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Film / In the Line of Fire

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Lily Raines: What makes you think he'll call again?
Frank Horrigan: Oh, he'll call again. He's got, uh, "panache."
Raines: Panache?
Horrigan: Yeah, it means flamboyance.
Raines: Mm, I know what it means.
Horrigan: Really? I had to look it up.

In the Line of Fire is a 1993 Psychological Thriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen about a Secret Service agent named Frank Horrigan (Clint Eastwood) trying to stop potential assassin Mitch Leary (John Malkovich), who has contacted him to give him advance notice that he plans to kill the President of the United States. So begins a cat-and-mouse chase as the assassin drops hints to taunt and torment Horrigan, whose history (on detail at the time of the Kennedy assassination) he knows perfectly well. The advertising for the movie made explicit reference to the fact that it was released 30 years after the Kennedy assassination. Also stars Rene Russo as Horrigan's partner.

Notable for being Eastwood's last role in which he wasn't also directing (until 2012's Trouble with the Curve). Also notable for the extensive consultation done with the Secret Service in order to achieve realism — this had not been done before in Hollywood.

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  • 555: Averted; a couple of significant phone numbers are mentioned using their text counterparts: UKELELE (853-5353) and SKELLUM (753-5586).
  • Affably Evil: Apart from a couple of angry outbursts, Leary is soft-spoken and polite. While some of this is just a ruse to get what he needs, he seems to genuinely respect Horrigan as a Worthy Opponent and a kindred spirit (even saving his life at one point). Additionally, Leary spent $1000 of his own money to buy a friend and fellow model enthusiast a more comfortable wheelchair, before they became enemies over political disagreements.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Clint Eastwood is 24 years Renee Russo's senior. Their characters get involved.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: While a menace throughout the film, Leary's death because of what drove his entire plot to begin with is treated with sadness and empathy to a degree.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Leary’s former handler in the CIA tells the Secret Service that they sent Leary’s close friend to reason with him, but that Leary murdered him instead. Leary claims they sent his friend to his house to murder him. We know Leary is unstable, but the CIA handler admits that he’ll lie to cover things up. Notably whilst the friend is carrying a pistol in the crime scene photos it is still firmly in its holster.
  • And This Is for...: Leary's murder of Al becomes yet another reason why Horrigan is so determined to catch him.
  • Assassination Attempt: An older Secret Service Agent, Frank Horrigan, has to stop potential assassin Mitch Leary (initially going by the alias "Booth") from killing the President of the United States, and redeem his previous failure to protect President Kennedy thirty years before.
  • Asshole Victim: Two hunters who use Leary's plastic gun to kill a duck when Leary himself was practicing on non-living targets.
  • Badass Driver: Frank's cabbie is driving like crazy every time we see him, clearly having been told what's going on, determined to do his part to save the President.
  • Batman Cold Open: Busting counterfeiters at the beginning of the movie. It's quite brilliant a choice because that's what the Secret Service spends most of their time doing.note 
  • Berserk Button: Leary doesn't really have fond memories of his time with the CIA.
    • The design professor that Horrigan talks to says that Leary seemed like a nice enough guy until politics came up in conversation. Leary's wheelchair-bound former friend said much the same thing.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Despite being fully prepared to be shot by the police or Secret Service once he's killed the President, when his plan is thwarted, Leary kills himself rather than surely face the death penalty for his actions throughout the movie.
  • Black-Tie Infiltration: Mitch Leary makes a series of generous campaign contributions to the American president's re-election campaign under a phony name, until he gets invited to a campaign dinner held in a luxury hotel. This campaign dinner provides him with the perfect opportunity to assassinate the president.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Al. In an especially cruel version, he's ALREADY dead. Leary just shoots him one more time to make certain, and that's when the blood starts pouring out of him.
  • Brick Joke: "I know things about pigeons, Lily."
  • Bulletproof Vest: How Horrigan survives taking a bullet from Leary for the President. Leary thinks this is cheating.
  • The Call Knows Where You Live: Leary first contacts Frank by ringing him at home.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • "Ukelele" [sic] helps solve the riddle of "Skellum".
    • "Sometimes people die just because they're from Minneapolis."
  • Counterfeit Cash: What Frank is investigating in the beginning. It's also Truth in Television since before they became known for protecting the President and government officials, the Secret Service was originally established as a bureau of the Treasury that investigated money counterfeiting (which they still do today).
  • Covert Emergency Call: The Multitasked Conversation in the climax involves Horrigan secretly communicating to police snipers where they should shoot.
  • Creepy Monotone: Leary borders on one. But of course, he is being played by John Malkovich.
  • Criminal Mind Games: Leary becomes obsessed with Horrigan on account of his history as one of President Kennedy's bodyguards, regularly calling him to talk about his personal philosophies and motives, and leaving him clues so he can figure out when and how Leary plans to kill the new President.
  • Dead Man Writing: Upon returning home from California, Frank and Lily discover a message from Leary, stating, "By now, the President is dead, and so am I". He then sincerely wishes Frank well.
  • Deus ex Machina: Frank figuring out that the long haired homeless looking guy is Booth. In fairness he knew that Booth liked to stay close to see how they reacted to situations and he was being a little suspicious. But Frank's magical instincts seemed to be the only reason to think he was their guy. This leads directly to getting his fingerprint and eventually his ID.
  • Dirty Coward: Sargent running and hiding when Frank mistakes the balloon-popping for gunfire.
  • Disney Villain Death: Mitch Leary ultimately kills himself by letting go as he's dangling from an outside hotel elevator, but subverts the usual reasoning behind this trope by depicting his dead body in all its glory afterwards.
  • Disposable Woman: Pam the banker and her roommate Sally, who only serve the purpose of demonstrating what a psycho Leary is.
  • Don't Make Me Destroy You: Leary has no real intention to harm Frank, even though he clearly enjoys toying with him. He warns Frank not to get "too" close though, or he'll have to kill him.
  • Dress Hits Floor: Gracefully subverted. When Frank and Lily end in the room together the floor is hit with handcuffs, pistols, holsters, badges etc. Complete with rather loud thumps. When she has to leave abruptly, he looks around in frustration and mutters, "Now I have to put all that shit back on again."
  • Dude, Where's My Respect?: "Do you know how easily I could kill you Frank? ... So you show me some GODDAMN RESPECT!"
  • Elevator Action Sequence: The climax involves Leary dragging Frank onto an elevator after Frank and his bulletproof vest take the bullet meant for the President. They then go zooming up on the elevator, which is glass and external to the building, while the other Secret Servicemen watch.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Leary's reaction to the two hunters who catch him trying out his new assassination pistol is, "Why did you kill that bird, asshole?"
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Pam's dog, who knows something's not right about Leary's cover of "James Carney".
  • Failed a Spot Check: Frank leans right over the sitting Leary but doesn't realize it's him (he's in disguise). Leary later walks right past another agent who's looking at various pictures of potential troublemakers, including Leary. Again, because his disguise doesn't match any of the photos, he goes unnoticed.
  • Fair Cop: More like "Fair Secret Service Agent", but still, Lily and Al are quite attractive.
  • Foreshadowing: Among Al's first lines as he arrives late to pick up Frank, are "I'm dead, I'm dead, I'm dead..." Not to mention his mentioning his wife and kid shortly after.
  • For the Evulz: Leary plans to kill himself anyway after his assassination. He wasn't really trying to make any political change so much as go down in a blaze of notoriety. In one conversation with Frank, Leary essentially gives his motivation as being boredom.
  • Functional Alcoholic: Frank is a recovering alcoholic who does some casual boozing.
  • Hate Sink: Chief of Staff Harry Sargent is pompous and condescending unlike Secret Service Agent Bill Watts, who while tough on Frank Horrigan, is very professional. Sargent refuses to cancel any of the President's upcoming campaign events due to wanting to push for him to be in full public eye and not ever taking Mitch Leary's threats seriously or wanting security that would make the President come off as scared. Even when there's a false alarm at one particular rally, Sargent runs and hides in fear. When Frank has managed to stop Leary's actual attempted assassination, Sargent attempts to get credit for being involved only to quickly be denied it by Frank.
  • Heroic BSoD: Frank, after Al is killed and he begins to think there's no way to stop Leary from carrying out his plan.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Subverted - Leary suggests that Frank wasn't prepared to make one for Kennedy in 1963. See also Taking the Bullet below.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Leary feels that he was turned into one by the CIA when they abandoned and nearly killed him when he became a liability.
  • Hollywood Law: Despite the Secret Service consultation, some errors show up:
    • Lilly's gown during the party scene would be inappropriate for a female Secret Service agent, as it would prevent her from performing her duties should there be an attempt on the President's life. In those situations female agents instead wear dress pants and more practical shoes. (With the gown, there is also the problem of where to hide the service weapon.)
    • In the scene where the Secret Service counter-snipers attempt to get a sight on Leary, it is reported that it is too dark for them to see inside the elevator. In modern times (and certainly in the year the movie was released in and is set), Secret Service counter-snipers are equipped with night-vision goggles to allow them to see targets through darkness.
    • Also, in the climatic scene where Leary is getting ready to shoot the President and Horrigan has figured out he's in the room, there's a drawn-out scene where Horrigan is trying to figure out what table he's at in order to apprehend him before he shoots the President. In reality, a scenario where there's a gunman in the area but their identity and location are unknown is something the Secret Service trains for. Upon entering the room, Horrigan would have yelled out the code phrase for this scenario, whereupon all the agents would have swarmed the President to shield him with their bodies while the rest ordered everyone to hit the floor.
      • In the same scene, after Leary assembles and loads his gun, he holds it in his hand with a napkin draped over it for concealment, then stands up to shake the President's hand. No one is allowed to approach or be near the President with their hands concealed. Period. As soon as he stood up, the Secret Service would have had their eyes on him. Seeing that he had his hands concealed would have meant at least two agents would be immediately in his face, hands on their pistols and ordering him to show his hands right now.
      • There's also no way Watts would have dismissed Frank telling him point blank that the very assassin who's been stalking the President for weeks is present, no matter what personal or professional animosity there was.
  • Hope Spot: In the split second that Al has his gun trained on Leary. You can almost see Al finally shaking off whatever anxiety he had about being a good agent as he realizes that he's caught the guy, but the distraction is just long enough for Leary to draw his own gun and shoot him
  • If You're So Evil, Eat This Kitten!: The counterfeiters at the start of the film ask the undercover Frank to shoot his partner, who they know to be a Secret Service agent, to prove that he's not one too. Frank goes through with it - and it turns out the gun was empty (which he'd suspected based on how heavy it was plus he thumbs back the hammer, revealing the empty chamber).
  • IKEA Weaponry: Leary's assassination weapon is composed of several pieces of composite, which he assembles after getting them past the security checkpoint. The only metal components are the bullets and the springs; the former are hidden in a rabbit's foot keychain and the latter in a pen, enabling him to get them past the metal detector by putting them in the key tray. The prop was actually destroyed following filming because of concerns that it could be used for the purposes shown in the film.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • "Take my hand. If you don't, you'll die."
    • "I guess I overreacted again, Harry".
  • It's Personal:
    • Why Frank wants to be part of the President's protective detail, and why his bosses are initially reluctant to let him do so.
    • There's also his anger over Al's death.
  • Japan Takes Over the World: Hinted at; Leary in disguise as a businessman talks about how shrewd the Japanese are.
  • Jerkass: Harry Sargent is arrogant and behaves like an ass to just about everyone, not to mention being an Obstructive Bureaucrat.
  • Kick the Dog: Leary kills Frank's nice-guy partner, though he's quick to justify it as self-defense. In-universe too, as Al finally shakes off the confidence issues that have plagued him throughout the film, only to get killed two seconds later.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Leary shoots Al.
    Al: Frank! I got him, Frank—-[Leary shoots Al]
  • Kitchen Chase: Though they're actually not chasing anyone, just rapidly evacuating the President after the assassination attempt.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: Frank is booted from the protective detail after an unfortunate incident with a bellman, but it ends up providing him with the opportunity to do further investigating and realize that Leary is indeed in Los Angeles to carry out his plot.
  • Manly Tears: Frank's eyes fill up after he tells Lily how he reacted when Kennedy was shot, and Lily takes his hand (Word of God says the latter part was improvised by Rene Russo).
  • Master of Disguise: Leary.
  • Meaningful Name: Leary goes by the alias "Booth" during his first phone conversations with Frank.
  • Metal Detector Checkpoint: To get a gun past a metal detector, Leary makes a plastic gun and carries the bullets in his key chain.
  • Multitasked Conversation: At the climax, Frank hears over his hidden earpiece that the snipers can't get a clear shot on Leary, who has him on the ground at gunpoint. Frank challenges Leary to shoot, he doesn't care, and Leary doesn't catch on until Frank adds, "One more thing: Aim high."
  • My God, You Are Serious!: The hunters in the first scene have this reaction to Leary stating he plans to kill the President, after Leary's non-reaction to their laughter.
  • My Greatest Failure: Frank regrets that he wasn't paranoid enough in '63 and Kennedy was killed because of it.

  • Neck Snap: Mitch kills Sally and Pam in this manner.
  • No Name Given: The President of the United States is only referred to as "the President" or by his Secret Service-given codename "Traveler". The First Lady is also unnamed.
  • No Party Given: The President's party is never specified. It could be implied that he is a Democrat, as several people at one of the rallies are carrying pro-choice posters, while at a later event the Secret Service have to find an alternate route because their first choice of route is blocked by pro-life demonstrators. Also, the event in Chicago is a union rally; in American politics, labor unions tend to favor the Democratic party.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Harry Sargent seems to want to do anything he can to stop Horrigan from protecting the president, and refuses to even give him the benefit of a doubt.
  • Oh, Crap!: Leary's reaction when the bank clerk is from Minneapolis, where he is pretending to be from, and asks him where he went to high school. Though he plays it relatively cool and probably would have avoided suspicion, the mere thought that he might have made an impression on her as a phony makes him decide to kill her.
  • Older Hero vs. Younger Villain: Frank Horrigan is a Secret Service Agent nearing his retirement. Mitch Leary is an ex-CIA assassin a good twenty years his junior.
  • Properly Paranoid: Frank is right about the President being targeted, but he comes off as delusional to his colleagues.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • As much of a hardass as he can be, Bill Watts is only calling out Frank for being both unprofessional and insubordinate and doesn't hardly let his feelings toward Frank get in the way of his job or doing what's right—as represented by letting Frank go back on and continue his investigation until the President himself requests Frank's removal and then later Watts almost right away provides Frank with the seating chart that leads him to Leary during the climax.
    • Sam Champagna is a higher up in the Secret Service who while very temperate and never challenging toward Watts or Harry Sargent, is still understanding and respectful toward Frank and everyone and still able to have his decision to put Frank back on the investigation when he's initially removed obeyed and adhered to.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: The belligerent Chief of Staff threatens to have Frank "busting counterfeiters in Alaska" if he calls him "Harry" again.
  • Retirony: First, Al mentions his wife and child in his first scene. Then, after a harrowing shoot-out, he wonders if he has what is takes to be an agent (it seems he's a rookie). If this isn't a tip-off that the poor guy's gonna die, his teary-eyed decision to resign (which Frank talks him out of) should clinch it.
  • Roof Hopping: The chase of Leary that resulted in Al's death happens across a series of rooftops in the city to which they've tracked Leary down.
  • See the Whites of Their Eyes: Frank mentions this when explaining why he doesn't wear sunglasses on detail.
  • Sarcasm Mode: "Did you think of that all by yourself?"
  • Scaramanga Special: Mitch Leary smuggles a gun made out of plastic to a dinner speech by the president. The only metal parts are the two bullets that he hides in a rabbit's foot keychain and two springs disguised as part of a pen and pencil set. He trains himself to put it together without looking too, so he can appear even more non-threatening as he assembles it under the table. In an interesting twist, in real life, the ATF had the actual (fully functional) weapon destroyed, because it violated the Undetectable Firearms Act (this law is why the modern Liberator pistol contains a 3 ounce chunk of metal that serves no actual function). The prop one was left intact, and IIRC is on display.
  • Scare Chord: Accompanies several of Leary's appearances, especially towards the end of the film.
  • Serial Killer: Mitch Leary. He kills several people in pursuit of his main goal-assassinating the US President. Previously, Leary was a black ops CIA assassin too, and so had killed many before this.
  • Shown Their Work: For the first time in Hollywood history, there was extensive consultation with the Secret Service to make sure that their portrayal was realistic.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Frank chases Leary, who is skilled in making miniature automobiles. In The Dead Pool Dirty Harry Callahan pursues a killer who also makes miniature cars and used them as improvised bombs.
    • In the opening scene where Frank is undercover as a counterfeiter he uses a Smith and Wesson 44 Magnum, Dirty Harry's iconic handgun.
    • References are done to three of the four successful presidential assassinations:
      • Frank served on John F. Kennedy's protective detail in Dallas
      • Leary calls himself "Booth" on the phone, in reference to John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln's assassin.
      • Frank gazes at the Lincoln Monument and wistfully declares, "I wish I could have been there for you, pal." Lincoln signed the legislation bringing the Secret Service into existence the very day he was assassinated (though the agency didn't take on protective duties until 1902).
      • Leary tries to shoot the president with a gun concealed in a handkerchief, which was how Leon Czolgosz assassinated William McKinley.
    • Two references are made to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, JFK's younger brother: in Leary's apartment, Frank finds a quote from the younger Kennedy's assassin Sirhan Sirhan on a piece of paper. And following Leary's failed assassination attempt, the president is rushed out of the hotel through the kitchen. Sirhan Sirhan shot RFK in the kitchen of Los Angeles's Ambassador Hotel.
    • After Agent Rains turns down a kiss from Agent Horrigan as he's playing the piano in the hotel lounge, he starts playing the most famous song from Casablanca, "As Time Goes By" (aka "Play It Again, Sam").
  • Smug Smiler: When Horrigan is struggling while running alongside the President's limousine, Watts smirks.
  • Stalker Shrine: A shrine set up with newspaper clippings about JFK's assassination prompts the landlady of the apartment where Leary was staying to call the Secret Service, which starts up the hunt for the film's villain.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Horrigan passes several sexist comments about agent Raines, as she is the first female Secret Service agent he has worked with.
  • Suck My Gun: Leary on the roof. Also counts as a Throw It In, as Malkovich improvised it on the spot.
  • Suicide by Cop: What Leary is essentially committing, as he surely knows he'll be shot by the police or Secret Service after shooting the president. He openly indicates this is his intent, saying he's willing to die if that's what it takes, and comes off as a death seeker at times.
  • Take My Hand!: Leary to Frank, then later Frank to Leary with an Ironic Echo.
  • Taking the Bullet: Frank. Leary suggests that wearing a bulletproof vest was kind of cheating.
  • There Are No Therapists: Averted twice.
    • When Al announces his intention to quit as he can't deal with the stress of the job, Frank tells him that the agency has counseling to help agents deal with this. Al mentions that he's been to the counselors, but it hasn't helped.
    • On the villain's side, it's mentioned that one of Mitch Leary's friends stopped by his place in Phoenix to convince Leary to seek counseling. Leary responded by slitting the man's throat. Although in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it, you'll notice in a picture of the dead friend, he was carrying a gun under his jacket but it is still firmly in its' holster. Also, the man who explains all this could have been lying and using the photos to manipulate the Secret Service into killing Leary instead of capturing him. Leary did say that his friend was sent there to kill him.
  • Token Romance: The subplot of Horrigan and Raines's relationship does seem a little shoehorned in.
  • Took a Level in Badass: He's already pretty badass, but after nearly collapsing from heat stroke while running alongside the Presidential limo, Frank gets himself into such good shape that he's able to scale a building and run across rooftops with as much ease as the much younger Al.
  • Tranquil Fury: Leary. He only really loses his cool once.
  • Vehicle Vanish: Leary disappears while being chased by the Secret Service as a bus passes by.
  • Villain Ball: Leary's non-sequitur that "sometimes people die just because they're from Minneapolis" ends up being critical information.
  • Villains Never Lie: Leary claims that he will never ever lie to Frank, and for the most part he doesn't.
  • Who Shot JFK?: Discussed. The details of the assassination itself are not called into question but near the end of the film, Frank (who was one of Kennedy's bodyguards during that day and is haunted by the event) expresses his contempt for all of the drunken armchair theorists who've invented conspiracy theories about it. Even Leary, about as paranoid and anti-government as you can get, never suggests that he thinks Oswald wasn't a lone gunman.
  • Worthy Opponent: Though Leary does call Frank out on wearing a bulletproof vest instead of sacrificing his life for the president, he does commend Frank for tracking him down and catching up to him in the first place.
  • You Need to Get Laid: When Frank pries into Leary's motive for planning to kill the President during one of their phone conversations, Leary basically boils it down to doing it out of boredom. Frank sarcastically tells him he needs to get laid.