Though awfully far-fetched, Absolute Power (1996) is an entertaining thriller with many unexpectedly pleasant, charming developments alongside its more easily anticipated standard genre plot twists. Having re-watched director-star Clint Eastwood's Sudden Impact the afternoon before, Absolute Power makes an interesting contrast, as his direction here is much more relaxed and confident. He also gives a terrific performance, as does his stellar supporting cast: Gene Hackman, Scott Glenn, Judy Davis, E.G. Marshall, and especially Laura Linney and Ed Harris. It was a much better film than I was expecting it to be.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray disc, also available as part of the Clint Eastwood Collection, is absolutely no-frills. There's not even a trailer. The transfer is okay, but as I mentioned in my review of The Enforcer/Sudden Impact, Eastwood tends to favor extremely shallow focus much of the time; wanting to draw the audience's attention to a particular action or face he and his cinematographer will often deliberately render everything else out-of-focus, and this tends to work against the Blu-ray format's main attribute, namely high-definition clarity.
The film is an adaptation of David Baldacci's novel, though at Eastwood's request screenwriter William Goldman altered it quite a bit, making it more upbeat and eliminating entirely the novel's main character, a young lawyer, in order to shift the focus to Eastwood's character.
Note to First-Time Viewers: This is one of those movies best enjoyed with no knowledge of its plot or even its basic premise. If you haven't seen it yet and are interested, you may want to stop reading here.
In the film he plays Luther Whitney, a professional thief who breaks into the castle-like estate of revered statesman Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall) while the family is on vacation. However, shortly after locating the main vault, hidden in a secret room behind a one-way mirror, to his surprise Sullivan's much younger wife returns home drunk with her lover (Gene Hackman). Silently observing their lovemaking through the one-way mirror, Whitney is shocked as their sex takes a violent turn. He slaps her around and when she finally gets the upper-hand, stabbing him in the arm with a letter opener, Secret Service agents Bill Burton (Scott Glenn) and Tim Collin (Dennis Haysbert) rush in, shooting Mrs. Sullivan dead. Another woman, Gloria Russell (Judy Davis) soon appears; she orders the agents not to contact the police but rather to alter the crime scene to make it look like a burglary gone wrong. Not long after, the violent lover is revealed to the audience to be Alan Richmond, the President of the United States.
(This revelation, which comes nearly 45 minutes into the film, is oddly handled, structured and shot in such a way as to almost but not quite suggest Whitney learns the attacker's identity at the same time the audience does. Wouldn't he have recognized the President of the United States? I think the film suggests he did from the start, but this is botched somewhat.)
Washington Police Detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) investigates the murder, quickly linking Whitney to the robbery but not necessarily the murder; evidence strongly suggests at least one other shooter. In the meantime, Gloria Russell, in fact the President's Chief of Staff, is ordered by her boss to cover-up the incident, even if that means killing Whitney.
If you're able to go into the movie cold, unaware of the directions its story will take, Absolute Power comes off quite well. The plot hinges on an outrageous premise, but if you can get past that the rest of the story is highly entertaining, especially in how Eastwood's clever career thief is always able to anticipate the movements of his pursuers, staying one step ahead of them, and how he uses this ingenuity to worm his way out of one hell of a jam.
This compensates for the film's clichéd villains, namely the unscrupulous, brutish American President with a taste for beating up women; and his intense, somewhat scatterbrained Chief of Staff, flamboyantly played by Davis. (She's capable of much more subtlety but seems to have been typecast as emotionally unraveling women ever since Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives). Goldman's adaptation also errs in overstuffing its plot with a fifth wheel also out to get Whitney, a hit-man hired by Sullivan to kill his wife's killer.
It's hard to think of a Clint Eastwood movie with a better cast. It's also fun noting all the connections to other films. For instance, Ed Harris and Scott Glenn - who played John Glen and Alan Shepard in The Right Stuff - share several scenes. Penny Johnson plays Harris's colleague; she and Dennis Haysbert would play the President and First Lady on several seasons of 24. E.G. Marshall and Gene Hackman play close friends; in Superman II they were mortal enemies, with Marshall playing the President opposite Hackman's Lex Luthor.
But what really makes Absolute Power memorable is its unexpected sweetness in a subplot that's really the heart of the picture: Whitney's relationship with his long-estranged adult daughter, Kate (Laura Linney). She wants nothing to do with him; an absent father serving time in jail while she was a child, they grew further apart after the death of Kate's mother. She resents his apparent lack of interest and participation in her life, unaware of just how closely he's kept tabs on her. This and the unusual matchmaking role Whitney plays in bringing Kate and Detective Frank together is a real pleasant surprise. Who'd have thought it?
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, as with Sudden Impact Absolute Power utilizes much shallow-focus photography (see above) and the transfer seems a bit dark, with actor Dennis Haysbert's features downright opaque in some of the noirish, lower-light-level scenes. Otherwise, it's a decent 1080p transfer with no excessive DNR or other issues. English audio is offered in DTS-HD Master Audio and 5.1 Dolby Digital, with 5.1 tracks in Castilian Spanish and French, and 2.0 Latin, along with subtitles in all three languages. The mixing is quite good with much intelligent directionality. My Japanese PlayStation 3 defaulted to Japanese menus and language options. There are no Extra Features at all.
Absolute Power was a box-office disappointment and reviews were fairly harsh, particularly so soon after better films like Unforgiven and In the Line of Fire, the latter a superior thriller Eastwood did not direct. On its own terms though this is an enjoyable yarn with an unexpected sweetness in Eastwood's performance and his character's renewed relationship with his estranged daughter. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.