FILM / One man and his doggedness

A LOW hiss is pitted against a whiny drawl in In the Line of Fire (15): it's a battle between two memorable movie voices, Clint Eastwood and John Mal kovich. They don't talk much face to face: when they meet they're too busy hopping rooftops, duelling in lifts or hanging off ledges. But they chat a lot on the phone. Malkovich's cranky but clever killer spits out dental sounds like rifle shots: 'I see you standing over the grave of another dead President.' Eastwood's dim but dutiful Secret Servicer whispers sour nothing-doings back: 'That's not going to happen.' No crossed lines there, just crossed swords.

Eastwood has been plagued for years by creeps on the line. Remember Scorpio in Dirty Harry, leading him on a call- box chase around San Francisco? Or the psycho lady who cooed him to Play Misty for Me? Malkovich is a classier phone-pest, with knowledge to his needle, taunting Clint with his inglorious past. Most people remember where they were when they heard Kennedy had died, but Eastwood's Agent Frank Horrigan heard him die: he was with the presidential limo, and he should have taken the fatal bullet. That was his job, and he still can't make out why he didn't do it. Was it fear? He won't admit that. Sluggish reactions from a few beers the night before? It cost him his marriage and has harrowed his peace of mind ever since. He's now so paranoid that even a pat on the back would make his day.

This is an old role refined. Clint's cops have always been loners: strangers to promotion or good manners, up against a single, twisted adversary, and armed only with a handgun and a surly devotion to duty. The need to square his physical command with his inflexible acting created a man of flawed steel - laconic but lethal. Frank Horrigan has the old bull-headedness, quick temper and contempt for authority - calling a White House Chief of Staff 'a sack of shit in a cheap suit' - but a new warmth. Women used to flock to Clint, getting a slapping for their pains. Now the sexual scales are balanced, as he woos agent Rene Russo, with a cross between a young buck's smirk and a dirty old man's leer.

Eastwood wears his age as easily as his holster, as if all that unyielding toughness may have been an embarrassment. His best acting comes casually: ambling to an undercover mission, hands in pockets, showing that it's routine; opening a door with a look that suggests agents never lose that flutter of fear. Malkovich is the perfect foil: an intellectual against a strong man, a chameleon against a stuffed suit. Malko vich pitches his undergraduate smartness at the point where brainy becomes loopy. Director Wolfgang Petersen (of Das Boot fame) continually cuts from Malkovich's calm to the panic of White House security staff monitoring his calls.

With the backdrop of a presidential campaign, Petersen uproots the action from Washington to Denver and Los Angeles, without loosening the suspense. The hysteria as the President parades down Pennsylvania Avenue seems unlike the real rallies we saw last year, the people too whipped up. But they're viewed through the eyes of a Secret Serviceman, to whom every crowd seethes with danger. Ennio Morricone helps with music that palpitates with tension and underpins emotions. When Frank reflects on his Kennedy blunder, the tune is not regret, but the fear that's stalked him for 30 years.

The final honours should go to Jeff Maguire for his masterclass thriller script. It builds meticulously to a heart-stopping climax, with plenty of spills on the way; creates at least three strong, believable characters (four if you count Dylan McDermott's wimpish rookie agent); gives a twist to the classic American theme of second chances; and is salted with wit. Maguire knows just when to draw back from absurdity and ratchet up the tension again, and he makes the violence meaningful, deftly sketching Malkovich's victims. If at times you want him to pause to develop his sub- theme of betrayed American hopes - 'We both used to feel this country was a very special place,' Malkovich tells Clint, suggesting he's seen Easy Rider - you're too swept up in the excitement for it to rankle.

Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado about Nothing (PG) - also boasting a crack scriptwriter - is a mirror image of his Henry V. Having trudged through the gloom and death of Agincourt, we now gambol in the sunlight and love of a Tuscan villa. It's a riot of colour: from the creamy white of the soldiers' tunics and their lovers' dresses, to lush green hedges, through orange torch flames at Hero's tomb. In both films, Branagh makes his camera as live-wire as the language, sending it in close on the actors, instead of standing in po-faced attendance.

Here he also performs a masterstroke of casting, playing British character acting and verbal wit off against American emotional power. The wags and elders are largely Renaissance regulars: Branagh and Emma Thompson as the duelling wits Benedick and Beatrice; Richard Briers as their host Leonato; Brian Blessed as Antonio. The movie stars play the returning soldiers, the key players in the games of deceit and romantic betrayal: Denzel Washington switching from bluff good humour to sullen righteousness as Don Pedro; Robert Sean Leonard with his Ivy League good looks conveying the inconstancy and pain of calf-love; Keanu Reeves, sticking to one note, but a good, glowering one. They provide a swagger and passion it's hard to imagine the English actors quite matching.

Though Michael Keaton's sozzled Dogberry flickers into humour, the largest laughs come from the Thompson- Branagh duet. Their real-life partnership pushes you towards believing their characters' love to have been there all along rather than contrived in the gulling scene. Branagh, whose speed of thought and tongue as Benedick in Judi Dench's 1988 production was dazzlingly funny, is almost too quicksilver for the camera; he might study Clint's minimalism. But he has a great Keatonesque gag (Buster, not Michael) with a deckchair, and turning from love's cynic to love's fool, his justification - 'The world must be peopled' - comes over as exquisite casuistry. Emma Thompson is also best revealing the tenderness under the prickly hide, when Benedick declares his love, stammeringly analysing away her feelings.

From the soldiers returning on horseback, like The Magnificent Seven, at the start, to the final ragged, carefree dance, this production is as purely enjoyable as Trevor Nunn's singing, dancing RSC Comedy of Errors or Branagh's melancholy Riverside Twelfth Night. You often feel like Kate Beckinsale's English rose, Hero, drinking it all in, with wandering, wondering eyes. At times it's too giddy - everyone seems to be under orders to smile toothily - and intimacy gets muffled in the romp. But with our impoverished cinema we'd be fools to snipe at this star of England.

Also worth catching are two re-releases: Jean-Pierre Melville's formalist portrait of a day in the life and loneliness of a Parisian assassin, Le Samourai (PG), first shown in 1967; and Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's almost formless Performance (18), from 1970, which collides the worlds of thug (James Fox) and pop star (Mick Jagger).

Melville's dry wit and careful, dark-hued design have worn better than the acid-trip imagery in Performance, though its Kray-era aura is still powerful. Mick Jagger is perceptive and prescient in Tonite Let's All Make Love in London (PG), which accompanies Performance, a collage of Sixties spinning visuals and talking heads, including Vanessa Redgrave, Edna O'Brien, and Michael Caine railing against pub closing times.

(Photograph omitted)