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"Absolute Power' is corrupted

Absolute Power is one of those evil-in-high-places thrillers that hums along nicely while the crimes are being committed, and sputters while they're being solved.

Its best scenes operate in the taciturn screen image of its director/star, Clint Eastwood; what we see _ and we're watching everything _ makes our teeth clench and the words only get in the way. Young filmmakers can take a lesson in building stealthy tension from the first 45 minutes of Absolute Power, and perhaps another one later in handling runaway scripts.

Eastwood stars as Luther Whitney, a master thief invested with enough quirks to keep him fascinating. My favorite is the fact that this break-in expert leaves his house key in a plant outside his door. It's a lightly amusing paradox that I admired in its off-hand visual execution until cop-on-the-case Seth Frank (Ed Harris) dragged up the subject much later.

That's the problem with Absolute Power: the movie thinks the audience isn't perceptive enough to understand such subtlety, then it tries to exploit that perceived dimness by sneaking in some really dumb plot twists. David Baldacci's bestseller takes much of the blame (plus the readers who bought enough copies to get a movie made), and William Goldman's screen adaptation exacerbates the problem. Both writers dig themselves into mystery/conspiracy holes so deep that it takes some big leaps in logic to get out.

A few peeks into Luther's lifestyle and his latest heist get the film started at an absorbing pace. Eastwood and his longtime cameraman Jack N. Green take us prowling through a dark mansion wondering what the crook seeks and from whom he's stealing. Luther winds up hiding inside a bedroom vault that has a kinky two-way mirror when a drunken, lusty couple return home. Rough sex between the pair leads to the woman's murder by a couple of armed security types and Luther watches it all.

Through a few clumsy revelations, we learn that the murdered woman was the wife of gazillionaire Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall). Movies like Absolute Power need gazillionaires, because watching the rich and famous squirm is an ever-profitable pastime in movies and the media. However, Baldacci and Goldman take that hobby to a higher level when we're made aware almost as an afterthought that the killers are linked to the White House.

Gene Hackman reunites with Eastwood after both won Oscars in 1992 for Unforgiven. Movies like Absolute Power also need Oscar winners, because they lend credibility when the screenplay can't. Hackman plays President Alan Richmond, and you only need to see Hackman's smug tucked-chin smile once to know he's going to be waist-deep in this mess. The second-half pleasures of Absolute Power are thanks to the chance of watching Eastwood, Hackman and Harris in various combos of understated machismo. Toss in a few good scenes featuring a fine pair of conflicted hit men played by Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert and you know this is primarily a guy's fantasy.

The two women of Absolute Power are split into model roles of the corrupt-crime genre, although one is a fairly new addition to the format. Laura Linney (Congo) plays Luther's estranged daughter and their relationship has a lovingly eerie undercurrent that makes it even more disappointing when she settles into the real reason she's here: dropping into jeopardy to give Luther a reason to keep from running away.

Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives) plays White House chief of staff Gloria Russell so mad-glint witchy to duplicate Holly Hunter's scene-stealing turn in The Firm that we can't believe she has that job. She and Hackman are saddled with the film's most ludicrous scene, a dance/plot summary at a state dinner that even Bob Packwood would consider over the top for a politician.

Eastwood's ability to make us squirm has been affirmed since Play Misty for Me three decades ago. As an actor, he's still a commanding presence, with the least of words and expression (something that makes Luther seem that he doesn't recognize the President of the United States for a while). He needs those skills to keep Absolute Power afloat from the moment that the first clue for Seth Frank comes out of the blue from one of those old friends in the FBI that we never see or hear from again. It's easy shortcut times such as that when Absolute Power becomes most corrupted.

MOVIE REVIEW: B-

Absolute Power

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Judy Davis, Laura Linney, Scott Glenn, Dennis Haysbert, E.G. Marshall

Screenplay: William Goldman, based on the novel by David Baldacci

Rating: R; violence, profanity, sexual situations

Running time: 120 min.

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