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Movie Reviews : 'Assassination': First Lady Targeted

January 14, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

You could make any number of mild complaints about the latest Charles Bronson thriller, "Assassination" (citywide).

You might grouse, for example, that the love-on-the-run storyline--terrorist hit squads pursuing a White House Secret Service agent and the nation's First Lady--is so absurd that the movie becomes instant camp after half an hour. You might grumble about some of the line readings, which suggest the bright, brittle tones of TV Vegematic commercials.

You could complain, in fact, about almost everything but Bronson's performance. As the slightly gone-to-seed but battle-hardened agent Jay Killian, he remains, as always, cool, adroitly understated, the very picture of no-nonsense professionalism. Bronson clips off his lines with the battle-weary disgust of a tough-shell veteran. He strikes the right sparks with his wife and co-star Jill Ireland (cast, flabbergastingly, as First Lady Laramie Craig--or, as she's usually called here, "One Mama").

The plot--adapted by Richard Sale from his novel, "My Affair With the President's Wife"--is, to put it mildly, weird. Consider the razor-sharp perceptions of Ireland's "One Mama": Even after a motorcycle blows up near her motorcade and her yacht explodes as she prepares to board it, she refuses to believe anything is afoot but misfortune and coincidence. (Two terrorists with flame throwers who shoot down a helicopter finally convince her.) The movie is obviously intended as tongue-in-cheek, but, after a while, a tongue of leather seems to be scraping against cheeks of iron.

In "Assassination" we're well beyond Watergate--or any overly reverent concepts of the presidency. President Craig, identified as Reagan's successor, is impotent, and his sexual inadequacies are bandied about at press conferences. First Lady Craig is a feline feminist on spiky heels who constantly threatens to knee her bodyguards--and dashes off with the willful wiliness of a '30s screwball heiress (Claudette Colbert has to be one of her models). The presidential chief of staff is a stuffed shirt and bully, up to all kinds of strange antics. (Topical humor here?)

As for members of the Secret Service, they apparently drink too much, sleep too late and sleep around with one another. The only people who seem to take their jobs seriously are the terrorists after One Mama. They're a grim-faced, tight-lipped bunch, and at one point, their leader--perhaps angry at all the folderol around him--remarks: "Listen! Terror is a serious game."

Maybe, but "Assassination" isn't. Director Peter Hunt--editor of most of the Sean Connery James Bond films and a thriller specialist since--handles the action briskly and the dialogue languorously. Writer Sale, a 40-year movie veteran with dozens of credits (including "Abandon Ship!" and John Ford's "When Willie Comes Marching Home"), contributes some nice wisecracks. But overall, "Assassination" (PG-13) is a floundering enterprise, almost like a hit squad that's lost its bullets. However much you like Bronson, by the end you're likely to be floundering yourself.

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