IN THE LINE OF FIRE. Columbia Pictures, 1993. Clint Eastwood, John Malkovich, Rene Russo, Dylan McDermott, Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, John Mahoney. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu.

   As a thriller starring Clint Eastwood as a grizzled, aging Secret Service Agent obsessed with guarding the President from a dedicated assassin, In the Line of Fire was both a critical and commercial success. It’s not difficult to see why. First, there’s star power in Clint Eastwood, cast as the lead. Bitter, determined, and prone to acerbic quips, Frank Horrigan (Eastwood) is a late fifty-something who has the unfortunate distinction of being the only currently operative agent who was with John F. Kennedy on that fateful day in Dallas. Some thirty years later, Horrigan can’t seem to shake the feeling that, had he made different decisions, he might have been able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald.

   When Horrigan begins to investigate yet another potential threat to the president, he immediately finds himself embroiled in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with James Carney (John Malkovich). Portrayed with an intensity that matches – and often overwhelms Eastwood’s – Malkovich’s Carney is a skilled, but deeply paranoid antagonist.

   Malkovich, never one too phone in a performance, takes the role and imbues it with pathos. Carney – who likes to be called “Booth” – is a man who passionately believes that the country he once served has abandoned him. And he thinks he has found a kindred spirit in Horrigan. Little does he know that behind the gruff, sullied exterior, Horrigan is a true believer and dedicated patriot who, despite it all, still believes in his career choice.

   Horrigan’s personal life and code of honor is explored not so much by what he says – his rhetoric always seems to more aggressive than his heart – but how he conducts himself with others. That’s why his would-be romance with fellow agent Lilly Raines (Rene Russo) and his friendship with his younger partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) are so key to the film. Neither is a distraction.

   Rounding out the cast are a coterie of actors who were quite familiar to contemporaneous audiences. John Mahoney, best known for his portrayal as the father on Frasier, is cast as the head of the Secret Service. Fred Dalton Thompson, politician as well as actor, portrays the president’s Chief of Staff. Look for Steve Hytner (Kenny Bania on Seinfeld) as Secret Service Agent Tony Carducci and a youthful Joshua Malina as Tony Chavez, another agent.

   Speaking of the 1990s, there’s a very early 1990s aesthetic to In the Line of Fire. The cinematography, the action sequences, and the somewhat sanitized interiors squarely places the film into the same time frame as JFK (1991) and The Fugitive (1993). Compared to 1970s cinema, early 1990s films are a bit flatter, less gritty, and more polished – even if the plot involves an unhinged assassin or conspiratorial villain.

   This past week was the second time I’ve watched In the Line of Fire. The first must have been around the time it was released. While it still holds up as a solid work of film making, I can’t say that it was necessarily as enjoyable this time around. A lot of the plot seems to repeat itself, with Horrigan and his colleagues constantly chasing false leads. And the prime piece of evidence that enables Horrigan to discover Carney’s alias – a scrap of paper with something written on it – seems a little too pat.

   Still, it’s an exceedingly watchable film with a strong cast. I just wish the director had leaned a bit more into Carney’s madness. But then again, had he done so, it would have been Malkovich’s film, not Eastwood’s. Maybe that could have worked even better?