents failed to save President John F. Kennedy from assassination. Horrigan has stayed in the Secret Service, trudging through a reasonably successful career. Bad memories have never left him, though, and his lonely personal life r eflects his lingering sense of guilt.
This acquires renewed force when the current president (not modeled on any real-life politician) becomes the target of a would-be assassin. This killer, as crazy as he is dangerous, regards his deadly plot as a sinister sort of game. He draws Horrigan into the game by contacting him and revealing aspects of his evil scheme - along with taunts about Horrigan's past, and challenges to do his job more capably this time around.
In the scenes that focus on Horrigan's life, "In the Line of Fire" gets marvelous spice from Eastwood's gift for not taking himself too seriously. As in some of the movies he made with Sondra Locke, the character he plays is a macho he-man who can't quite pull off the self-centered posturing that comes with this territory. His encounters with a female Secret Service agent are delicious to watch, as his wisecracks fall flat and his attempts at charm wear thin - leading her to end one of their conversation s by cheerfully observing, "Time flies when you're being annoyed!"
In the scenes focusing on Horrigan's duel with the assassin, the movie grows far more somber and aggressively violent at times. Credit for the power of these episodes goes largely to John Malkovich, whose skill and conviction serve him grimly well as one of the most demented characters to reach the screen since the horrifying villains of "The Silence of the Lambs," whom Malkovich's psychopath occasionally resembles.
"In the Line of Fire" was directed by Wolfgang Peterson, the versatile German filmmaker whose credits range from "Das Boot," a hard-hitting war picture that earned international acclaim about 15 years ago, to "The Neverending Story," a likable children's movie. He keeps his new film hopping at a lively pace, and he shows sensitivity to the look and feel of American politics.
Both the humorous and sober aspects of the story have slack moments during the last half-hour or so, however, and Peterson shares responsibility for this along with Jeff McGuire's screenplay. One can't help suspecting that "In the Line of Fire" would have more depth if Eastwood himself had directed it, since his work behind the camera - in pictures as varied as "Bird" and "White Hunter, Black Heart," to name just a couple - has established him as one of Hollywood's most invigorating stylists.
Other collaborators on the movie include two of the best in the business: John Bailey, who did the vivid cinematography, and Ennio Morricone, who composed the effective score. Rene Russo and Fred Dalton Thompson round out the good supporting cast.
* "In the Line of Fire" has an * rating. It contains some strong violence and a good deal of vulgar language.