ABSOLUTE POWER **
In theory it is hard to resist a political thriller with the explicit title "Absolute Power," especially when it is by and with Clint Eastwood in his familiar persona as an enemy of misused and abusive authority. Enticing too is that Clint plays an master cat burglar, an avocation beloved by readers and moviegoers --vide Cary Grant in "To Catch a Thief" or The Saint.
Yet, except for one dud ("The Rookie") the film is not in the league of Eastwood-directed works since 1990: the shamefully neglected "White Hunter, Black Heart," "Unforgiven," the acceptable "A Perfect World,""The Bridges of Madison County." In spite of changes by sometimes excellent screenwriter William Goldman, "Absolute Power" does not raise the shabby source novel to any heights, or add anything to the spate of pictures about US. Presidents. Though the actors and techniques are very good and polished, the plot is a salad of incoherences, disconnections and non sequiturs, arbitrary moves, laughable incredibilities, improbabilities and impossibilites, coincidences and plot craters. Over those ingredients is poured a sauce of movie cliches.
The story centers around aging, much decorated Army veteran and veteran thief Luther Whitney, played with the steely nerves, the cool, the tongue-in-cheek humor expected of Eastwood. One night, he burglarizes a mansion to end all mansions, defeating in ho-hum seconds state-of-the art locks and security systems. (There's a dumb gag that Luther is unable to program his VCR). As he moves carefully in semi-darkness, he glimpses paintings by masters and other art treasures. The sequence has good tension but is stretched out, as if the filmmakers wanted to get their money's worth for their elaborate movie set.
Luther fills his bag with millions in jewelry, coins and cash. Sudden noises force him to retreat behind a most convenient two-way mirror. He watches a dissolute older man (Gene Hackman) and a trampish young woman (Melora Hardin) both drunk and playing sexual games. These turn violent. As the man seems ready to strangle his companion, she stabs his leg with a letter-opener. In a flash,two men materialize and shoot her dead.They're Secret Service men who guard U.S. President Alan Richmond.
The playmate turns out to be the young, openly and regularly unfaithful second wife of widower Walter Sullivan (E.G.Marshall) a tycoon in his eighties. His flushed complexion speaks of illness or alcohol. He is a king-maker, a very good FOA (Friend Of Alan's). "I gave him the Presidency" he says later.
A cover-up follows, led by Chief of Staff Gloria Russell, played by Judy Davis with campy black humor. The hunt for the killer is on. Luther is a major suspect because, as per the old cliche "there are only seven men" who can burglarize so well.
That Clint can be very likable is a given. But he allows his film to grow exponentially absurd. To flesh it out, newish widower Luther has an estranged daughter, Kate. She is cute, unattached, and of all things, a prosecutor. You can sniff instantly the reconciliation to come. Or the mutual attraction between Kate and chief investigating detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris). He too is conveniently unattached."I live by myself" is his leitmotif to Kate. Frank is nice, decent, well-mannered, simpatico. Eastwood and Harris have by far the best scene as they lunch together, play wittily cat-and-mouse, and like each other.
In a baffling scene, Luther, about to catch a plane and disappear abroad, is at the airport. He sees on TV the President delivering a piously hypocritical declaration concerning his "like-a-father-to-me" mentor Sullivan. Instantly Luther decides to stick around and do the right thing. Had he not realized that the man he had watched through the mirror was the President? Go figure.
Try also to make sense of the many appearances of key people in places where they couldn't possibly be. Or how they get to their desinations in mere minutes. Or how quick-change artist Luther disguises himself so fast.
I have a weakness for disguises. My first publications, in a children's magazine, were signed "Detective X" after my pulp fiction hero in stories by someone whose name I remember as Brad/Brand/Brant House. "X" had a stupendous ability for instant transformations that made him a clone of anyone he wished to impersonate. Still, to quote Corinthians: "When I was a child, I spake as child, I understood as a child, I thought as child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Like suspension of outrageous disbelief.
In another mega-silly sequence, for reasons hard to fathom, a cafe meeting is set up between Kate and her dad. Dozens of Washington, D.C. cops, sharpshooters and marked cars skulk around --but no Army tanks or rocket launchers. Yet no one seems to notice. There's also a gunman hired by old man Sullivan. How he knew eluded me.Clint appears in a beard, hat and designer long coat. He escapes a fracas in a flash, because under the coat he wore a policeman's uniform and a cop's cap.Try it. D.C. becomes DC comics.
One more item among many. Kate is now in danger. "Good news," Harris tells Eastwood on the phone "the Secret Service is taking over surveillance." It's like saying"Great, the foxes will protect the chickens." How much better did Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" manage when the hero tells his new host in Scotland that the archvillain is unknown but has a finger missing. "Like this?" says the host, showing his hand.
No character is dimensional, nothing is thoughtful or thought through or cerebral. The "exposes" of the Washington establishment are nullified by caricature. In spite of occasional good moments, the film is merely a tabloid, the screen equivalent of the National Enquirer.