"Absolute Power's" opening close-up of a painting by El Greco, an impeccable old master, is dead-on appropriate. For the pleasures of this sleek and satisfying entertainment come from the position of its director and star, Clint Eastwood, as the last Old Master in Hollywood, just as reliable in his sphere (at least when he's not co-starring with orangutans) as Rembrandt and Rubens were in theirs.
A twisty tale of coincidence and deceit that might be subtitled "What the Burglar Saw," "Absolute Power" is Eastwood's 40th starring role and 19th film as a director. What he's gained over that stretch of time is an exact knowledge of his own skills, an impeccable sense of what he can and cannot do in front of a camera.
In fact, "Absolute Power," written by veteran William Goldman (from a novel by David Baldacci) and having each of its eight key roles knowingly cast, is a tribute to that increasingly rare commodity, Hollywood professionalism. Yes, this film's plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but there is so much pleasure involved in seeing how beautifully old-fashioned movie machinery can be made to work that it seems churlish to object.
As befits Eastwood's increasing age (he'll be 67 in May) and status, "Absolute Power" is hardly "Dirty Harry" territory. It's more of a civilized entertainment, almost a drawing room thriller, unhurried and genteel but enlivened with suspense and surprising bursts of sly, even biting, humor.
And Eastwood's Luther Whitney is not an officer of the law but rather a master cat burglar, a blue-collar version of the tuxedoed brigand Cary Grant played in "To Catch a Thief," able to disarm the most complicated security systems without breaking a sweat. Whitney lives alone in Washington, D.C., with no friends and few acquaintances and spends his days meticulously copying art at the National Gallery.
That same attention to detail pays off when it comes to working nights. "Absolute Power" opens with an extended burglary sequence, shot as calmly and fluidly as the man operates, shadowing Whitney as he breaks into a richly appointed mansion and proceeds to loot a vault room hidden behind a one-way mirror next to the master bedroom.
But the building, which is supposed to be empty, suddenly isn't. Into the bedroom comes an inebriated Christy Sullivan (Melora Hardin), the woman of the house, and an even more drunk man we know from a shot of wedding pictures is not her husband. Trapped behind that mirror in the vault room, Whitney sees things he shouldn't, witnesses a shocking series of events that place his life in peril.
A master of disguise and disappearance, Whitney soon finds himself in the radar of a gang of high-profile individuals, including the president of the United States (Gene Hackman), his brittle chief of staff (Judy Davis), a pair of crack Secret Service agents (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) and one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the free world (E.G. Marshall).
This crew couldn't be tougher (or more seamlessly acted), and a lesser man would run like hell, which is what Whitney starts to do. But ducking out has rarely been in style for Eastwood's characters, and soon enough Whitney's fury at the hypocrisy of official Washington keeps him hanging around and in harm's way.
It also puts Whitney into contact with Seth Frank (Ed Harris), a shrewd and sensible detective who is investigating what happened in that fancy bedroom. One of the best scenes in Goldman's screenplay is the verbal fencing the first time these two meet; Whitney's various cracks about being old and in the way are especially well done.
Though Whitney appears to have no family, in fact he does have a grown daughter named Kate ("Primal Fear's" Laura Linney), still resentful about being "the only kid during show-and-tell who got to talk about visiting day." Now a prosecuting attorney, Kate wants desperately to have as little to do with her father as possible, but circumstances inevitably draw her in and make her central to the film's action.
Starting with cinematographer Jack N. Green and including production designer Henry Bumstead, composer Lennie Niehaus and editor Joel Cox, most of "Absolute Power's" key creative personnel have been with Eastwood for years, and the smoothness of their collaboration shows. Adding to the family nature of things, the producer-director has cast two of his daughters, Alison Eastwood (as an art student) and Kimber Eastwood (as a White House guide) in small but visible roles.
What it finally comes down to, however, is the skill and presence of the man who hired them all, an actor who has aged spectacularly well and knows how to make his advancing years work for him on screen. However woebegone the state of current Hollywood may be, without Clint Eastwood's ability to elevate improbable trifles like "Absolute Power," the movie business would be a sadder place still.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence, sexuality and language. Times guidelines: an attempted rape and a murder.
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Clint Eastwood: Luther Whitney
Gene Hackman: President Richmond
Ed Harris: Seth Frank
Laura Linney: Kate Whitney
Scott Glenn: Bill Burton
Dennis Haysbert: Tim Collin
Judy Davis: Gloria Russell
E.G. Marshall: Walter Sullivan
Castle Rock Entertainment presents a Malpaso production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Clint Eastwood. Producers Clint Eastwood, Karen Spiegel. Executive producer Tom Rooker. Screenplay William Goldman, based on the novel by David Baldacci. Cinematographer Jack N. Green. Editor Joel Cox. Costumes Deborah Hopper. Music Lennie Niehaus. Production design Henry Bumstead. Art director Jack Taylor. Set decorators Dick Goddard, Anne D. McCulley. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
* In general release throughout Southern California.