Absolute Power (1997)

*Absolute Power* stars Clint Eastwood as you’ve always seen him before. Luther Whitney, master jewel thief, loner, reluctant hero, man pushed too far, is pretty much like every other Eastwood character, only less vigorous and slightly nicer. Director Eastwood spends a good long time establishing Luther’s character: he has candlelit dinners with himself and spends countless hours sketching in museums, copying Renaissance masters; he can’t operate a VCR, he adores his estranged daughter, and he’s a brilliant burglar. A regular Renaissance man is he.

While robbing an enormous mansion belonging to the extremely rich and powerful Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), Luther sees something he oughtn’t have: young, beautiful Mrs. Sullivan and a drunken lover engaging in rough sex that leads to murder. The lover turns out to be none other than Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman), villainous president of the United States. While wrestling with Mrs. Sullivan, the president screams, causing his Secret Service agents to shoot the unlucky woman, thereby forcing perpetually overwrought chief of staff Gloria Russell (Judy Davis) to clean things up. Why was the White House chief of staff dallying at one of the president’s dalliances? Certainly not because she’s cool in a crisis.

Luther steals a crucial piece of evidence before narrowly escaping the scene of the crimes. He sensibly decides to high-tail it out of the country. But being Clint Eastwood, he just can’t do that, especially after the president gets all hypocritical on national TV. So he embarks on a foolish and complex plan of retribution that involves half of Washington, while endangering the other half, including his daughter Kate (a tough prosecutor), in the process.

*Absolute Power* starts out preposterous, and gets increasingly more so as it shuffles slowly along to a less than thrilling climax. William Goldman’s screenplay, adapted from the novel by David Baldacci, glosses over absurd plot holes, and engages in more outright cover-ups than a Republican White House. At no point in this becalmed, befuddled thriller can anyone ever have any doubt about the outcome, so *Absolute Power* is never interesting or exciting. Instead, the movie has occasional fits of unimaginative violence, and is unusually repellant (almost as repellant as Eastwood’s last film, *The Bridges of Madison County*).

Both director and screenwriter seem far more concerned with highlighting the obvious -- Luther’s redemption (as if anyone doubted Eastwood’s innate heroism), and the government’s corruption (as if anyone doubted that, either) -- than with making *Absolute Power* a thriller. The mechanics of the plot, as well as all sense of mystery and danger, are virtually ignored in favor of what would have been character development if any of these characters were allowed to develop.

The characters in *Absolute Power* are so shallow and one dimensional that even the actors seem to have no interest in them. Davis plays Russell as if she thinks this is a comedy -- she’s all frantic tics and huffy scowls. The limit of this movie’s sense of humor was giving Russell an apartment at the Watergate, which might actually have been funny in another movie. Grim-faced Scott Glenn has nothing to work with as Secret Service agent Bill Burton, former hero turned murderer. Likewise Dennis Haysbert, as Burton’s partner Collin, who is little more than an inept, low-key psycho. As for Hackman, he succeeds in making Richmond utterly repulsive as the spineless, absolutely corrupt president, but being unlikable is Hackman’s stock-in-trade of late. Ed Harris plays police detective Seth Frank as a shuffling Columbo sort, sans cigar and brilliant insights.

Only Laura Linney, as Luther’s daughter Kate, is given any room to grow. For the most part, however, Kate serves as a plot device, Luther’s vulnerable, imperiled princess and his main motivation for getting down to business. (Eastwood gets credit, at least, for admitting that he’s old enough to have an adult daughter, as opposed to the usual half his age love interest.)

*Absolute Power* is neither interesting enough, nor plausible enough, to work as anything other than a golden years chapter in the life story of the Eastwood Archetype. He’s older, creakier, slower, a little wiser, now with refined tastes in art, music and wine. The scowl, clenched teeth, and pithy threat remain, but virtually in caricature form, as if transposed over the qualities possessed by the actor himself. Eastwood has proven he can do much better, so it’s strange and disappointing to see him in *Absolute Power*, doing little more than humorlessly impersonating himself.