If a movie is really only as good as its villain, the summer of 1993 proved it with the double-whammy of In the Line of Fire and The Fugitive in July. Everyone else had Jurassic Park fever, but I was swept up by these two excellent, evenly-matched bouts. The latter, The Fugitive, reveled in some gray areas; Tommy Lee Jones's character wasn't all bad, but in In the Line of Fire, John Malkovich was pure bad. (They were both nominated for Oscars, and Jones won.) Malkovich plays Mitch Leary, a former military man who feels the need to assassinate the current U.S. president (Jim Curley -- who looks a bit like John McCain). Clint Eastwood plays aging Secret Service Agent Frank Horrigan, who blames himself for allowing JFK to be shot, and is determined not to let it happen again. Mitch knows all about Frank's history and leaves him clues, taunting him and even talking to him on the phone. Frank, of course, is no slouch and can taunt back, causing Mitch to tip his hand, revealing just a hint of the years and years of anguished buildup that brought him to such a fate.
Note for note, the film itself is little more than a superbly made thriller -- directed by Wolfgang Petersen -- but its relationship between pursuer and quarry is something truly great and altogether rare in films. My definition of a truly great villain is one that can sit down for a cup of coffee with the hero. (It's like that old Warner Bros. cartoon in which the coyote and the sheepdog go to work together and punch the time clock before they get down to business.) Technically opposites, these two actually live in similar worlds and acknowledge each other as co-workers and colleagues. It's a very effective way of measuring the hero's humanity and making him far more interesting. Most movies settle for sneering, cackling villains who are nothing more than pure, distant evil. But the greatest enemies are kept close, closer even than friends.
Check out the clip after the jump: first we get Mitch demonstrating his evil, and then a full-blown phone confrontation with Frank.object width="425" height="344">