NEW YORK — Did you think Hollywood got tired of government-bashing after "Independence Day" blew up the White House and "Mars Attacks!" blasted Capitol Hill to smithereens?
Well, think again. High-tech thrillers may have shifted their sights from bastions of authority to forces of nature like exploding volcanoes and Titanic-sinking icebergs. But lower-tech movies still enjoy tweaking the Washington set, with pictures as different as "Shadow Conspiracy" and "The Beautician and the Beast" taking potshots at politicians and their profession.
Clint Eastwood has never been a fan of official power, as his hugely popular Dirty Harry melodramas showed. These proudly celebrated a lone-wolf cop who didn't mind breaking every rule in the book, or paragraph in the Bill of Rights, if it would bring in the bad guy before the end-credits rolled.
Dirty Harry retired a decade ago, but Eastwood hasn't lost his distaste for what he sees as the hypocrisy and irrelevance of authorities who prefer isolated offices to streetwise reality. His new picture, "Absolute Power," takes on this theme with a vengeance.
Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, a soft-spoken old guy who enjoys working with his hands and admiring beautiful things. By day, this means drawing and sketching as a hobby. By night, it means stealing jewels as a livelihood, sneaking past carefully rigged security systems to indulge his felonious habit.
The story begins with one of these crimes, as Luther ends a long dry spell by breaking into a Washington mansion and scooping up jewels collected by the woman who lives there.
Caught by surprise when she returns for a late-night tryst, Luther scurries into a closet and watches as the woman's lover turns unexpectedly nasty, transforming their rendezvous into a brutal assault, and this part of the movie into a very ugly experience. She tries to fight the pervert off, but two gunmen suddenly appear, killing her on the spot.
Luther has clearly observed an awful crime, but he has also witnessed a political event of seismic proportions. The woman was the wife of an elderly power broker whose influence extends to the highest places. The gunmen were Secret Service agents on active duty. And the sadistic sex partner was none other than the president of the United States.
That's only the first act of this tangled yarn. President Richmond's chief of staff orders a cleanup of the crime and a coverup of the facts. Luther would like to blow the whistle, but his line of work requires anonymity. Meanwhile, a sharp-eyed detective learns the incident had a secret witness, and he puts Luther high on his list of people who might know more than they're telling.
On paper, all this sounds contrived, to say the least. On screen, it's more effective than expected - aside from the scenes of excessive sex and violence, that is - mainly because Eastwood gives one of the most deeply felt performances of his career.
In most of his movies, he has functioned more as a two-dimensional movie star than a three-dimensional actor, relying on the steely face and pent-up persona that have become his trademarks. In recent years he has broken out of this mold to some degree, using pictures like "White Hunter, Black Heart" and "The Bridges of Madison County" to build well-rounded characterizations.
This trend reaches its high point in "Absolute Power," where his portrayal of a complicated man - skillful but lonely, infamous but isolated, equipped with his own talent for performance and disguise - gives the impression that Eastwood has delved into his own hopes and fears for emotional material to explore.
Always more interesting as a filmmaker than an actor, Eastwood has also directed "Absolute Power" with energy and economy, building smooth suspense episodes and - during scenes with the overeager chief of staff - interludes of mischievous wit.
The movie has major downsides, though. The opening scene of violent sex is more offensive than necessary to make its point. The picture's entertainment value is diminished by its tendency to ramble, as well, and by the implausibility of too many plot twists.
Also troubling are some of the picture's attitudes toward American life and politics. Portraying the president as a sadistic moron is hardly a constructive contribution to present-day dialogues on Washington power. No hint of skepticism is shown regarding the elderly power broker, moreover, although it's unlikely he amassed his money and influence without bending a law in his entire life.
Worst of all is a climactic moment when Luther revenges himself on a man who has injured his daughter in an earlier scene. Luther insists throughout the movie that although he may be a thief, he'd never let anyone be killed. Yet as soon as killing becomes truly tempting for him, he does it as coldbloodedly as anyone in the picture. Once again, violence prevails in Hollywood.
* 'Absolute Power' has an R rating; it contains kinky sex, explicit violence, and foul language.