It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Thrillers are as good as their villains, and "In the Line of Fire" has a great one - a clever, slimy creep who insidiously burrows his way into the psyche of the hero, a veteran Secret Service agent named Horrigan (Clint Eastwood). The creep, who likes to play mind games with his opponents, makes a series of phone calls threatening to assassinate the president. He chooses Horrigan because he knows the agent still feels guilty about failing to save the life of John F. Kennedy 30 years ago.
The would-be killer has an all-American name, Mitch, and is played by John Malkovich as an intelligent, twisted man who uses disguises, fake ID and an ingratiating manner to get close to the president. He tells Horrigan more or less what he plans to do, and when, but Horrigan's hands are tied. The president is running for re-election, and his chief of staff (Fred Dalton Thompson) doesn't want him to look like a coward. So after Horrigan sounds a couple of false alarms, he's taken off the White House detail, and has to break rules in order to stay on Mitch's trail.
In its broad outlines, "In the Line of Fire" has a story similar to many of Eastwood's "Dirty Harry" movies, in which a psycho killer plays games with the cop, who is ordered off the case and then continues as a free-lance, helped by a loyal partner. The movie even supplies a typical Eastwood sidekick, a woman agent played by Rene Russo, who is tough and capable, and able to fall in love.
Despite the familiar plot elements, however, "In the Line of Fire" is not a retread but a smart, tense, well-made thriller - Eastwood's best in the genre since "Tightrope" (1984). The director is Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot"), who is able to unwind the plot like clockwork while at the same time establishing the characters as surprisingly sympathetic.