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In the Line of Fire.

This year's summer movies should probably be analyzed in the business section: Midwest floods and heat waves elsewhere encourage the desire for escapist entertainment, but there's nothing new you can't afford to miss -- if you've got air conditioning.

Poor Schwarzenegger has alienated some of his fans by winking at his own tough-guy image in "Last Action Hero." Though the hype and special effects will probably allow "Jurassic Park" to earn back its costs, Steven Spielberg, the supposed master of appeal to the young, has made a movie that frightens many of the children who force their parents to take them.

Probably the best bet is the new Clint Eastwood thriller, "In the Line of Fire" (Columbia), directed by Wolfgang Petersen, best known for his German submarine film, "Das Boot." It's not up to last year's unconventional Western, "The Unforgiven" -- which Eastwood directed himself, with award-winning results -- but it has a strong central situation and gives Eastwood a worthy antagonist in Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), a brilliantly malevolent ex-CIA assassin who now wants to kill the president.

One is tempted to say that Eastwood is simply playing himself, but don't think he isn't a good actor just because he makes it look easy. The part of Frank Horrigan, an aging Secret Service agent still brooding over his failure to protect President Kennedy in 1963, has indeed been tailored to the star's specifications, but the naturalness and vulnerability he conveys give credibility to the whole production. The center of the movie, a duel fought largely through a series of insinuating phone calls that Leary makes to Horrigan, could be dismissed as a sick joke if Eastwood's presence didn't ground these moments in reality.

Of course, I resent Eastwood because all the reviewers remind me that he's aging a lot better than I am, and even the women critics don't seem to object to awarding him a bright young woman agent, Lily Raines (Rene Russo), as love interest. The latter is fun to watch, and is given some humorous lines to indicate she's aware their relationship is problematic -- "Let's face it, Frank, you're too old."

Some reviewers, made desperate by the drought of summer movie fare, are even comparing Russo and Eastwood with Hepburn and Tracy, but apart from Eastwood's age, the problem is that the movie treats Lily very much as the Secret Service probably did -- as a token. Her part is ultimately irrelevant to the development of both plot and character; even though Horrigan, whose marriage collapsed years ago, suggests he might not let his job again interfere with his relationship with a woman, his real "affair" is with Leary.

A similar callousness is evident in the film's treatment of Eastwood's young partner, Al (Dylan McDermott), who is having nightmares and wants to leave the Secret Service, but is told he's needed.

"In the Line of Fire" is nevertheless fun to watch, a superior commercial film that develops Jeff Maguire's clever script with genuine professionalism. Petersen extracts every benefit from the fact that the action takes place during the last stages of a presidential campaign. The director recognizes that the whole movie, not just one key sequence played across Washington rooftops, is a sustained chase.

The audience is encouraged to enjoy an easy cynicism, not just because the president Horrigan is trying to protect remains a complete cipher, but because it shows governmental bureaucracies primarily interested in protecting their own secrets and their own turf. The need to save a president whose campaign manager, seeing his boss behind in the polls, is all too happy to expose him to crowds, makes for an up-to-date version of the perennial male myth.

It works, largely because Eastwood's character has self-doubts. Indeed, Horrigan is near collapse, and would prefer to play the piano in a neighborhood bar, but is as driven by his sense of duty as Leary is by his insane need for revenge.

"Sleepless in Seattle" (TriStar) is cotton candy, but nutritionists don't issue movie guides. Nora Ephron, who directed and, along with David S. Ward and Jeff Arch, wrote the screenplay, aims so shamelessly at the feelings associated with an earlier form of romantic comedy that you may be embarrassed to admit you found it entertaining.

The audience makes a massive suspension of disbelief because it's bard not to find Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan likable; the only problem is, they're 3,000 miles away from each other, so how are they ever going to meet?

Sam Baldwin (Hanks) is an architect and recent widower living on a houseboat in Seattle. Annie Reed writes for The Baltimore Sun and has just gotten engaged to Walter (Bill Pullman), a man besieged by every known allergy. On Christmas Eve, Sam's lonely 8-year-old son Jonah (Ross Malinger) calls a radio talk show to get help in dealing with his father's grief Sam is furious, but is forced to pick up the phone, and is soon telling a nation of delighted listeners about his perfect marriage.

Ephron is good at catching the fake-psychiatric sympathy of the talk-show host, and Hanks does well with the fast shift from comic embarrassment to enraptured reminiscence. After he says the miracle of his marriage could never happen again, the camera shifts to Annie, listening on her car radio as she drives to Washington to meet her prospective in-laws, and finding Sam's confession more romantically appealing than poor Walter's allergies.

In fact, Sam's story has appealed to a lot of women, and he begins to get sacks of letters, with Jonah sifting them to see if there's a likely prospect for a new wife for his father. Fortunately, Malinger manages to avoid excessive cuteness even as he takes on the potentially offensive Cupid role that I associate with the long-ago movies of Shirley Temple, and he gets excellent help from his slightly older friend and coconspirator, Jessica (Gaby Hoffman).

I can't give away the plot, because there really isn't any, except to delay the inevitable meeting between Sam and Annie, but Ephron deliberately inserts a number of references to "An Affair to Remember" (1957), a Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr classic.

Though Ephron has earned a reputation for witty dialogue, the movie isn't as funny as it ought to be, nor does it make the best use of Ryan's comic gifts. Sven Nykvist, who was also the cameraman for Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander," gives the proceedings high gloss, which is more suitable for fantasy bits in which Sam's dead first wife (Carey Lowell) occasionally materializes than for capturing the sweet-and-sour attitude which would make the movie easier to swallow.

What saves "Sleepless in Seattle" from drowning in fake sentimentality is that Ephron, while sprinkling in a medley of popular songs, from "Over the Rainbow" to "Bye-Bye, Blackbird," sung by a variety of well-known performers, frames the movie with "As Times Goes By" at the beginning and "Make Somebody Happy" at the end, sung by that inimitable romantic troubadour, Jimmy Durante.

Unfortunately, the clips from "An Affair to Remember" led me to rush out to rent it from my favorite video store. Surely, I thought, it would rekindle a few romantic sparks. The only thing I heard, however, was: "Didn't Cary Grant age wonderfully?"
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Jul 30, 1993
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