Review: In the Line of Fire
I can remember sitting in the theater when the first trailer for In the Line of Fire came on. Trailers were different back in those days, and didn’t have the best bits from the film slickly excised and edited down to a two-minute sizzle reel that all but gave everything away. In fact, the first third of this trailer just showed “Nov. 22 1963” on screen, with a red ticking second
hand while a voiceover described how a Secret Service agent had been a split-second too late to save President Kennedy and had spent a life second-guessing himself. When the second hand gets to the bottom of the screen, the 6 in 1963 (from when Kennedy was assassinated) slowly starts rotating while you hear a phone call begin, with the caller menacingly taunting the agent over what happened back in Dallas. Finally, as the 6 rotates into a 9 for 1993, when the film was going to be released, the camera pulls back to reveal crosshairs centered on the number, and the
caller says, “I see you, Frank. I see you standing over the grave of another dead president.” Cut to Clint Eastwood grabbing a pistol, racking the slide, and turning to the camera and growling, “That’s not gonna happen,” and you’ve got a film I’m 100% gonna see.
It had been some time since I’d revisited In the Line of Fire, so I was thrilled to hear Sony Pictures was giving it a new 4K HDR remaster with a new Dolby Atmos sound mix, giving a reason to rewatch this classic.
Plot-wise, the film is pretty straightforward. Ex-CIA nut job Mitch Leary (John Malkovich) has decided he is going to kill the president but he wants to make it a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood),
who served on Kennedy’s Presidential detail, and was standing feet away from the car when Kennedy was fatally shot. (Digitally inserting Eastwood into archival photos with Kennedy in Dallas added some realism to the film, a year before Forrest Gump did it.) As Leary plans for the assassination, he continues to call and taunt Horrigan, who, with help from partner Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott), agent Lily Raines (Rene Russo), the rest of the Secret Service, the FBI, and even the CIA, track down every clue and lead to try and identify and stop him before he takes his shot.
There are so many things that just work for me in this movie. For one, the film is long enough to allow the pacing to feel steady and unhurried but not too long that it wears out its welcome. The plot moves along at a realistic pace, constantly doling out enough bits of information and details to keep you engaged and involved, but that gives the film
LINE OF FIRE AT A GLANCE
The Eastwood vs. Malkovich battle of wits gets a new 4K HDR remaster and Dolby Atmos mix.
One of the better film-to-4K transfers, the movie is sharp, clean & clear, and just beautiful-looking throughout.
The Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix isn’t overly aggressive and is a great update of the soundtrack for modern systems, expanding the elements that are already present.
added realism. Much of what the Secret Service does is just brute-force, manpower investigation, and we get enough scenes of that to give us a sense of what is actually involved in working the protection detail for the most powerful man in the world but not so much that it becomes tedious or like a documentary.
Eastwood is great as grizzled Horrigan, looking to end his career by getting another chance at stopping the “big bullet,” proving to himself that he was willing to sacrifice his life for Kennedy’s back in Dallas. Instead of just a one-note agent or character that has slipped into alcoholism or some other abuse, we see Horrigan off the clock, listening to jazz, playing piano, having what feels like a life instead of just being some two-dimensional construct. Similar to how Eastwood played Bill Munny going out for one last ride in Unforgiven, here he’s clearly at the end of his career in a young-man’s game, looking to go out holding his head high.
Equally great is Malkovich as ex-CIA “wet boy” Leary. Much of the first half of the film involves Leary taunting Horrigan over the phone about his failings in Dallas. “If you’d reacted to that first shot, could you have gotten there in time to stop the big bullet? And if you had—that could’ve been your head being blown apart. Do you wish you’d succeeded, Frank? Or is life too precious?” For the film to work, you need a strong, smart foil to Horrigan, and to believe Leary is not only willing, but capable of pulling off the assassination, and Malkovich’s intense performance—specifically some of his later phone calls with Horrigan—shows how smart, unhinged, and willing he is.
Something else I noticed during this viewing is how director Wolfgang Peterson (who did another fantastic film about a Presidential assassination attempt in Air Force One) kept Leary’s face hidden, obscured, or shown only in tight closeups or deep shadow for the first 30-plus-minutes of the film. It reminded me of Jaws and other “monster” movies in this way, as you are kept a bit in suspense waiting for that character to be revealed.
I have been very impressed with many of Sony’s 4K home releases, and I’m happy to say In the Line of Fire looks as good as any of them. This release is taken from a scan of the original camera negative and master interpositive to create a new true 4K digital intermediate with HDR color grading. I was a little nervous for about the first 30 seconds, where the opening sky shots of DC show a lot of noise, grain, softness, and general lack of detail, but then the camera cuts to shots of the city, buildings, and traffic and it just snaps into sharp, clean, clear focus, and it remains just beautiful-looking for the remainder of its two-plus-hour run time.
Throughout the film, I just kept thinking that it was as if layers of imperfections had been wiped away, and we were seeing exactly what it must have looked like through the camera viewfinder. Detail wasn’t scrubbed away into softness; it’s just that everything that isn’t the film is removed, and every detail is left clean and easy to appreciate. With the possible exception of some huge restoration projects like My Fair Lady and Spartacus, this is one of the better film-to-4K transfers I can remember watching. It is just terrific-looking, and a benchmark for other studios of how a 35mm film-to-4K transfer should be handled.
The most detail is definitely appreciated in closeups, with faces showing every pore, line, and whisker, or beads of sweat that pop up on foreheads. It’s not like you need 4K to appreciate the complexion differences between a (then) 63-year-old
Eastwood and 39-year-old Russo, but this sure lays them bare. You can also appreciate the textures in different clothing, from the pebbling of a tuxedo shirt Eastwood wears, to the fine check, plaid, and striping patterns in suits and jackets. Long shots, such as the big crowd scenes during the President’s outdoor rally speech in Denver, look quite good also, with lots of depth, detail, and color, as does the sharpness and detail in the brickwork during the building chase scene.
The HDR grade isn’t too aggressive, but it delivers very realistic colors and shades, along with some nice, deep, and clear blacks and good shadow detail. There are some nicely vibrant colors as well, such as the scene with the reds of carpets, flags, and the First Lady’s dress at an embassy dinner. There are also some bright whites from button-down dress shirts. Night scenes also pop with car headlights and other lights in the dark.
While this Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio mix isn’t overly aggressive, it is a great update of the soundtrack for modern systems, expanding the elements that are already present. Dialogue is kept centered in the front, but we get a lot of expansion off screen that helps sonically put you in the moment. Sounds like cars and traffic, people chattering in offices or crowd scenes, sirens and dogs barking,
and other street sounds help establish the environment. A perfect example is during the opening scene aboard the counterfeiters’ boat, where you’ll hear the little groans and creaks and noises of the boat filling the room.
The audio mix becomes more aggressive when appropriate, such as the big throaty roar of large planes flying overhead or coming in for landing, the rumble of motorcycles driving through the room, passing along the sides of the listening area and into the back, or PA announcements. There aren’t a lot of gunshots, but the few there are—specifically when Leary is at the lake—have a lot of dynamics, with the report echoing out over the water.
While Eastwood is better known for his westerns and Dirty Harry films, In the Line of Fire is one of my favorites in his oeuvre, and I’m thrilled we now have a reference-quality version to enjoy at home. Whether you’ve never seen it or watched it numerous times, it’s a classic that has never looked or sounded better that makes a worthy add to any collection!
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.